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How to Learn What YOU Want to Learn

September 24, 2009

Every course has objectives that must be met. Lots of times, they are stated explicitly in the syllabus. These objectives represent common learning goals for all students, regardless of who is teaching the course. They may be related to school standards, state standards, national standards, and/or professional standards, and are usually non-negotiable. What may be negotiable is the way meeting those objectives is demonstrated, although for purposes of getting grades in on time, demonstrations of learning are often standardized, so that the instructor can quickly tell if students have learned the required material.

Different kinds of material require different kinds of demonstrations too, since some classes build on specific knowledge acquired in earlier courses. Everyone in a theatre course might perform a different monologue as a final demonstration of learning, but in a chemistry course, everyone takes the same standardized final test. That’s why many courses have prerequisites—course(s) you need to take before you take other courses. It’s also why you may be required to take placement tests before you take certain required courses, particularly for writing and math.

But back to negotiation and a way it can be useful for you. Determine what interests you and what your personal learning goals are beyond just getting your degree or certificate. That’s the first step. For example, you are in a nursing program and you are interested in working with a specific population; or you are an English major and you’ve always been fascinated by a particular author; or—like me—you want to be a teacher and you’re determined to understand why people drop out of school.

Next, you look for ways weave that interest into your coursework. Sometimes, all of the demonstrations in a class are standardized tests, but often, you will have some choices about research topics, or people to interview, or self-selected reading, or related out-of-class experiences, and you can often negotiate to make your interests fit with the class requirements. In addition, you can be an autodidact, meaning that you are self-taught about a particular aspect of a subject.

Why bother to study something on your own when you’re in school and time is short and you’re already under a lot of pressure? Two primary reasons: you will be teaching yourself how to be interested and involved in learning, and some of that learning-to-learn will transfer to your courses; and second, if you bring related and applicable personal insights and information from your interests into a course, you’re on the way to earning idiosyncrasy credits that will allow you to further personalize your learning.

Tomorrow: idiosyncrasy credits explained.

What would you be interested in learning about on your own?

Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.
• Isaac Asimov

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