Learning Is a Choice

September 26, 2009

At the end of his first year in college, one of my students wrote:

This year draws to a close thankfully. College is a hell of a place to meet people and party, but school work is required. So all the students do the work, not to get outstanding grades, but to remain eligible to be in college, not to learn, but to hang out with their friends and have a good time. This is not the rule that all students live by, but a sizeable amount of people feel the same way I do, because that is why they are here too. I don’t have a major, so there is no goal for me to work towards and the classes I take I take because I need the credits, not to learn about Statistics or Geology. I know I’m not alone either; many college students do this each term. What are my goals for next year? Well, they are the same as this year: meet new people and party with them, and oh yeah pass classes so I can stick around a couple more terms. (Anonymous, 2000)

He was making a choice to be in school while also making a choice to waste his time there. Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. We talked about his lack of purpose and about how much his writing had improved since the beginning of the school year. The rest of this self-reflective essay was an honest assessment of his lack of serious involvement with his learning and although it was painful for me to read, I appreciated his honesty and was glad that he had moved past making excuses for why his work was substandard and just barely passing. He had to redo many assignments throughout the year, frustrating to both of us since I knew he could have/should have done better the first time. His reflection allowed us to talk about how he might better approach the rest of his studies. He did find a major that interested him and he did graduate. This is not always the case for such students, however.

It is very tempting to blame the professor’s lack of clarity or the difficulty of the text or the lack of time or your own preferences for lack of success in a class. These things may all be true, but they can all be addressed and overcome. If assignments aren’t clear, ask, but do it before an assignment is due. If you don’t understand a crucial concept in class, ask for clarification or further explanation. If you don’t understand something outside of class, make note of areas of confusion and ask. (I have always been an asker, and often after class, other students have thanked me for asking what they thought would be considered a stupid question. Thanks, folks!)

As a teacher, I always welcome email inquiries about assignments or course content. Most professors will have avenues set up to provide help outside of class. I appreciate hearing from students since it allows me to adjust what I’m doing. Many times, student emails become FAQs for Blackboard announcements. If one person is wondering, I know there are probably others who find something unclear as well.

Join a study group so that you can talk things over with others who are taking the same course. Have someone you trust proofread your papers. Take advantage of office hours or other help times offered by a professor. Find out what kinds of additional assistance are available at your school and online: writing labs, tutoring, and math labs, for example. The choices you are making when you do these things and others that target being a successful student will move you from being a student to being a learner, and honestly, it’s much more fun to be in school when you experience the excitement of struggling with and mastering learning. And learning is a choice.

Have you ever struggled with learning something and been successful in your efforts to gain new skills and/or knowledge?

You must take personal responsibility. You cannot change the circumstances, the seasons, or the wind, but you can change yourself.
• Jim Rohn


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