It’s been seven years since I was last a student. In that time, I have transformed from the learner in the desk to the teacher at the podium (note: I don’t actually use a podium). My life now revolves around trying to understand how other people learn and get them to actually do it. However, recently, I became a learner again and not just any learner, but a learner in a learning theories course (it’s all very meta). This class not only outlined popular and important learning theories, but it forced me to look closely at myself as a learner, which then forced me to look closely at myself as an instructor, in new ways.
Most learning theory suggests that successful learners know about knowing. Meaning, they know what they know and what they don’t know. More, they know how they know something. They adapt and create strategies for learning based on past successes or failures. So, what have I learned about myself as a learner this semester?
Let’s begin with what I’m not doing as a learner. One of the most significant aspects of being a student is that it gets you in the mindset of attending to information. Every class, regardless of subject, is asking you to pay attention to something. So, just being in school gets you into that habit of simply paying attention. The problem for me is that without anyone prompting me to attend to something (i.e. this is going to be on the test; you will have to write a paper on this; we will be discussing this at book club next week), I don’t think about it properly, which, in my opinion, impedes how I process new information. I see this in the ways that I forget the details of a book I just read or can’t think of the lead character in a movie I just watched.
Next, I don’t always have good, aboveboard goals for learning, and this ties into motivation, which is an important aspect of learning something new. I’ve addressed this issue in a previous blog post, but I’ll reiterate some of the main points here: Sometimes social networking sites, like Goodreads, Get Glue, or even the Facebook “check in,” change the purpose of what you’re doing. On the one hand, these sites can provide interested parties with good recommendations, updates, or reviews, but these sites also serve as pissing contests. When we tell everyone what we’re reading and watching or where we’re eating and drinking, we might get more caught up in the attention that it brings to us rather than the actual experience of doing that thing. So, if my action begins with the premise that I want everyone to know I’m doing it, I’ve limited the attention I’m going to give to that thing because part of my attention is focused on the end goal, the reaction I’m aiming to get from outside parties, not the thing itself.
Most significantly, I don’t strategize properly. Strategy is a hard thing to develop – especially when you’re not in school and don’t need to know or remember information as purposefully or as immediately as you would if you were in school – because it takes a lot of introspection. Not only do you have to figure out how you acquire and process information but how to transfer that understanding across spectrums. Not that I didn’t always know this, but my learning theories course has helped me to attend more acutely to the fact that I prefer to acquire information by hearing it, and I like to process information best by communicating it to others either verbally or in writing. This is pretty common for people who are extroverts. Extroverts need group interaction and communication to be effective and struggle when they are on their own. This is why the self-prompting I mentioned earlier is so difficult for me. Being that most of life will not take place in a classroom, I have to develop a way of prompting and communicating information even when no one else is around if I want to properly attend to and process that information. I’ve noticed that it helps me if I go into a situation knowing I want to later write or talk about it at great length.
(side note: this interpersonal/extroverted personality and learning style also explains why I gravitate toward Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino, Richard Linklater, Coen Brothers, and Wes Anderson movies, cable news (as shitty as it is), most of my friends, podcasts, anything Aaron Sorkin writes, Jaws, reading and writing blogs, and being in the classroom (as teacher or learner). It also explains why I really need my friends and I to get our shit together and start making this podcast we’ve been talking about for a year.)
Basically, to learn, I need dialogue. Which also means I need people.
This is why I will probably not take another online class if I can avoid it. Don’t get me wrong, I very much liked my learning theories instructor, the course material, and my classmates. But, I disliked not being able to hear or talk to them. Discussion boards and webchats are all well and good, but, for me, they’re not the same as being in a classroom where all of my senses are being engaged and I’m interacting with actual people, not just their avatars.
This is also why, after the fall semester for which my schedule is already set, I will probably stop teaching online as well. Trust me, the perks of teaching online are pretty awesome (I won’t go into them now to avoid getting beat up by my friends who have 9-5ers). But, after being an online student myself, I can say that I just don’t think the online student is getting the same educational experience as the face-to-face student. I understand that this format works well for some independent-learner types, but, even for those folks, I still wonder if they are truly getting the same quality or quantity of information as they would in a face-to-face setting. Also, most learning theories would agree that when learning new information, most people need the direct help of an expert (with an eventual weaning off of said expert). They need a teacher, a parent, a coach, or a mentor. So much of online coursework is done independently with little personal interaction between instructor and student. This may work for a class in which the learners are already familiar with the material, such as in a graduate-level online course. But, most undergraduate classes are based on material that is new to our students. Most likely, they do not know how to write a college-level essay properly, discuss literature or film analytically, or apply mathematic principles appropriately. If the educational experience was purely based on memorization, then maybe the independent learning format of online courses would be sufficient. But, most college classes are not like that. For classes that involve or rely heavily on higher-order thinking, discussion, analysis, synthesis, and application, I don’t think the online format is beneficial, especially for new learners who have no previous experience with the material or, more importantly, how to think about that material.
Ultimately, what I mainly realized from this whole experience is that I just really like learning new things. But, I like learning new things from and with other people. This is why, for me, it’s important to surround myself with as many people as I can, as often as I can. Not only do I get a lot of my energy from those around me, but I also get a lot of really valuable information. Every person has different interests, different knowledge, and different ways of seeing the world that I don’t have or may never have even thought of. And I want to take it all in, even if I have nothing further vested in it beyond the simple joy of just having a conversation. Just listening to someone talk about something that interests them teaches me not only about that thing itself but about the person as well. So much of what we know about our students, our friends, our family, or our interests we’ve learned by communicating with or about them. To eliminate the conversation, the dialogue, the experience, is to inhibit learning. So, whether my friends are waxing philosophical about couponing, comic books, or cooking, I’m listening – not because I have to, but because I need to.