Blog post: Self-directed learning

Andy Funk's reflection on self directed learning communities and what they offer to college students.

Andy Funk at a Bailey Scholars Program Core Course Share Night.

If you offered a college student their diploma immediately, without them having to do any additional work, do you think they would accept? Do college students see learning as the point of their studies, or are they simply seeking a credential they hope ensures them a brighter future? Different students might have different perspectives, but in an environment supposedly dedicated to education it is important to consider how the college experience does or does not inspire students to pursue learning as an end unto itself.

There has been much progress in pedagogical research over the last 30 years but application of the research in college education has been slow. Many courses are still taught as part of a curriculum dictated by administrators and professors, with memorization of information as the main metric of evaluation. Furthermore, these classroom experiences are still largely individualistic and independent. This system of education is efficient in pushing students through preset avenues without requiring agency on behalf of the student or ownership of their learning process. Learner-centered techniques are gaining traction, but the heart of college courses still relies on top-down knowledge being delivered to students for consumption.

The Bailey Scholars program (BSP) provides an opportunity for students to take charge of their learning as a member of a collaborative learning community. The core of BSP is focused on empowering students to develop their own vision for learning. Then the student is challenged to execute their vision alongside a group of supportive, like-minded individuals. This is markedly different from standard college education: the point isn’t mastering specific subject matter dictated by a pre-set program, the point is to learn how to explore a topic, develop a personal set of goals, and progress as a scholar that continues to learn indefinitely. The self-driven nature of BSP is one of the most valuable parts of the program, but it is also one of the most difficult for students and instructors alike.

My background is in plant molecular genetics research. Coming into BSP as an instructor was unlike anything I’d ever experienced – I am predisposed to value community highly, so the community focus resonated with me, but the lack of curriculum for the course was downright perplexing. At the beginning of the semester the students were tasked with developing the syllabus and deciding what would be learned over the coming months. Students suggested wide-ranging topics and had days of discussion, negotiation, and angst while trying to express themselves and navigate a group decision everyone could live with. Building the syllabus was a hidden part of the BSP experience – whatever the alleged topic of a given semester is, there is an underlying curriculum that stretches students’ abilities to listen to others, value different perspectives, and express themselves and their goals for learning.

Can a learner-centered course deliver the same level of academic merit found in more traditional courses? This was a hard question for me. The standard requirement to be an instructor at a university is graduate-level training in your subject area. In short, you need to be an expert in whatever you’re teaching. The nature of BSP is that expertise in the subject area is rare, because the course content is decided by what the students want to know, not what someone else already knows. The class meetings are sometimes led by students, which puts a lot of pressure on the class being engaged and thoughtful. This is another hidden learning opportunity—how can students participate in their own learning and not rely on others to spoon-feed them a lesson? Despite their best efforts college students are rarely polished or experienced educators. Each student needs to make their own decision of how and where to focus their efforts. Progress students make answering the question, “what is worth learning” could be as important as any specific knowledge gained during the BSP classes.

In summary, what is the value of a non-traditional learning program like BSP? I believe the biggest value of BSP is two-fold: changing the expectations of classroom culture and inviting students to take charge of their own learning.

First, BSP seeks to build a collaborative culture in the classroom that assigns value to participation and engagement. This type of culture fosters accountability, even though it’s not always comfortable to be accountable to peers. Experiencing accountability is an example of the real-world expectations students will face in the future, which prepares students for the rest of their lives outside the contrived environment of college education. This is an aspect of BSP that could be adopted by traditional courses: collaboration and accountability with members of your learning community transforms the education experience.

Second, providing students an opportunity to take charge of their own learning can help them understand that what they are doing is intrinsically valuable, not only a means to a credential. Students’ K-12 experience is like a buffet, where students come and sample things that were prepared for them. Eat a lot, eat a little, your choices are still restricted to what someone else has put on the table. Self-directed learning in BSP is like becoming a chef, where you choose what to prepare, pick out the ingredients, and then do your best to make a tasty dish. Things get burned along the way but learning how to learn, just like learning how to cook, opens new horizons for students and even has a chance to get them excited about the process. When students take ownership of their learning in BSP they have a chance to apply that ownership to more traditional subjects, hopefully improving their entire educational journey.

The reality of BSP is that it’s not always smooth, or easy, and a lot relies on the contributions of each individual to the community. When it works, it is great, and when it is dysfunctional it can be extremely challenging. However, a learner-centered community providing agency and accountability to the students is a lofty goal. This goal deserves attention, effort, and wider consideration in the hopes that students will advance in their pursuit of learning as an end unto itself.


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