Those College Students Don't Look Like They're Learning Anything

I recently returned from a trip to Boston, MA.  It was a fantastic trip full of learning, sightseeing, conference attendance, and work.  My family accompanied me and we were excited to see the Revolutionary War come to life for our 11-year-old, who ate up the first-person, narrated tours, as well as the incredible stories of wins and losses.  I have a profound new appreciation for John Hancock, John & Samuel Adams, and Paul Revere!   (I also understand why so many people lament driving in Boston.  It’s…well, it’s stupid…but that will have to wait for another blog.)

During our trip, we took my daughter to see a handful of Colleges and Universities in the area.  Thought of by many as the (American) higher education capital city, Boston sees an inner ring of 35 institutions, a middle ring of 80 institutions, and all-in, sees more than 100 institutions within a 60 minute drive from the airport.  So, taking our college-bound daughter (this is talked about like a ‘given’ almost every day) to see some of the colleges and universities she already knows by name was on the itinerary from the start. 


Trying to get an 11-year-old excited about college is both easy and difficult.  It’s easy to talk about independence, events, potential friendships, and more.  When walking the campuses, we watched her eyes light up at the “grown up” girls (although they didn’t look more than 13 or 14 to me…), enthralled by the eclectic fashion choices worn by the coeds.  (I didn’t have the heart to tell her that most of the girls were wearing sweatshirts, leggings, and pony-tails because it was easy, not because it was fashionable, nor is she anywhere close enough to know about the ‘walk of shame’ we witnessed a few different times…)

But on the other side, the side that’s important to my wife and I, the learning side, it’s a harder sell.  She knows that college is hard and (as only my child would) she can tell you that “rigor” means different things to different people.  As well, she understands that much of what is considered “rigorous” by university professors is not rigorous at all, but again, that is another blog. 

So, when we started walking up the steps of hall after hall, places that almost look like buildings from Hogwarts with incredible spires, stained-glass windows, ivy covered walls, flanked by statues or even gargoyles, her interest was piqued.  “So, this is where the learning transpires,” we could see her thinking.  We did pass a few labs and even saw a group of students with long nets and boxes headed toward a lake, obviously doing some kind of Freshman Earth science experiment.  That was promising.  Until it all fell apart.

We likely looked in on 25 or 30 classrooms across 7 institutions, most of which are “famous” in America.  Some were huge with 200-300 students.  Most held 40-50.  But in every classroom, save one, my daughter saw exactly the same thing.  A single professor stood at the front of the room, talking with (usually) little affect, with a third of the students writing or typing notes, another third surfing the web, and another third day-dreaming if not literally asleep.  My daughter, often on tip-toes, her tiny fingers grasping a narrow window frame, would peer through the checkered glass, seeing boredom and tedium and dullness on display.  The single non-lecturing classroom we encountered was showing a video (which she noticeably appreciated).  But it was after the 20th (or so) classroom we viewed when she exclaimed to no one in particular the title of this blog, “Those college students don’t look like they’re learning anything.”


I didn’t know how to respond. After all, learning science has produced highly replicable evidence that suggests she is exactly right.  Books like Make It Stick (Brown, Roediger, McDaniel, 2015) explain why the old methodologies like lecturing or re-reading notes may feel like learning (both to professors and students) but in fact, they are not driving learning at all.  Research by neuroscientists like Medina (Brain Rules, 2014) and as illustrated by documentarians like Nerenberg (Boredom, 2012) clearly explain the isolating and depressing problems with learning space design, the generation of “killer” hormones like cortisol attached to elongated periods of boredom, and the negative nature of autonomous work all point to better ways.  Yet here we are in 2018, at some of the most “elite” institutions in the country, with an 11-year-old pointing out an obvious, but unchanging truth. 

We debriefed about it for part of our time walking those hallowed hallways.  I tried to explain that while things were changing, it is happening slowly.  There are statistics which suggest there is less lecturing today than ever before.  But of course, seeing is believing.  She didn’t believe the stats.  Granted, we didn’t take her to any community colleges where, statistically speaking, she would be more likely to see learner-centered instruction.  We probably did not walk past any Education classes either, where the instructors literally know better than to talk and test as their main methodology.  We also explained that ‘active’ learning sees little, definitional agreement among researchers as well as practitioners, so surveys of those groups and/or students often helps none.  (She rolled her eyes at the silliness of that.)

My daughter soon jumped into the research pool herself, stating that better data might be gained if we were to put a Kinect camera in the back of every classroom to determine how much lecturing happens or better yet, a camera at the front to see how many students are bored!  (We had to explain that this indeed would be a fantastic data source but then we had to explain why it would never happen…)  We had a talk about how very hard it is to design learning that is enjoyable and motivating while also being informative, potentially persuasive, and memorable (to which she reminded us of our consistent message that people should not do what is easy, but what is best).  We discussed how some professors know so much information about a subject, they forget what it is to be a novice, with little connection to the parts nor the whole.  But none of it resonated with her.  She wasn’t buying the excuses.  She saw what she saw.

We KNOW better….

We KNOW better….

The whole thing led my wife and I to a few hushed conversations.  First, we will never take our daughter to a campus without pre-screening it again.  Boston did not help us make our case for the importance of college.  But second, we talked at length about why things are still like this?  We know better, yet most academics either don’t know it, have chosen to ignore the research proving it, or have simply chosen not to act on it.  I hearken back to a quote I heard last year from a man I respect deeply.  George Siemens, famous originator of the MOOC and the theory Connectivism said, “I wonder when it will become illegal to teach by lecture.  No longer worthy of the placebo effect in experiments, the mounting evidence is so clear that active learning strategies are better in every measurable way, I wonder when Do-No-Harm will be invoked in the classroom?”

I keep telling myself (and my little girl) that I’m doing everything in my power to change this before she gets to college.  I have said that for 11 years.  But I can’t help but wonder if I’m going to run out of time…

Good luck and good learning.