October 6th, 2009

The Learning Question


A neighbor of mine has an 18-year-old friend who started his first year of college at the end of August. Last weekend he came home for the first time. My neighbor asked him what he’d learned so far in college. I complimented my neighbor for asking that question instead of the more common, “How are you doing in college?” But my neighbor was troubled by his friend’s response. “What have I learned in college? Gee, I don’t know … I haven’t really thought about it. Lots of stuff, I guess.”

“A kid should be able to say what he’s learned in college, don’t you think?” my neighbor asked. I agreed. “Now he did talk a lot about his chemistry professor and how that teacher constantly gives examples of how things in the news involve chemistry. I pointed out he was learning that chemistry is relevant and he did agree.”

This conversation has made me think that we should be asking the learning question more often, like when we meet the students we had last semester. If there’s time for something more than, “How’s it going?” we ought to ask them what courses they’re taking and what they’re learning in one of those. Rather than just asking advisees how they’re doing in their courses, we should be asking them to tell us three important things they’ve learned so far this semester.

And I think we ought to be asking learning questions in our very own classes. Next time you pass back a set of papers and provide the sort of general feedback that helps students put their individual feedback in context, give students a couple of minutes to write on the front of their paper something they learned from this writing experience that they would like to remember the next time they’re assigned a paper. Or maybe it’s just a quick discussion about what students learned about how groups function after having worked on a group project.

Perhaps the new college student was confused by the question. Students in college learn content, but they are also learning about learning. Maybe he didn’t know which my neighbor was referring to. I’d like to think that, but I really believe what students are learning about content and process is not as front and center in their thinking as it ought to be. We can help them with that problem.