The History Blog

Past and Present

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Where the learning happens.


I had made some plans about what my initial posts would be for this blog but a few events of today turned my head in a different direction. I attended a ceremony for incoming students and their families today; doing my best to look professorial in my academic regalia. Since this is really the only costume I ever wear and I usually only wear it once a year, a try to enjoy the moment. But there is something about being covered in an extra 23 square yards of mystery fabric, tightly packed into folding chairs, under hot lights or the May sun of graduation that makes it hard for me to match my mood to the celebratory nature of the occasion in question. I usually bring a book but reading it during the ceremony is as bad as a student texting during class so I rarely get much reading done.

During today’s event one speaker cited a statistic that only 10% of what you learn in college happens in the classroom, the other 90% taking place elsewhere I guess. I was talking to a colleague about this later and we agreed that we had some serious misgivings with the statistic, which he had heard various times at other events. Why is that exactly?

We could run through some numbers. If most students take something close to a 5 course 15 credit hour load, than the 15 hours in class represent about 9% of the 168 hours in a week. If we can assume that students sleep 7 hours a night (just a guess) than the class time represents about 13% of their 119 waking hours. In this perspective the statistic makes some sense. Perhaps the speaker was referring to the jobs our students work or the time they spend taking care of their families, but I don’t think so. I suspect that they were referring to the other aspects of the college experience – student government, involvement in fraternities or sororities, being “leaders”, clubs, sports, etc – and saying that is where the real learning takes place.

This is an argument that seems to have a lot of currency, that college is about a career or contacts but not about classes. In response I want to make two points. The first is that there is another statistic, or suggestions, that academic classes should have about 3 hours of work for every hour spent in class. Though not many courses meet this standard – and even when they do it is not clear that all students live up to the obligation – if the formula holds then 15 credit hours means 45 hours of work. That means a grand total of 60 hours on your classes; tough to argue that is only 10%. The second is that, for some of us, the most meaningful learning that occurs outside the classroom comes in conversations with friends. Here the assumption is that students spend time talking about the ideas in play in their classes. There are ideas out there: ideas about politics, and art, and sex, and sexuality, and ethnicity, and truth, and reality that should set your brain on fire. College is a good place to grapple with them. Somewhere in one of your courses is an idea, a sonnet, a scientific theory, a painting, a proof, a case study, or just a story that will change somebody’s world. The trick is, it might not be your class or the idea might not change your life. Only constant conversation with other students about these ideas and stories will expose you to the full range of what is going on at school. Here those few hours spent focusing on the ideas of your courses can be a catalyst for changes that will take up much more of your time, or someone elses time. For me, this is where the other 90% comes in. Trite perhaps but I mean it. Next time, why professors should spend less time complaining.

Joshua M. Rosenthal

Categories: General

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