opinion

Why Course Credits Don’t Reflect What I Learn

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At Davidson College’s Fall Convocation, which I attended in cap and gown for the first time with fellow members of the Class of 2016, administrators and faculty asked me to reflect on what I have learned in my years at Davidson. Employers seem to care about this question as well, with the added caveat that my answer should translate to workforce skills.

Is it weird that my answers come primarily from experiences outside my coursework?

Leading campus fundraisers and dialogues as a member of Student Government has taught me about project management and collaboration. Working at the college’s Writing Center has taught me about client relationships and effective communication. Studying abroad in Nicaragua has developed my capacity to take risks, adapt to new challenges, and communicate with people from different life experiences, and while “studying abroad” does involve a classroom, I found that most of my learning came not from the “study” part, but from the “abroad” part.

So if these experiences constitute my most transformative (and employable!) learning experiences, why didn’t I get credit for any of them?

I’m not the only person asking this question. In “Disrupting Ourselves: The Problem of Learning in Higher Education,” Randy Bass, Associate Provost at Georgetown University, draws attention to a list of “high impact practices” that the National Survey of Student Engagement has shown to be highly correlated with powerful learning outcomes. The list includes experiences like learning communities, collaborative projects, community-based learning, study abroad, and internships. Bass notes that the majority of these experiences are located in the co-curriculum, or in exceptional courses like first-year seminars, rather than at the core of the undergraduate academic experience.

Yet I often hear the message from faculty and administrators that my co-curricular activities compete with my learning, or make me an “overcommitted” student who is distracted from her pursuits in the classroom. It is true that my activities outside the classroom compete for time I otherwise spend on academics, not to mention time I might otherwise spend taking care of my non-student-related needs as a human. Yet if we acknowledge co-curricular spaces as sites of learning, rather than academic distractions, the question becomes not “why are students so overcommitted?” but “why is our institution organized in a way where making the most of diverse learning opportunities requires students to take on so many commitments on top of their coursework?”

So what would it look like to re-center my education so that the transformative experiences happen not on the margins, but right in the center? Some ideas:

1. Introduce experiential learning frameworks into students’ first-year experiences.

At the recent Digital Learning Research Conference in Palo Alto, CA, a conference attendee recalled a freshman course that asked him to analyze his own educational experiences across both formal and informal settings. A common freshman experience that asks students to turn a critical gaze to their own learning could encourage students to frame their out-of-classroom experiences as inherently educational from the outset and establish the importance of self-reflective learning to the undergraduate experience.

2. Create courses that use students’ outside-the-classroom experiences as texts.

If students are learning from internships, student organizations, community service, or other experiences, why not create opportunities to synthesize that learning? A course like this exists at Davidson: “Theoretical Explorations of Community Engagement” asks students to complete community-based internships and integrate their experiences with theory, discussion, and reflection in a seminar.

3. Structure an undergraduate experience so that it moves from classroom to “real world,” with opportunities for student-driven capstones other than academic theses.

It is a truth universally acknowledged on my campus that many seniors feel bored and antsy, eager to apply their skills in ways that are more engaged with the workforce. So why not let them? Alternatives to the traditional senior thesis with experiential, collaborative, or career-oriented foci would let students build upon their years of traditional classroom experiences—and better demonstrate the value of a liberal arts major to an employer.

Without these options, I find myself piling non-credit-bearing learning opportunities onto my full course schedule. This semester, I am participating in a leadership development program and a human-centered design course, in addition to campus leadership roles. Each of these experiences represents time I can’t spend preparing for class, which might, ultimately, impact my GPA. (But I’ve done the calculations, and I can spare a few hundredths of a point.) The skills I am gaining through these experiences are going to be more useful to me in the long run than some of the individual courses from which I am getting credit.

So maybe I’m the kid who makes Deans of Students everywhere weep, the prototypical overcommitted student on this campus. I would define myself differently. I’m an engaged learner, eager to challenge myself to acquire a variety of skills in diverse contexts and reflect on my learning at every step along the way. And sometimes, when I’m not doing that, I do my homework.

Emily Rapport is an undergraduate at Davidson College, where she is conducting narrative research to understand co-curricular learning and designing a course prototype based on her findings.

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