Is There Much Learning Happening On Campus?

Apr 27, 2012 by Tom Dellner

A Thought-Provoking Article Suggests a Re-Thinking of Traditional Learning and Assessment Methods

I recently came across an extremely insightful and forward-looking article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. In “Stop Telling Students to Study for Exams,” David Jaffee, a professor of sociology at the University of South Florida, bemoans the cram-for-exam-and-then-immediately-forget culture of “learning” that pervades college campuses today—and which has done so for decades.

Jaffee asserts what most of us who’ve pulled all-nighters suspect, at least on a subconscious level: short-term memorization may produce positive results as measured by exam scores, but most of the material is not retained more than two weeks after the test. In other words, cramming has very little to do with learning.

Jaffee blames it on an attitude of “instrumentalism” where everything is a means to an end. “You go to college to get a degree to get a job to make money to be happy. Similarly, you take the course to meet the requirement, and you do the coursework and read the material to pass the course to graduate to get the degree.” The point of studying is to pass the exam, not to learn and to understand.

Real learning, he says, occurs when we retain and apply (Jaffee uses the term “transfer”) the material, when we use the concepts or theories to solve a problem we might actually encounter as a practitioner in the field. He also suggests that this (applying concepts to real-life scenarios) is both an effective way to learn as well as a better way to assess learning (far better than, say, asking students to memorize facts and then regurgitate them during the course of an exam).

This struck a chord with me; it’s certainly an apt way to describe the way I learn best. To use a somewhat absurd example, I could study relatively simple driving directions for hours, diligently committing them to memory. I’m pretty certain that, 10 days later, there’s no way I would be able to drive myself successfully to the particular destination. But if I were to learn the directions and then actually drive the route a time or two, I bet I could successfully drive to that same destination years later, without the need for directions.

A less strained analogy: I studied extremely hard in law school and made good grades. Now, 20-plus years later, the only intricate legal principles I can remember are those that I actually used to complete law-school projects, or in practice during my short career as an attorney.

This discussion about learning also resonated with me because it so perfectly reflects what we try to do here at CalSouthern.

Consider the role of our faculty mentors. Unlike professors at traditional institutions, their role is not to design courses and dispense theory and academic concepts via lectures. Instead, the student progresses through the course, which is designed by a team of subject-matter experts and which uses the same materials as traditional institutions. The mentor (an experienced practitioner in the field, as well as an educator) is there to answer the student’s questions. The mentor gets to know the student’s academic and professional goals and life experiences, and helps him or her relate to the material and then—most important—apply it to real-world challenges in the student’s field of interest.

We think it’s an extremely effective way to learn. And it’s a learning style that is absolutely fundamental to CalSouthern. It’s why we offer applied, career-relevant degree programs, as opposed to research-oriented courses of study. It’s why we do our best to tailor each student’s academic experience to their particular interests and goals.



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