August 10, 2015

Choosing Your Classes: The Importance of Social Structure and Culture

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

Registering for classes can be both exciting and stressful. I remember being excited by the possibility of new classes and would be among the first to pick up the schedule of classes in the days when it was only offered in print. I know that registering can present challenges too: the classes you hoped to take might be full or you might have some financial aid or payment issues that prevent you from registering.

Registration can also help us understand some basic sociological concepts: social structure and culture.

A university is a large organization, one with written rules and requirements about what sorts of classes students must take in order to earn degrees. The choices about what courses students select are guided by the rules of this organization; think about which classes you might choose to take if they counted towards your degree that you would not otherwise consider (and of course there are classes you wouldn’t have chosen on your own if not for the requirements).

This basic fact of choosing classes teaches us about the importance of social structure, which shapes our choices and behavior in ways we’re are not always conscious of. The institutional rules influence what classes we take and when we take them. The physical structure of the institution shapes where we take classes and how many other students might be in classes with us.

Last spring one of my classes was assigned to a very small room, which meant that I couldn’t add any more students to the course, despite the pleas of some hoping to take the class (their interest was less about me than about the requirements the class fulfills; one student hoping to add really wanted to get in the class because it fulfilled a social science and diversity requirement). Online courses have different dynamics—in many cases, students seldom take the course at the same time but instead do so individually as their schedules allow. Institutions looking to boost revenues might allow an unlimited number of students from around the world in these classes.

Colleges and universities have to follow institutional rules too. They are part of the larger social institution of education, and have to follow rules set out by states or accreditation boards. And for students hoping to go on to graduate school or attend medical school, for instance, there are certain requirements students need to fulfill before they  advance to the next level. Social structure impacts individuals and organizations alike.

Sometimes structural changes have ripple effects throughout institutions. For instance, the MCAT exam, a test required for entrance to medical school, now includes a social science component in addition to a critical reasoning section. In order to meet this requirement, many universities recently added social science courses as requirements for pre-med students.

Our university even created new courses, including one that I teach, in order to prepare students for the MCAT as well as provide a background in understanding social factors that influence health, well-being, and access to medical care.

Because pre-health students often have a heavy course load, this course was designated as a general education course to cover one of those requirements. Since the class fulfills a general education requirement, it attracts a lot of students, and many of them have no plans to take the MCAT exam. The course was designed to be more rigorous than a typical general education class, and so we want to be sure that students know what they are getting themselves into before enrolling.

Here’s where culture comes in: administrators decided that once word gets out that there are lots of pre-meds in the course, other less dedicated students will opt not to take the course, so no structural intervention to limit enrollment would be needed.

Word of mouth, common knowledge, and widely held beliefs are part of culture. I regularly hear students talking before class about which classes to take and with whom, and which ones to avoid (they sometimes forget that faculty know each other and speak freely about other faculty when I am in earshot). In these discussions, students tell each other which classes are hard, which instructors seem unreasonable, and which classes are easy or fun. Even students who are not part of these conversations can easily hear them. And of course there are a number of websites that have student reviews too.

A colleague from another university told me that often students will insist on taking particular classes because their friends told them to do so—even though the classes don’t meet the requirement for their degree. We have students who tell others not to take certain required courses until they are seniors because they are considered difficult, and because this has become a common practice such courses have often filled up with seniors, preventing others from taking care of a core requirement earlier. We are making structural changes—adding prerequisites for some classes—to prevent this from continuing in the future.

Social structure and culture are powerful forces--so powerful that often lost is taking a class for the joy of learning.


Great discussion on social structure and class!! It was very accessible!

I agree! Great discussion for sure. I found this discussion was full of knowledge and a great read for sure!

thanks for the blog, this discussion help me get an idea on my term paper about the significance on social structure !

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