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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Learning in College

A recent article from the AP, "Student tracking finds limited learning in college," reported on a study of university-level learning. The findings ranged all over, but focused on a potentially depressing trend in college students to just not try very hard. Because of this general lack of effort, they didn't learn a whole lot while attending these universally expensive institutions.

Failing to learn anything in college is a terrible waste of time, money, and a spot in a university program. But the only reason the study found trends is that learning is a personal effort. My anecdotal evidence is that there are not a lot of people willing to work hard for any reason, much less for something so intangible as the ability to think critically. The anecdote is supported by two of the findings cited in the article:

• Students who studied alone, read and wrote more, attended more selective schools and majored in traditional arts and sciences majors posted greater learning gains.
• Social engagement generally does not help student performance. Students who spent more time studying with peers showed diminishing growth and students who spent more time in the Greek system had decreased rates of learning, while activities such as working off campus, participating in campus clubs and volunteering did not impact learning.

In plain English: nerds do better. They do better because they have a personal commitment to making the effort to learn. The commitment makes them prioritize learning, thinking, and growing intellectually over all the cited social activities. It makes them read and write more than others, and for that reason many of them can attend more selective schools. 
I was a nerd throughout my schooling, but I never realized it at the time, because my priority was to learn and to get everything I could out of my educational opportunities. I had a few friends with the same priorities as me, and I didn't care what anyone else was doing. I never compared myself, negatively or positively, with the "popular" kids, because they obviously didn't have the core value of love of learning that I had. There was no basis for comparison. 
Whether nerds' personal commitment to learning comes from within or from something environmental is up for debate. I would suggest that, if the government is concerned with producing more smart people, someone should look into what makes those "nerds," who put out the effort to learn, want to do so. Because when it comes to learning, wanting it badly enough to work for it is the only secret.