If you were to ask your students at the end of a course week, or at the end of a course, what they learned - what do you believe their answer would be? Would it be something they have read, a memorable class lecture, an engaging class discussion, or insight gained as a result of all of these classroom elements combined? As an educator, do you believe that learning is an ongoing process throughout the duration of the course, or do you find that it occurs at specific points and as a result of specific prompts?
It is assumed that a classroom, an instructor, a textbook, and assigned learning activities will ensure that learning occurs when students are enrolled. Consider the purpose of learning objectives or outcomes when the course is developed. The objectives establish a purpose for the course and measurement for assessments so that students can demonstrate learning has occurred. All learning activities are designed specifically for the purpose of ensuring that learning objectives are met.
Yet learning does not occur in a linear manner, within the prescribed number of course weeks, or with the assigned learning activities. Even the established course objectives do not guarantee that students will learn according to what has been planned. What is the critical element? The classroom instructor. The instructor's role is essential not only to classroom management, but to creating conditions within the classroom and the minds of the students that are conducive to learning. These are conditions the course objectives and learning activities alone cannot create.
Additional Questions About Learning in the Classroom
As I have been thinking about the process of learning, I have developed a list of additional questions that I would like to pose to help other educators also consider how students learn.
How do you define learning? Is it a matter of students acquiring information, completing assignments, earning a grade, participating in class discussions, completing a course, or something else? Do you consider outcomes measured by the learning objectives to be temporary in nature or do those goals indicate that something long-term has occurred when students are able to demonstrate mastery or completion of each one?
Does every student learn something in your class? This is important to consider as it is almost assumed that learning is going to happen, as if there is a guarantee it will take place for every student who makes an attempt. You can also consider the amount of effort a student puts in and whether or not that will influence their ability to learn.
Do some learning activities promote learning better than others? For example, when a student answers a discussion question, has this student demonstrated learning or is a response to an instructor's follow up question a better indicator? Are written assignments as effective, or more effective, than class discussions for helping students demonstrate what they have learned? Are some types of assignments more effective than others for serving this purpose?
My Perspective as a Student and an Educator
I obtained two of my degrees in a traditional college classroom environment. What I remember most are some of the class projects I had to complete, along with some of the written projects - especially the culminating project for my MBA program. I wrote a business plan and I was required to conduct the research necessary to launch the new business, which really put to use everything I had studied. As a result of this project, there are concepts and an application of theories that I never forgot and this helped to inform my work as an educator.
I obtained the remainder of my degrees in a non-traditional or online college classroom environment. The most challenging degree was my doctorate degree as there was nothing for me to memorize and no tests for me to pass. I earned my grades by conducting research and completing projects, especially written projects that applied the information I gained in a manner that I was creating long term knowledge. I remember those projects very well, especially my research study, and the work I began during that doctoral program I continue today. The knowledge I gained has been applied to my career, along with the books, blog posts, and articles I have written.
When I taught at the community college, I was different than many of the other instructors as I did not want to teach for a test. I knew that most of the lectures I heard while in my traditional programs were long forgotten, as were the tests I had taken. I wanted to be different and I incorporated interesting elements into my instruction. Many students were taken by surprise as they expected the same two hour stand-and-lecture approach, followed by a mid-term and final exam.
Most of my work as an educator has been in the field of distance learning. I know that the for-profit online school industry has been under scrutiny. However, distance learning can be effective if there is an instructor who has been trained not only in the subject matter but the principles of adult education. When students are provided with discussions and meaningful papers to write, and there is an instructor to guide them, they are likely to gain something of value from the class. This has always been my goal. I know as a faculty development specialist that instructors who do not understand adult education principles are the ones who often struggle to relate to students and that can leave students on their own, which can have an adverse impact on the learning process.
I have also watched a non-profit online school become prominent in the field of distance learning and it has caused many accreditors and educators like myself great concern as there are no instructors involved. It is advertised as being competency-based, but that is just a fancy phrase (for this school) for correspondence-style courses. Students can study (or not if they choose) and take assessments (three or four times if needed) until they pass - often with a score as low as 51%. There are no grades issued on transcripts, only pass or fail indicators. It will be interesting to see if this fad is accepted in the long run, or if accreditors will demand instructor to student interactions.
What Can Instructors Do to Promote Learning?
As I have studied adult education, I have come to understand learning from the perspective of how the mind takes and processes information. When students read something in the textbook or listen to a lecture, that is information and some of it will be stored in short term memory. The same is true for memorizing information for a test. That information is stored in short term memory. In order for educators to state that learning has occurred, students need to make a connection with that information in some manner or apply it in some way so that it will move into long-term memory. Long-term memory is a storage center and arranged by connections and associations. With this understanding of how information is stored, it can help an instructor prepare to help students in the classroom.
Classroom Contributions: As an instructor, you need to have a dual perspective of your classroom. One perspective is classroom management and ensuring that your contractual obligations have been met. The other is from an educational perspective and what you can do to prompt conditions conductive to adult education - even if you did not control the design of the course itself. The most important addition you can make is your intellectual contribution. As an educator, you have a unique ability to see the course concepts from multiple perspectives and you can share these views during discussions, as follow up replies and prompts. You can also share additional resources, overviews, wrap-ups, summaries, and guides - anything that will provide additional value for your students.
Student Readiness and Preparedness: The two issues that can help students, or hinder their performance at any given time, are academic readiness and preparedness. This may be beyond your immediate control at first; however, as you get to know your students and provide feedback, you will be able to address their developmental needs. What you can do is consider methods and strategies that will help their ability to learn each class week. For example, can you provide a rubric for a written assignment to help them self-check their work? Can you provide strategies and resources as tips to help them? For example, I have shared note-taking strategies and this has helped some students who struggled with reading comprehension.
Instructional Approach: As an educator, I want to focus on stimulating their intellectual interest and engaging their mind. If I provide a canned answer to a discussion question, or I do not take time to read the content of a paper, I am missing out on an opportunity to engage them in the learning process. I want to ask questions that cause students to think further and to look for additional information and answers. For the subject matter I am teaching, I am always reading to stay current in this field and looking for additional resources, case studies, and current issues I can share with students as a means of bringing the course materials to life.
Can students learn without an instructor? Yes, it is possible as we all learn informally every day. But in a formal classroom environment it is a different matter and regardless of the trends and fads that come and go in higher education, nothing can replace the value that a highly experienced and educated instructor brings to the classroom - especially one who truly cares about students and the value they receive from the class. Instructors promote learning when they are actively engaged in the class and more importantly, actively engaging the minds of their students. While this does not mean that every student will pass the class, it does indicate that students who are making an effort to be involved in the class will likely retain something in long-term memory that will be recalled later, and that is the ultimate goal of adult education.