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How Do We Learn?

September 28, 2010

To be blunt, why are we here? Is it peer pressure, the desire to succeed, the pursuit of financial wealth, or an innate urge  mature into adult life that has lead us to the University of Michigan? The textbook answer states that, above all else, we enrolled in college to learn. We attend U of M in hopes of learning the skills necessary to succeed in life.

If it is believed that students attend college to learn, then colleges must focus on facilitating their students’ learning. It is the University and the University Staff’s responsibility to provide students with the best chances to succeed.

Clay P. Bedford, executive of  Kaiser Industries, once said…

“You can teach a student a lesson for a day; but if you can teach him to learn by creating curiosity, he will continue the learning process as long as he lives.”

I sincerely believe this quote is true, especially in our modern “everything at the speed of light” society. If students aren’t interested or inspired in what they are learning, they will never fully commit to studying it.

This brings me to my next point: HOW DO WE LEARN? Clearly Lecture Hall 101 isn’t for everyone because learning is a very individualistic concept.  Whether we prefer visual instruction, in-depth conversations, or comprehension through repetition, no two people learn the same. As a result, professors should strive to variate the delivery of their lessons. This, in turn, would maximize the number of engaged students in the class and increase the levels of both participation and understanding for the students.

To be honest, this POLI SCI 101 course does an exceptional job of offering various methods to learn. Students who favor their creative side can work on group projects, while opinionated students can use blog posts and linguistic students can write a traditional paper. In this sense, the structure of this course allows all students to find their niche in the academic system.

Unfortunately, this is rarely the case in both higher education and teaching in general. If more classes chose to vary their tasks and use individual-oriented methods of evaluation, then every student could showcase their knowledge using their strengths.

However, until that day comes, it is best to experiment with all types of learning. If a lecture isn’t making much sense, try discussing it with a peer or transferring the information into a chart or graph.

I urge anyone to share a creative method of learning they use. My hope is this blog can help students expand their academic abilities from what is generally accepted to what suits their strengths best.

20 Comments
  1. taylorfields permalink
    September 29, 2010 11:30 AM

    This is a really interesting piece, and as a freshman I have to agree that polsci 101 does a wonderful job of encouraging me to learn and be engaged in the course, mainly because I am not constantly worrying about what will be on the test. Discussion is extremely useful, I learn best from listening to other’s ideas. This class does a great job of integrating many different methods of learning to ensure our curiosity is catalyze, not solely our drive to do well.

  2. Jake Zunamon permalink
    September 30, 2010 11:20 PM

    I really enjoyed reading this post. I think you do a great job of digging deep to the core of the problems with higher education in general. I also agree that this polisci class is extremely well run and it is one of the best lectures I have ever been a part of. Because I am in the school of education, I am constantly studying how teachers manage their classrooms and the tools they use to keep students engaged, and learning. I would like to break down a few of the things that our professor does that most likely go unnoticed by the untrained eye.
    1) He outlines the plan for the lecture every time, which allows us to know where we are headed in the lecture and to draw connections about his message of that day.
    2) He manages the classroom extremely well, using a good mix of lecturing with student participation, in order to make sure that students are engaged and active in class.
    3) He gives choices. Students feel like they are actually shaping their education if they are given choices and are not simply told what assignment they need to do, but instead offered possibilities of what they may do.
    4) he does a great job of using a variety of texts, whether they be short articles, readings, movie clips, audio clips, etc. He has done a great job of appealing to a wide variety of learners and students in the classroom.
    5) He only puts a few words on each lecture slide, allowing us to take away a large bullet point, but forcing us to paraphrase the ideas in our own words.
    6) He outlines what the main points of the lecture were, so that we don’t have to guess what his purpose for the day was, instead we know it, it’s there.
    This class has taught me a lot about teaching and like you say in your post it does an excellent job of actually educating students.

  3. spriel permalink
    October 2, 2010 5:39 PM

    I am really intrigued by your post. I completely agree with you about the advantages of being in a class where it is up to us, the students, to figure out the best way for us to benefit from taking this course. As a sophomore, I have taken many lecture-based classes at the U of M and I consistently find that each one is structured in the same, boring way as the previous. It seems that each professor’s main motive is to force us to attend his/her lecture rather than to learn from it. Whether professors do this by refusing to post slides on CTOOLS or by deducting points from each lecture a student misses, the motive is the same. This class allows us to take the most from the lectures, participate actively, and figure out the best way for us to learn from this course. Polsci 101 is definitely the most innovative class I have taken thus far, and our professor uses technology in a way that motivates me to make use of every opportunity he gives us.

  4. xiaoyzhang permalink
    October 4, 2010 1:28 PM

    I somewhat disagree with the 3 people that have posted above. I believe PoliSci 101 is a great course, but sometimes students might feel unmotivated because there are no exams and quizzes. When a majority of the course is based on participation and none of the course is based on exams/quizzes, some students might feel there isn’t really a need to study or take notes because none of the information Professor MLM lectures about will be tested. When a majority of the course is based on participation and none of the course is based on exams/quizzes. Maybe some small quizzes that account for a small percent of your grade (5-10%) should be incorporate into this course just to make sure that people are doing the required readings.

    Having said this, I personally think this course is great. There isn’t an extreme amount of pressure to study because there are no exams, which helps me focus and excel in this course. I don’t have to worry about doing bad on an exam, and having that bad grade cost me in the end. The technology for this course is great and lecture tools definitely helps everyone, including me, stay focused during lecture.

  5. arichnerjr permalink
    October 4, 2010 5:04 PM

    xiaoyzhang-

    College is a learning community, isn’t? I think that all the fixation with grades sometimes makes people forget that. It’s awful if a person’s motivation for learning comes from fear of tests, and frankly, I would be ashamed my parents were paying $20-$30,000 a semester for me to come here if that were the case.

    Professor MLM clearly appreciates the need for individual choice and self-motivation to learn- an anomaly among today’s teachers, I think. More power to him!

  6. Jameson McRae permalink
    October 5, 2010 2:04 PM

    I agree that all students learn in different ways, and I think this course is set up perfectly for people to do things their own way. People have the option of thousands of different combinations of assignments that they can complete, and two people could both earn A’s without doing any of the same assignments. Every student excels with different methods, and this course has all different kinds of assignment making sure everyone has a chance to succeed. I think that all courses should be designed the same way, because I feel that is the only fair way to let everyone have an equal chance of success. I feel the only downfall of the course is having no required work, I feel as if some of the assignments should be required. But overall props to everyone who help put this course together, because as the piece describes everyone has different methods of success in school.

  7. Daniel Baum permalink
    October 5, 2010 6:33 PM

    I believe that your post is very thought provoking and very well organized. I find it interesting you put a poll in your post when you say everyone learns differently. you are categorizing people into categories you say are infinite if everyone is different. I think your poll proves our generation is actually very similar. We are all great listeners and auditory learners (some more than others). Why we almost all chose the conversation option is hard to answer. My guess is it has to do with our culture growing up. Information came through the media like listening to the television growing may have made us more inclined to sound for learning than writing. However, I think it depends on the subject matter for how we learn best. Math, for example, wouldn’t seem to be learned well through discussion but more visually. Overall, I think the question of how we learn to be a very convoluted one with no one right answer.

  8. Zac Hiller permalink
    October 6, 2010 6:30 PM

    This is definitely the most interesting post i have read so far. I totally agree that the more intriguing a learning style is the easier it is to learn. I find that the more options to learning i have the better i do in classes. For example, a class that is a 300 person lecture, no discussion, no attendance, I find myself dozing off considering my professor does not even know who i, or 2/3rds of the class is. Adding variety to the classroom allows students of all learning styles the same chance of doing well. That is why i really like polisci 101. I like that i can watch lecture from my bed instead of being surrounded by 200 other kids probably on facebook or computer games. It allows me to concentrate and study in my own way. At the same time, if someone enjoys being surrounded by others they can go to lecture and learn without having an advantage, or disadvantage over someone like me that cannot learn in that way. All in all, people learn best when they have the option of choosing how they want to learn. Adding variety to classes can definitely enhance ones chances of learning.

  9. xiaoyzhang permalink
    October 7, 2010 2:20 PM

    arichnerjr-

    I should have specified in my earlier post that what I said applied to students who aren’t in PoliSci 101 because they like political science. That was my fault. I should have noted that. I agree with you that College is a learning community. No one forces us to go to college. We go because we want to learn. With that being said, I never said that a students m0tivation comes from fear of tests. Students who love political science will undoubtedly be motivated to learn. However, sometimes students take classes because their friends are taking the class, or maybe its just a popular class that everyone takes. In all honesty, I bet alot of people took PoliSci 101 because of the 2 reasons I stated above. But I also bet that alot of students took PoliSci 101 because they LOVE political science. When tests account for a students grade in a course, they know that they will have to study. Studying the course material shouldn’t even be a problem. If you signed up for the course, then of course it would be obvious that you should be eager to learn the course material. However, for students enrolled in a course for reasons other than interest in the content the course teaches, tests force students to study and learn.

  10. Mycki Kujacznski permalink
    October 29, 2010 6:31 PM

    I know this post is old, but I saw that it was a top rated one so I decided to read it and wanted to give my input. First of all, I think that you do a good job of creating curiosity in the students and encouraging them to learn outside of the classroom. Without giving a specific course name, I took a science mini-course this semester that was unbelievably boring. I could barely make myself pay attention in class, and I crammed for the exam, knowing I could forget everything after. I did well on the exam, but didn’t actually learn much from the class, which defeats the purpose. Even if I wasn’t planning on continuing with political science classes, I would still pay attention during every lecture and discussion of Poli Sci 101 because you and my GSI do a good job of making things that some students would find extremely boring, interesting.
    I appreciate your humor during lectures because it keeps them entertaining. The activities we can participate in during lecture not only increase participation, but also help increase students’ understanding (ex: Lecture Tool questions). Being able to participate regularly in such a big lecture makes it seem smaller and more personal. I don’t know about all of the other students but when I read in the syllabus that this class was technology-based, I was very excited; technology is always a good way to get students involved. Like you mentioned, giving students such a wide variety of options for assignments allows students to find out what works best for them. Obviously some students aren’t outgoing enough to go out and do a group video project, so there is the paper option for them and vice versa.
    In my other lecture this semester, we are expected to have read the chapter beforehand, and there is a quiz every lecture. Some things that are unclear or confusing and obviously haven’t been discussed yet in lecture are on the quizzes sometimes. That is why I like your method of optional reading quizzes where credit is based on good-faith effort. You understand that some of the readings are pretty difficult, and you don’t punish us for that. Although the reading quizzes are optional, the possibility of gaining experience points from them still gives students an incentive to complete them.
    I’m only a freshman, but this class has definitely been my favorite this semester, and I have recommended it to all of my friends!

  11. jptrue permalink
    November 1, 2010 5:32 PM

    While I agree that their is a definite appeal to letting people learn in the ways they are most interested, I don’t necessarily agree that offering so much flexibility makes the class more valuable. Individual oriented tasks aren’t always the best way for students to learn, this is because it doesn’t always challenge students. For example, if a student was really good at drawing, it may seem like a great idea to let the student always submit projects that were political cartoons about the certain topics. However, the problem becomes that the student is never pushed outside their comfort zone. How many of you have had to do an assignment that sucked at the time, but looking back you are thankful at all the skills you acquired along the way? Being asked to perform uncomfortable tasks are important, because these are the tasks that give you new skills and perspectives to content that you otherwise would not acquire. As a result, I would argue that while individual assignments can be useful, they must also include skill building scaffolding. For example, if students are going to have the choice to skip two polisci papers in a class in substitute for a group project, they should be required to accompany a write up with the project. This would ensure that both approaches to learning force students to gain experience with writing within the discipline. Thus, while the choices offered in this class might be useful in this context, we should be careful to assume that it could be transferred successfully to other educational contexts. Some students for example, might not have developed the organization and industry to handle all the choices they are offered with such a model.

  12. Andrew Berman permalink
    November 1, 2010 10:09 PM

    Every student is different. That is why higher education is one of the most difficult practices around. One thing that the University of Michigan does well is that it gives the student many choices in what class style they want to take. If they perform well on quizzes and tests they can take test based courses. If they are good writers then they can take essay based courses. I agree with many of the posters in the fact that Polsci 101 does a great job of appealing to every different type of student. The original poster asks the question ‘how do we learn’. I feel that it is not up to the teacher, it is up to the student. Polsci 101 follows this principle giving the student the freedom to learn the way he or she wants.

    • Meredith Ambinder permalink
      November 2, 2010 12:02 AM

      I agree 100% with the above comment. Some classes might be geared toward specific learning strategies, therefore allowing only a specific type of student to excel. In Polisci 101, the student has the ability to choose what he/she believes helps them learn best. In addition, allowing us to make our own choices with such a flexible class is very beneficial to us in the long run, making us feel more responsible for our grades (as we should feel). This also eliminates any busy work that other teachers tend to give. You only do as much as you need to take full advantage of the course, which is how I believe all classes should be.

      • jptrue permalink
        November 2, 2010 1:26 PM

        I agree that eliminating busy work is essential to quality pedagogy or andragogy. Work that doesn’t contain an established purpose is both frustrating to learners and one of the biggest factors threatening student motivation. However, I have to disagree with some of the things that you say. First off, when talking about excelling during specific tasks oriented classes, what do you mean? Do you mean getting an “A” or do you mean learning? I think there is a major difference. Coming from a teachers perspective, I don’t think that students should have complete authority over how they learn. Students need to be challenged to complete skill related work that they struggle at too. What if we were never required to write a opinionated paper/essay during our educational career? While yes, we may enjoy school and be much more motivated…we’d also be lacking a critical life skill. I agree that every student is different. But that is not an excuse to allow students to avoid things that they struggle at. Instead, it reaffirms the need to challenge all students strengths and weaknesses. This can only happen if the teacher takes a guiding presence in the classroom. This doesn’t mean there isn’t room for compromise however. Choice can still be oriented into a teacher-centric model. For example, a teacher could assign a writing task, but let students write an essay about different topics. Thus, students can still have control and gain motivation, but at the same time be challenged to learn new, uncomfortable skills.

  13. Lorig Stepanian permalink
    November 2, 2010 4:54 PM

    I also really like this post. I think that the most important aspect of learning is ones own desire to learn. Anyone can read some information, look at some slides, memorize some information, and regurgitate it onto a scantron, but in the end do they really remember anything?

    Most students at the University of Michigan are striving for success. Whether it be in graduate school, the job market etc., Michigan students want to use their education in the future to get somewhere. Unfortunately, sometimes this desire to achieve actually takes away from a students desire to learn. Everyone wants the best grades and will study as much as possible to get them, but is this because they really have an interest in the subject matter, or because they want their transcript to have a nice GPA right next to the Michigan M?

    I feel like in the midst of midterms, papers, and projects, as students scramble to get their work done, the latter seems to be true. I feel obligated to get my work done and therefore rush to do so. Although school is not meant to be fun and no doubt should be demanding, when a student does work just to finish it, rather than applying themselves fully because they are passionate about what the subject matter, what are they really getting out of it? I really like that this Poli Sci course gives us options of what assignments we can do. I don’t feel obligated to write a paper, or respond to a blog post if I am not interested. By giving a student choices of what medium they would like to express and apply themselves, they are given the opportunity to actually learn during school.

  14. Andrew Babat permalink
    November 5, 2010 6:44 PM

    I completely agree with this post. Cramming and memorizing is good for exams, but will not help you in life. College is a time to try different learning strategies, and find one that works best for you. Also, it is import to learn about a wide variety of topics, and find something that interests you.

  15. Ara Markarian permalink
    November 7, 2010 7:26 PM

    Learning and class success do not always have a positive correlation between each other. By this I mean that the two terms, learning and class success should not be used interchangeably. Personally, as being a sophomore in college, I found numerous times that I have understood a particular subject in and out, however my grade could be a very bad representation of how much I actually had known. This has been a big problem I have had with college – how heavily weighed your “learning experience” is based off of grades.

    I believe that some people are naturally better test takers then others – which puts many at a disadvantage. So then is the grade based off of how much you have actually learned, or rather how good of test taker you are.

    I am a big fan of the structure of the “no test” classes like this. Rather then determining ones grade on three test exams, the grade is really the culmination of an entire semester. It is simple input everyday through out the entire semester that should determine a grade, as opposed possibly a total of 20-30 hours of cramming for tests. In this format, the grade is actually reflective of learning. The many options this course provides actually allows the student to enjoy while they participate as well. Instead of being point mongers where people try and gather as many points as possible (because there are no tests), students are encouraged to learn in which ever environment they feel most comfortable in. The tailoring of a class to each of the individuals needs provides a true measure of learning.

  16. smcunn permalink
    November 7, 2010 10:54 PM

    I think this post does an excellent job of identifying the true worth of a college degree. Learning for the sake of learning is the best thing a person can do for his mind. Most of what we learn in college will not apply to our future career, so why learn it? In my opinion, the focus of a college degree should not be to secure an occupation (although of course it is usually a prerequisite). Instead, the focus should be to condition the mind to a higher level of learning and analyzing for the rest of one’s life.

    Learning does not necessarily have to come from formal education; in fact, the best source of knowledge is through exploration of the “real” world. You want to really learn something, really open your mind to a new concept? Travel. Explore the world that you have been given; absorb knowledge through your senses, not through a textbook. However, to absorb knowledge in the most efficient manner, to train your mind to see multiple possibilities and solutions, to analyze things at a deeper level, you go to college. This is the true value of a college degree. It’s not the mountain of information that is thrown at you that matters; what’s important is how your mind is conditioned to absorb it all.

  17. Melissa Glassman permalink
    November 8, 2010 12:24 PM

    I am in strong agreement with your post. Although I believe lecture helps me to better comprehend the imperative points made throughout the readings, discussing the concepts within discussion sections is truly the “icing on the cake”. It perfects my understanding of the key ideas while it exposes me to others views, often opposed to mine. I believe the idea you brought up about “teaching someone to learn by creating curiosity” is extremely interesting. The suggestion that we learn better when we are interested in the subject is most definitely true and as my peers have previously commented, I do believe a course sans exams is more productive. I have become interested in learning the details of each philosophers theories because I am not anxious about remembering them for a future exam. Instead, I remember the facts because they themselves are intriguing. I have lost the anxiety of exams as I have gained interest in the sole knowledge I can attain from lecture, discussion and the blog. Great concepts illustrated throughout your post; it truly forced me to think of how I learn and what has personally proven to be the most productive!

  18. November 9, 2010 10:41 PM

    Learning and class success do not always have a positive correlation between each other. By this I mean that the two terms, learning and class success should not be used interchangeably. Personally, as being a sophomore in college, I found numerous times that I have understood a particular subject in and out, however my grade could be a very bad representation of how much I actually had known. This has been a big problem I have had with college – how heavily weighed your “learning experience” is based off of grades.
    I believe that some people are naturally better test takers then others – which puts many at a disadvantage. So then is the grade based off of how much you have actually learned, or rather how good of test taker you are.
    I am a big fan of the structure of the “no test” classes like this. Rather then determining ones grade on three test exams, the grade is really the culmination of an entire semester. It is simple input everyday through out the entire semester that should determine a grade, as opposed possibly a total of 20-30 hours of cramming for tests. In this format, the grade is actually reflective of learning. The many options this course provides actually allows the student to enjoy while they participate as well. Instead of being point mongers where people try and gather as many points as possible (because there are no tests), students are encouraged to learn in which ever environment they feel most comfortable in. The tailoring of a class to each of the individuals needs provides a true measure of learning.

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