In my previous post I explored mastery-learning which implies a specific body of content to be learned. In this post, I want to look at the opposite extreme. Can a legitimate college course be an experience or set of experiences, rather than a body of content or skills to be learned? There is certainly learning occurring, but if we can’t articulate it can we really say it exists?.
The trend towards outcomes assessment, which I support, threatens at least one dimension of higher education, and that is experience. When students live at home, they miss an important aspect of college, which is the experience of living on one’s own in a community of one’s peers. Some may argue that this “growing up” should not be counted as part of higher education (and that the state should not subsidize it anyway.) We know there’s a great deal of learning, even academic learning, which occurs outside of the classroom. Students who live at home undoubtedly miss out on some of this. There’s another aspect of higher education which involves experience. Do transfer students obtain the same education as students who attend an institution for all four years? Do students who are admitted to college with many AP, IB, or dual enrollment credits obtain the same education? (It’s not unheard of at my institution for students to come in with at least one year’s worth of credits.) Many who trumpet assessment would say yes–the less time spent in residence, the more efficient one’s education. But I wonder.
I would like to argue that there is an experiential component to higher education, both in terms of the time, and in terms of the courses. Even though students may be able to learn the content in less time, they may not obtain the experience. Does summer school offer the same experience as regular terms? I have never taught summer school, but I’ve often heard faculty who do, observe that summer terms offer less time for students to process what they’re learning and less time to complete the assignments due to the compressed nature of the courses. Is writing a matter of simply expressing what you know, or is it a means of working out what you know? Does the writing process require time for one’s ideas to mature like fine wine? If so, then doesn’t compressing the process risk drinking the wine before its time?
While we tend to think of individual courses as being about content (knowledge and skills), I think that there is an experience component to individual courses also. Probably every course is a mix of the two elements. Some are more content-based; others are more experience-based. Consider an introductory course in some discipline versus an individual study or a senior thesis in the discipline. In the former, the content is critical, while in the latter the process probably matters more. In my experience, the latter are almost graded in a pass-fail manner. In other words, what matters most is completing the experience.
Assignments are context-dependent. How one responds to an assignment depends on the experience one has had in the course. Students get a sense of what the instructor is looking for, and respond appropriately. Students respond based on what the teacher emphasized in the course. There is no such thing as objective grading (though admittedly some disciplines can be closer to this than others). Many of us would be uncomfortable having someone other than the teacher grade assignments, because the result would be necessarily reductive, in other words, it would emphasize the subject rather than the specific content that is conveyed in the learning experience. (There is something to be said for calibrating the teaching and grading in multiple sections of the same course, but that is a different story.)
Senior economics majors can do more than first year economics students can. Part of that is no doubt that they have learned more in the economics courses they have taken, but some of it is that seniors have assimilated what economists do, which goes beyond what is taught explicitly in courses. Why do seniors who take introductory courses, for example to satisfy a Gen Ed requirement, find intro courses less challenging when they’ve had no more background in economics than their first year classmates? Because there’s something to college that goes beyond the facts of the courses one takes.
What is it that one obtains in an experience-based course? Is it legitimate college learning? Part of it is the opportunity for working more independently. Part of it is in the practice of a discipline. Perhaps experience is how we describe the higher-order learning that is difficult to articulate. This may relate to Gardner’s argument in a recent post.