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Learning is breaking out all around

Rosemary Joyce, professor of anthropology | February 9, 2010

As I walked back from my afternoon lecture, I had to step around students standing and sitting around models of what appeared to be chairs built from popsicle sticks. Some of the students leaned against the wall writing down comments on printed copies of an assignment. Others were deep in conversation.

A week ago, on the same route from class to my office hours, I passed students out on the grass using hand-built wooden survey instruments. Groups of students helped each other adjust the instrument, or explained the principles to each other.

I thought of these routine encounters when I read coverage of the latest UCUES– University of California Undergraduate Experience Survey — in Inside Higher Education today.  The authors of this article chose to emphasize that students reported spending less time on studying than on leisure activities (a category which combined everything from socializing with friends to using the computer), advancing a storyline that suggests that UC students are not giving enough time to their coursework.

But to make that argument, they had to ignore the more interesting information about student engagement in learning that can be found in the survey. For students in the social sciences, study time outside the classroom average 11.5 hours, which the authors compare to 41 hours total on all leisure activities. But a more accurate comparison would add study time, classroom time, and extra-curricular activities, which together total 34.1 hours. Add the average time spent working a job– 7.6 hours– and UC students are spending about the same amount of time working and learning as they are on their combined leisure activities.

More impressive, this UCUES survey showed that  one-third of upper-division undergraduates at UC were engaged in research outside the classroom. Programs like the Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program at Berkeley provide students a chance to find out how research fuels learning. That may be part of the reason that 52% of the undergraduates surveyed plan to get an advanced degree after they receive the BA.

That’s the spirit that animated those groups of students I made my way past today. And it was what brought almost 200 students in my lecture room to life today, breaking into small groups, preparing five-minute briefings on articles by leading scholars, and then presenting the key ideas to their entire peer group.

The number of hours spent “studying” is a poor predictor of success anyway, as the authors of the Inside Higher Ed article admitted. What is making UC students successful is how well they learn: and that happens all around this campus, including in informal discussions among students who connect what they are reading and hearing in the classroom to what they are doing outside it– and changing the way learning happens along the way.

Comment to “Learning is breaking out all around

  1. I too passed those crafty pieces of furniture, though on a different day,assembled near those same determined students crowded around a professor whose every word seemed to invoke the kind of devotion usually only reserved for cult leaders. Maybe there are actually some similarities since, after all, it takes a special kind of person to pay a lot of money to self-inflict mental stress upon oneself, just because a highly-opinionated figurehead tells you to, and all in the name of elevating oneself to a higher plane of existence!

    Despite these hurdles, which would seem to be obvious red flags to turn around and run the other way, students on UC Berkeley’s campus are seen everywhere, all-day, even into the late night, being inventive, productive, engaging, challenging, and determined. From the two music students harmonizing and composing on a bench under a bulbous, 8-generation-old tree, to the hodgepodge of students decked out on the strip-mall corridor on Upper Sproul Plaza hawking anything from Asian Christian and pro-Israeli clubs to cards that say, “I Love Vaginas” handed out by glowing young women as promotion for the upcoming, student-run, nationally acclaimed stage production of “The Vagina Monologues,”-learning IS breaking out all around!

    As a recent transfer student to UC Berkeley, and a 32-year-old Undergraduate, I for the first time in my college journey have experienced such enthusiasm for education around campus that I can literally see it! I can also concur with your assessment of the energy and sharing that went on in your lecture room. As one of your students in that class, I find the group interactions among everyone to be encouraging and enlightening, even if my brain does ache a bit after absorbing all that information! I guess that’s a predictable and rather welcome sign though. I say this because I agree with what a fellow student commented to me the other day. With a broad smile of pride on his face he said, “You have to be a masochist to be a scholar!”

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