Thursday, January 20, 2011

Learning in College

My dad was big into education. When I say big, I mean he got his Ph. D. and worked as a professor of education teaching instructors how to teach better big. By the end of his tenure, he was in charge of placing all the potential teachers for elementary and secondary student teaching. He served on academic approval committees across the state of Idaho to make sure other colleges were up to snuff when offering their programs.

This being said, it goes without saying that he did a lot of reading on education and the decay of education in the US. There was a big push to save money for businesses by outsourcing jobs to other countries where the labor was cheaper. It quickly became ingrained in me that the only way to get ahead in life was to get an education.

I took a college course between my junior and senior year in high school and came out alright. It was a history course, and I got an ice cream cone out of the deal from the teacher when he canceled class to head to the bar, so I was fine with it.

Then I landed in college. I had looked forward to this day because I felt like I had been coddled through high school. I never studied and was able to pull off A's and B's without a problem. I got one C in Chemistry because I told my teacher that I wouldn't do the same math homework for four days in a row after I had the concept down.

I felt repeating the same problems with different variables was a waste of my time, and so I spent my time the first day doing my work and learning the concept of how to do the math problem, and used the other days for more productive things. He decided to try to teach me a lesson by making homework super important in the syllabus, but when I ended up getting A's on all my tests, he realized I had learned the concepts, but wouldn't budge on the syllabus. So I got a C.

He never really answered my questions that I asked in class either, which at the time seemed odd. I even asked after class. His excuse was that he didn't want to confuse the rest of the class. I think he just didn't know the answer and didn't want to look dumb in front of his students.

I was a bit disappointed when I got in college. I got into a bunch of general courses that were pretty much the same thing as I had seen in high school. Sure, there was an improvement in the pace of the information that was being presented, but I didn't feel like I was being challenged.

So I floundered.

In fact, I floundered through ten majors (chemistry, vocal performance, music business, math, psychology, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, computer programming, English, and finally technical writing). I got into classes, hoping to find something that really engaged and challenged me. By the end, I had gotten married and decided that I just needed to buckle down and choose a profession, so I stuck with technical writing. I wasn't particularly engaged by the lower division courses, but once I got into the upper division ones, I found that I enjoyed myself. I started to like learning.

That is why I was particularly interested to read this article in the Economist about the new book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. Here are some stats that piqued my interest:
  • 45 percent of students "did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning" during the first two years of college.
  • 36 percent of students "did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning" over four years of college.
  • Those students who do show improvements tend to show only modest improvements. Students improved on average only 0.18 standard deviations over the first two years of college and 0.47 over four years. What this means is that a student who entered college in the 50th percentile of students in his or her cohort would move up to the 68th percentile four years later -- but that's the 68th percentile of a new group of freshmen who haven't experienced any college learning.
  • Students who study by themselves for more hours each week gain more knowledge -- while those who spend more time studying in peer groups see diminishing gains.
  • Students whose classes reflect high expectations (more than 40 pages of reading a week and more than 20 pages of writing a semester) gained more than other students.
  • Students who spend more time in fraternities and sororities show smaller gains than other students.
  • Students who engage in off-campus or extracurricular activities (including clubs and volunteer opportunities) have no notable gains or losses in learning.
  • Students majoring in liberal arts fields see "significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study." Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the smallest gains. (The authors note that this could be more a reflection of more-demanding reading and writing assignments, on average, in the liberal arts courses than of the substance of the material.)
 This really rang true to me, because I didn't start really getting engaged in my studies until I was a senior. I started researching topics outside of class and bringing them up in class. I found topics that weren't covered in the syllabus and asked about them during class discussion. I wanted to know more because I had a purpose of getting a job, and it drove me to want to succeed. There were people who were coddled through college, just as they had been through high school. I didn't want to be one of those people.

I was glad to see that people are starting to debunk the myth that if you get a Bachelor of Arts that you are not going to be able to get a job. I have one in English, and granted, I am losing my job in a little over a week for a short amount of time, but I see things in my organization that other people with an MBA don't see because I definitely had a liberal smattering of all sorts of topics in college. They stretched me in ways that I didn't think that they would, and I learned from those experiences. And learning to write has been a great springboard for other things.

This brings me to a quote by Albert Einstein that I like.
If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself.
Granted, not every college professor is a great orator, but if you can't explain concepts to your students, it might be because they are like my high school chemistry teacher or my college business teacher. Mr. Einstein has called their bluff.

So, for those noble people who have decided to teach for their occupation, please take the time to engage your students. Make them read. Make they write.

I had one business teacher that understood how important it was to write. She taught a leadership course that I took as an elective. She asked the class to go around and give a brief introduction including your major. When I stood up and introduced myself as a technical writing major, her eyes lit up. Before I could finish, she embarrassed me in front of the class by saying, "This is the guy that you all should be sitting by. He will pass the class with a good grade because he can write well." She knew that I could assimilate information into something that others could understand and use. And it gave me hope for the future that I wouldn't be pushed out of the workplace by all the business majors.

1 comment:

Lana said...

Very interesting post. I agree that reading and writing are a springboard for so much more!