Spice It Up, Professors!


Let collaboration and engagement marinate 

By the time you are in university, you have been subjected to over a decade and a half of learning; whether it be in the classroom with a teacher, on the playground with your friends, or at home with your parents, everyone learns differently. By participating in events, students learn valuable social skills.

Recently, I became enamored with the skill of free solo climbing. Free solo climbing is the ascent up a mountain with no ropes or harness. This skill posits perfection at every turn, as a slip or wrong decision can lead one to injury or death.  Going down is even more difficult than going up. You must continue until you reach the summit. It is success or failure, nothing else. While this is an extreme example, the parallels to learning are evident in that you need stakes for motivation to take over. 

The stakes of your marks in a class are typically motivation for students; however, marks are seldom enough for some students. I know of someone who had one day until his final exam and hadn’t begun studying. He read from cover to cover the entire textbook, and while he did okay in the exam, I can assure you that is not the correct way to learn. It was clear that he was not motivated in class, but instead resorted to the sensory overload of cramming every definition into his mind prior to regurgitation hours later on a final.

Some students are lazy and not motivated; however, there is a reason that they are paying up to $20 000 a year to attend university. The key is finding a way to unlock that motivation in a positive setting.

It was my final year of university when I figured out how I can learn best. For me, I respond to games and intellectual challenges that engage everyone in the classroom. Some of these games had real prizes, such as an extra percentage on the midterm, or a cash sum and these stakes were enough for me to apply myself to the topic in class that day. And, I found that I retained that information better with incentive. Also, having the teacher pick your partners is an important aspect of collaboration! Solving problems with someone you may have never spoken to before is vital for learning.

As for professors, they are in a difficult position. With limited class time, typically as low as three hours a week, drilling down and getting all the course information into a student’s head is virtually impossible. Classes have a large amount of content that needs to be covered. Those 600-page textbooks are usually condensed into PowerPoint slides, which are then echoed by the professor during class time, sometimes in a boringly monotonous voice.

Another impediment to student learning is the role that academic tenure plays for professors. Once attained, their teaching style can become routinized, and there are seldom drastic changes to it. This is unfortunate, especially for professors who have been teaching for decades. Preferred styles and learning abilities change as well. What was taught one way ten years ago can be drastically different from the way it should be taught today.

Is the ultimate goal to learn and take tangible skills out into the world for the rest of your life? If so, then it is paramount that students understand how they learn best and how to voice these ideas to professors.

I implore professors to spice it up and get away from PowerPoint lecturing. In turn, professors can engage students by forming impromptu groups as well as creating games such as Jeopardy for all to collaborate.