It was their fascination with the student mind that led Associate Professor of Education Nancy Jennings and Suzanne Lovett, associate professor of psychology, to co-write “Practice for Life: Making Decisions in College,” a book highlighting the everyday decision-making processes of liberal arts students.

Co-written alongside professors from Wellesley, the book describes the collective findings from research on over 200 college students at Bates, Bowdoin, Colby, Smith, Middlebury, Trinity and Wellesley colleges. It serves as a guidebook, showcase and tool for high school and college students, parents and academics alike.

The book has its roots in the New England Consortium on Assessment and Student Learning (NECASL), which brought together a group of researchers, faculty and professors from seven New England colleges from 2006 through 2011. The consortium met to talk and share data about student learning, with the goal of exploring the intersection between students’ decision-making and their evolution throughout college. 

In particular, NECASL collected data based on interviews between trained students and their peers, allowing for an honest, open dynamic. The interviewees were selected via random sampling, and include a wide range of genders, ethnicities and backgrounds. 

Practice of Life is the culmination of these findings. Although the book exclusively showcases experiences drawn from students that attended elite liberal arts colleges, the authors think that the behaviors and sentiments echoed in the book are common to college students around the country. 

“We think the book applies to everyone because it’s all about decision-making and everyone has to make these decisions,” said Lovett. “What courses am I going to take? How am I going to get myself engaged? Who am I going to have as friends?” 

According to Jennings, the authors were most surprised to discover that seemingly small or trivial interactions, such as talking to a professor outside of class or saying hello to a floormate proved to be the most essential to students’ experiences. 

“In all arenas, small decisions students made ended up having huge impact on how their college experience went,” said Jennings. 

The authors collected the data from the NECASL project and examined the research in the context of five key areas: connection, time management, academic engagement, advice and sense of belonging. The data was then illuminated by anecdotal accounts of decisions students make every day.

Said Jennings, “The more students that were using these decisions as opportunities to learn about themselves, the better their college experience was.”

After collecting and examining the data collected over five years, the authors wrote the book over the course of two years. They wrote the beginning and the end together, but divided up the writing of the chapters while receiving feedback from each other. 

Lovett said that the book’s reception has been overwhelmingly positive, although certain critics have argued that the book fails to give a how-to guide on navigating campus life. She maintained, however, that it was not their mission to curate an instructional handbook on the exact ways to make decisions in college. 

“We consciously decided when writing the book that we weren’t going to do that,” Lovett said. “We can’t say what the steps [of decision-making] are.”

Instead, the book urges students to explore different avenues of problem solving and decision-making as well as encourages them to think of college as a continuous process of starting and restarting.