You think it is self-evident that university students take responsibility for their own learning?
Um. No. It’s not.
Last year I taught third year social work students in their field practicum seminar. One of the important goals of this seminar was to encourage peer learning and peer support. All 20 students were also doing their first field placement.
I spent an enormous amount of class prep time designing creative and participatory activities. Students were participating in their small groups of 2 or 3, but very reluctant to speak in front of the group of 20.
Now these are social work students – they have to be able to speak in front of groups. It’s part of their job.
After 6 or 7 weeks, they were still not participating. I needed to understand why.
Students talk about their lack of participation
One day, right in the middle of an interactive activity, I sit down. I stop everything. I can’t go on this way.
I’m not angry with them. But this is a very painful process. So I do what I should have done a few weeks earlier. I tell them:
This is a seminar based on group participation. But most of you aren’t participating.
I’m not blaming you. But I honestly want to know: Is it something about my teaching? Are you not following me? Is there a problem with the content? Please talk to me.
Finally, a student timidly volunteers,
“We didn’t understand what a seminar was. We thought it was like a regular class. Nobody ever explained that to us.”
Culture of passive learning
Another student adds:
All our lives we have sat in a class while somebody lectures to us. We take notes. We’re supposed to understand and remember what they tell us. We get tested on it. That’s what we think university is about. That’s our experience. Nobody ever told us that we were responsible for our own learning.
Then others say:
It’s a culture shock, being in a seminar and being told we’re responsible for our own learning. We need time to figure out how to do that.
OK, now I’m officially in shock. And my syllabus makes a loud cracking noise and falls in shards around my feet.
But I’m adaptive, if nothing else. I quickly realize that before I can go on with the topic of reflective practice, I have to help them learn how to take responsibility for their own learning. You can’t teach reflective practice very well if nobody is reflecting on their practice!
Shifting students into active learning
During the next month, I took time during each class for activities explicitly dealing with active learning. We talked about fears, barriers, supports to active learning. I also kept making links to practice – a professional needs to be responsible for her own learning.
To my delight, it worked! Ironically, this was their first experience of reflective practice in community.
In the final exam, I asked them to identify what was the most important learning of the year. One student wrote:
The most important thing I learned was that I am responsible for my own learning.
© Silvia Straka and A Just Society, 2008.