Thoughts from Tutors

Active Learning

By Spencer Fuston, Master Tutor

“Learning should be an active process. Too often, students come to school to watch their teachers work.” – Willard R. Daggett, Ed.D.

Most college students have been there: sitting in a large lecture hall listening to a professor describe the intricacies of acid-base chemistry. At that moment the thought crosses your mind, “When am I going to use this in my real life?” It is that thought that Dr. Daggett is referring to. This attitude is perfectly reasonable. This is particularly true in those pesky core classes, which seem to be designed to be the bane of every college students’ existence. Just another hoop to jump through, without any clear indication of how the class relates to your specific goals. However, it is that attitude which so often leads a student to become complacent with their education. It is hard to put in the required effort to do well in a class which does not seem to pertain to your specific goals or improve your knowledge of the subjects which are important to you. It is this complacency which must be fought against by taking, as Dr. Daggett eloquently puts, an active role in your own education.

What does it really mean to be an active learner? More importantly, why does this help to combat the “when am I going to use this” mindset? The answers lie in the extent to which you can give the topics covered in a class personal meaning with respect to your academic goals. In application, it means seeking out opportunities to gain personal experience working in your specific field of study, or placing yourself around those who have. This firsthand experience helps you to understand how all of the pieces fit together, no matter how unrelated they may seem when taken out of context. Surrounding yourself with people who have had those experiences or are doing what you want to do serves the same purpose. This mentoring, however subtle it may be, allows you the insight necessary to understand the purpose of every step along the way. Those pesky classes which felt pointless will all of a sudden play a role in helping you achieve your goals.

In my academic journey, active learning took the form of undergraduate research. As a geology major, the focus of my education has been to learn to describe and interpret the processes controlling the Earth as we know it. This manifests itself as a great deal of theoretical knowledge and applied science and math. I love learning about the Earth but always felt the urge to go see these processes firsthand. In my experience as a tutor, it is hard to fully understand a concept until you get this firsthand knowledge and are able see the concepts for yourself. Undergraduate research allowed me to do just that. I was given the tremendous opportunity to perform fieldwork in the Klamath Mountains of northern California and Oregon. I was suddenly out of the classroom, applying everything I had learned. I transitioned from using thermodynamics and chemistry to calculate which minerals should be in a rock to actually observing them. I realized that the purpose behind all of those hours of calculus and chemistry was to understand the mechanisms which explain what I was observing. Those pesky core classes which had felt pointless had given me the tools to fully understand how the theoretical and observational aspects of science are connected. This is in addition to being shown firsthand how to approach fieldwork and, more broadly, how to be a professional scientist. I was surrounded by an excellent team of mentors comprising both professors and graduate students who proved to be an invaluable resource, as well as role models throughout the experience. Their knowledge and advice gave me an excellent framework for which to structure my learning. This context allows me to approach any class I may take with a sense of curiosity and purpose. This is the true purpose of taking an active role in your education.

Active learning does not, however, come in only one variety. There are a multitude of opportunities to get involved, whether they be research opportunities, student organizations, volunteer opportunities, or simply placing yourself around those who will help you frame your education with the correct context. I can think of no better way to improve your motivation and overall enjoyment of your time in college than to take an active and deliberate role in your own education.

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