Five months ago, I wrote about how my deepest and most measurable learning in my four years at Davidson College has taken place outside the classroom. I received positive responses from classmates, high school teachers, family friends, and a number of strangers, many of whom saw their stories reflected in my own. I appreciated the agreement, but I found myself asking more questions about what students really learn in college and where and from whom they learn it. This time, I wanted data.
To answer these questions, I created a narrative research project in collaboration with two educators at Davidson. From the stories we collected, we found that relationships were more impactful than coursework, and failures had deeper impacts than successes. The results suggest clear learning patterns that we could design for in classrooms.
Recognizing that learning is emergent, human and complex, we decided to use a research method designed to explore complex processes from multiple human perspectives. Working with Cognitive Edge, we deployed SenseMaker to better understand the transformational learning within our community through the stories of alumni and students. SenseMaker is different from traditional research most significantly because it empowers the storyteller to define meaning, within the boundaries of sound academic theory.
For our study, we asked over 100 students and alumni to contribute the stories that they continue to draw on in their personal and professional lives. We did this through face-to-face alumni meetups, on-campus storytelling circles and a reliance on the trusted ‘water cooler’ networks of individuals. From these we collected and analyzed 88 stories, using a mix of qualitative thematic analysis and SenseMaker’s quantitative outputs.
The data confirms some of our initial hypotheses, but also invites a lot of new questions. Seventy-six percent of the stories take place outside a college classroom, which suggests that there may be some truth to the claim that college students learn more outside the classroom than they do within it. That said, we were surprised by the diversity of spaces in which the stories occur. They take place in one-on-one meetings with professors, in summer internships, in late night dorm room conversations. They occur in study abroad and in personal travel. They fall within the quiet spaces between distinct experiences, in connections and reflections. Also striking was the most prevalent thematic reference to relationships. Deep connections with people appeared in more of the stories than any other theme. This seems to validate the power of learning in community.
Of the themes that persisted across stories, three stand out as statistically significant and notable for the potential to design courses with these at the center:
Overcoming: In many stories, the storyteller experiences something difficult or rigorous and then overcomes the challenge. Some of the stories involve academic challenge or overcommitment, while others involve personal or family-related difficulties that impacted their time on campus. In some of these stories, the storytellers explicitly name failure as the source of their learning and the source for invaluable personal lessons. The takeaway? Course designs that feature frequent, iterative work, rather than expecting polished final products, could help students learn from failure.
Mentorship: Another chunk of the stories include the storyteller receiving mentorship, usually from a professor, although sometimes from a staff member or another student. In these stories, students publish research or plan conferences alongside professors and staff, receive extra personal or academic help in moments of need, or get exciting job or graduate opportunities passed on to them. Some of these stories are dependent on student proactivity and shared experiences between students and mentors that may be more accessible to students from privileged backgrounds. Designing coursework with mentorship in mind might ensure that more students benefit from these relationships.
Integration: Several of the stories take place not in distinct moments, but in the connections between them, over months or even years. These storytellers mention what they learned through observing campus culture and making connections between their coursework and personal and professional experiences. One storyteller cited what he learned by observing the choices made by his professors and classmates, noting, “I soaked it in without realizing I was soaking it in, but it influenced my choices about how to lead my life.” These stories suggest the role of reflection in synthesizing the learning that takes place across disparate spaces in a college experience, and hint at the need to create more space for this kind of reflection. Integration space could be built into coursework by adding more reflective assignments or discussions, and by explicitly asking students to weave personal, academic and professional experiences into their coursework.
Informed by these thematic findings, and inspired by a design session I hosted with 20 Davidson students, we are creating a new experimental course to run through Davidson’s Digital Learning Research and Design Lab. Before beginning the course, currently titled "Applied Value Theory," students will choose a product (loosely defined) that they want to design. Then, professors and professionals from different industries will visit the course to discuss different conceptions of value—economic, aesthetic, moral, etc.—that the students can use to inform their product design. The course will be deeply rooted in the three thematic findings: opportunities for productive failure, mentorship from faculty and industry experts, and frequent critical reflection on the connection between theory and practice. It will also be developed—and partially facilitated—by students.
Looking back, I still think that course credits don’t reflect what I learn, but I’m also more sensitive to the range of learning experiences that shape people’s lives and the complex ways that their stories connect to coursework. I recently finished my final undergraduate courses, but as I look toward learning in the professional world, I will continue to seek out opportunities for overcoming, mentorship and integration. Now that I have seen the wide variety of spaces and situations in which our participants experienced their transformative moments, I am confident that some of my own best learning stories are still to come.