Self-Directed Learning is a Key to Access & Opportunity

A University education can be rich and rewarding experience. It is not, however, a magical solution to access & opportunity. The more that I learn about promising possibilities in formal K-12 and higher education, the more I become convinced that an emphasis on curiosity, a love of learning, agency, and capacity for self-direction are among some of the best investments of our time and resources in education reform. The is because even the most elite lecture halls are not the solution to issues of educational access and opportunity. I offer an early personal college experience as a way of illustrating this point.

My first year in college I had a MWF 7:30 AM American civilization class. The class met in a room a few hundred feet from my dorm. Since the entire University, with the exception of one building, was connected by hallways, I didn’t have to go outside to get to class. I would set my alarm for 7:25 AM, put on sandals and and wander into class a minute or two early.

Given the day and time, this class was where I experienced my first college exam. The entire class consisted of one paper, a midterm exam, and a final exam; so I had not received any feedback from the instructor before this first test. I’d never even had a one-on-one conversation with him. I completed about half of the assigned readings, made it to class every session (albeit half asleep), took notes as best as I knew how at the time, and that was about it. The content intrigued me, but not as much as the important challenge of building new friendships and experiencing college community from 8:00 PM to 2:00 AM almost every night/morning. I arrived on the morning of my first college test having reviewed my notes for about an hour, assuming that was adequate for the task. He handed out something that he called a Blue Book, a 5×7 empty collection of sixteen lined pages of paper. He wrote a few essay questions on the board and told us to begin.

I didn’t really know what to do. One of the questions on the board did not trigger any memories from the readings, lectures or notes. A second related to a topic that piqued my interest in an earlier lecture but my knowledge of the details was limited. The third was familiar from high school American history class where I’d written a research paper on the subject. I started with the familiar question and easily scribbled (if you ever saw my handwriting, you would commend me for such a precise word choice) four or five pages of an answer. I struggled through the essay for the second question, but there was only so much that I could do. It wasn’t like I could work harder at recalling the necessary insights because they didn’t exist in my brain. I had an interested but shallow knowledge base on the subject. Then there was the third question. I don’t know what I wrote, but it was not good. As class came to an end, I set my Blue Book on the table in the front of class and headed to a late morning breakfast.

Skip to 7:30 AM on Friday morning. I showed up for class, listened to the lecture, took notes, then he returned the graded exams during the last five minutes of class. I opened my book and found a “B-” marked at the top. I scanned the pages and counted a total of twenty words of comments, most of which consisted of phrases like “more detail” or “inaccurate.”

Two months later, I was better prepared for the final exam. I even showed up earlier than usual. As I waited for the exam to start, I mumbled a few words to the person next to me, explaining how I’d studied but had no idea if I was ready for this test, alluding to the belief that the professor was largely to blame. I didn’t expect such a strong reaction from the classmate, a senior who must have switched majors along the way or somehow missed this introductory class earlier in his college career. He was a football player and I’d never talked to him before. I had seen him in a completely different state on Friday nights after enjoying the party scene off campus, but he seemed surprisingly serious at the moment. He was not pleased with my critique of the professor, leaned toward me, and retorted with three simple questions. Did you read? Did you study? How long did you study? There was no time for me to answer before the professor arrived and the exam started.

This classmates’s reply represented a belief about what it takes to be successful in college. It has less to do with the professor and almost everything to do with the student. Students who read, think, study, and work hard within the parameters set by the instructor earn the best grades. The professor lectures, creates tests and assignments, and grades the quality of your work.

Over the entire semester, I never had a  one-on-one conversation with the professor.  Thinking back, this might have set the groundwork for my growing interest in self-directed learning in a connected world. In some ways, it did not set the bar very high. If I can find quality content and a person or group of people to give me rich and substantive feedback on my progress, I would have met or exceeded what I experienced in this first year American civilization class.

The first year of college consisted of the largest class sizes with the least amount of personal feedback and interaction with the professor. Later years involved ample small seminars, rich and rewarding one-on-one conversations with professors, robust peer discussion in and out of class, and even a good measure of formative feedback on my work. Not every class was like that, but many were.

It wasn’t just the class structure that changed. It was me. As I progressed through college, I gained the confidence to seek out mentors. I read and studied for personal interest, not just for a class assignment. I engaged in volunteer work at a large museums to explore my passions and interests in anthropology. I sought out peers with shared interests, and our late-night conversations far exceeded the depth that we reached in formal class settings. In other words, my education took off when I relied less on the instructor and more on my growing capacities as person with curiosity and a love of learning.

While there is much that learning organizations can do to create higher quality learning experiences, the single most important part of an education that promotes access & opportunity is student ownership. If K-12 and higher education institutions are going to truly equip people to thrive as learners and throughout life, it will come from nurturing people who are not dependent upon a formal teacher-student construct. People with ownership who can self-regulate and self-direct have a huge advantage in the connected world. Where traditional literacy was once a key to the treasures of learning and opportunity, self-direction is that key in the emergent future. Resources that meet or far exceed what I experienced in a first year American civilization lecture are freely available to those who can find and take advantage of them. Empowering people to take advantage of such resources and communities is one of our best changes at making progress toward access, opportunity, even workforce development.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.

2 Replies to “Self-Directed Learning is a Key to Access & Opportunity”

  1. Doug Harrell

    Hello Bernard!

    I read this article with interest, and was glad to see how much it went along with my own spiel that I regularly gave my high school students, when I taught math and science in a brick-and-mortar school. (I now teach online, so I don’t get the opportunity as often.) I thought I would reproduce it here, and I hope you and your readers enjoy it:

    The 3 most important things you should learn in college will not have anything to do with your subject area. In fact, unless you are in a specialized field, like engineering or medicine, the subjects matter very little. Even in highly technical fields, all you really get is a ‘toolbox’, or a basic beginning in the subject, which will allow you to begin your real education once you enter the working world, where the leading edge of knowledge usually resides. The 3 most important things are:

    1. We don’t know nuthin’.

    We have barely scratched the surface of knowledge in the universe. If you come out of college thinking that you know everything there is to know about your subject and that you are some kind of expert in your field, then you are the biggest idiot to come out of that school, and you wasted your time and money, and their seat in the classroom. Again, all you get is a basic toolbox for your continuing education.

    2. How to teach yourself.

    College is not like elementary or high school. You will not be spoon-fed the knowledge, with constant checking to see if you’ve got it. In fact, they pretty much don’t care if you don’t do well, as long as your tuition check is good. Plus, the professor is too busy doing research (or at least directing the GRAs who are doing the research) to worry much about you. So you will sit down in an auditorium with 250 people, and the professor will stroll in, ramble on about his hobbies for 2 hours, and stroll out, tossing back over his shoulder as he leaves, “Oh, by the way, exam on Thursday.” At this point, you learn to do what is called “research”. You go to everyone you know and ask them if they have taken Professor So-and-so’s class on Such-and-such, and if they have, what the tests are like; are they from the textbook, the lecture notes, the study guide (if there even is one), or what? So basically, in college, you have to figure out *what* you have to know, *where* you can learn it, *who* can help you with it (besides the GTA, who barely speaks English), and *how* to know that you actually know what you need to know. THIS is the most valuable skill to an employer: someone who can take on something they know nothing about, educate one’s self on it, and get it done competently and in a timely enough manner.

    3. How to navigate a hopeless bureaucracy.

    This is also a very valuable skill in the working world, and college is filled with examples. From the maze of registration, to the morass of financial aid (just getting it, not paying for it!), to housing, parking permits, and of course, that joy of going in at the beginning of the last semester for your graduation check, and being told “Oh, you’re missing a credit in this required course,” which wasn’t in the plan you were given and have been faithfully following for four years. What’s more, that course is not offered this semester! So, you go to the catalog and search for a suitable substitute, then realize it has a prerequisite which you have not taken, so you run around to professors getting permission to take them as co-requisites instead, finding substitutes for the substitutes, if necessary, and then to your adviser begging to be allowed the substitution, prepared to justify your choices, and of course, getting the all-important signature-of-the-adviser-on-your-graduation-plan, which is now holy writ, and will allow you to graduate on time! If you can survive this and come out with a diploma, you have marketable skills!

    Finally, I tell them, you will be most blessed if you develop a love of learning, whether you had one before, or not. And I end with my favorite quote from Edith Hamilton, whose Mythology text (and the English teacher who dragged me through it) helped shape my own high school years, and later:

    “It has always seemed strange to me that in our endless discussions about education so little stress is laid on the pleasure of becoming an educated person, the enormous interest it adds to life. To be able to be caught up into the world of thought — that is to be educated.”

    Best regards.

  2. Valary Oleinik

    I couldn’t agree more, especially about the long-term effects. I see the people long after they have left higher education’s hallowed halls and are in cubicles, still waiting to be spoon-fed the answers. And I see managers who say they want people to be professionals and self-starters yet they continue to promote training as a “fix them,” “show them how to do it” means to solving workplace problems. I have been working for a number of years (sometimes feeling like I am beating my head into the wall) to redefine what training means and retrain learners and managers as to what workplace (or life) learning means. A big hurdle is that people don’t have the experience learning on their own and aren’t equipped to do it. They feel overwhelmed and don’t know where to start or how to know if they are “doing it right.” Maybe that’s the next phase of blended learning, not just the range of face-to-face and electronic but the range of instructor-led and learner-led.

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