Is it me or is it you? It's you, right?

There is an assignment in the senior capstone for the core that I really like. The students are asked to compose a list of all the courses they have taken in college. They organize this list by core, major and electives. Then they create a grid with categories for various approaches to learning: lecture, discussion, projects, experimentation, journals, etc. Each course is charted on the grid. Next they select those courses that were most meaningful to them and write brief narrative descriptions of why it was a significant learning experience. I leave it up to them to define significance.

Lastly, they look over the grid and their descriptions and attempt to identify any patterns. Were they a nursing major who only marked literature courses as significant? If so, what might that mean? Maybe significance was related to the learning approach. Perhaps all their best courses used discussion or had a hands-on component. Maybe, too, it was a particular professor they liked, one who always made them think.

I've read hundreds of these papers, and after a while some trends start to emerge. First, an extremely small percentage of students will say they only benefited from straight lecture courses, and the majority of those will be in the hard sciences. Moreover, they tend to be students who dislike discussing subjects that lack definitive answers. They want their information neat, well-organized and clearly taught. Ambiguity is the enemy.

For others it isn't the way something is taught. Rather, it's the utility of the material. They define significance solely by the subject matter's relationship to a chosen profession. This actually turns out to be a fairly small number of students, which is surprising given how much our society (and increasingly higher education itself) sees a college degree solely in terms of career preparation. A somewhat larger percentage will agree that it's the subject that makes a course significant, but not because it's useful. This group just has a passion for some subject. It doesn't matter whether the course is well taught or not. The material alone is enough to intrigue them. They will write things like this: "I just get into my psychology classes. I have always been interested in how people think."

What's really compelling about the assignment, however, is the students' analysis of the patterns they find in the courses they selected. Probably two-thirds of them either can't see a pattern or draw a wrong conclusion. Some will say "I'm strictly a hands-on learner," but their list will include many courses in philosophy or history. Some say "hands-on" when they mean problem-based, and a large percentage will see no pattern at all. Whenever they say this, I just leaf back through the paper and start underlining things in their narrative descriptions, which will inevitably include words, phrases and statements like these: "this really class pushed my thoughts beyond where I was,” " it opened my mind,” "eye-opening," "enlightening," "got me to think differently," "changed my whole idea about..."

Running throughout their reflections will be a sub-theme of personal transformation. Educational psychologists call this deep learning. It means that they were revising their mental model of a subject when they realized an older one no longer worked as well. It does not matter if that model concerned human anatomy, religion, or ball room dancing. All of these subjects can be venues for the best kind of learning, the learning that sticks. And it's precisely what Socrates was advocating 2,400 years ago when he urged his fellow Athenians to spend more time examining their assumptions.

Curiously, the students seldom notice that self-transformation of their thinking was the real underlying pattern. They always attribute learning to some external factor: the way something was taught, the utility of the material, the subject itself, and (my least favorite) the professor's personality. Learning, they assume, is not anything they do. It's something that's done to them. So if a course was significant (or not significant) it had nothing to do with them. Sometimes they will write, "Dr. So-and-so just has a way to make me learn."

Far be it from me to undervalue the work of good professors, but here’s my hunch: the student plays as important a role as the professor. The professor may have found a way to pose an intriguing question, but the student was the one who decided it was worth answering. All the passion, personality and teaching tricks in the world will not make students learn if they do not want to know something (Oh, if only they could!). So the professor may ask a good question or pose an interesting problem, but the student has to want an answer.

In the end, it's not me. It's you.

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