Tuesday, February 8, 2011

What I learned as an Undergrad

There has been a lot of virtual ink spilled over the past few weeks about how little our current generation of undergraduates are really learning (just Google it, you'll see); students don't read, don't write, don't think critically. Let the finger pointing begin. Colleges suck, professors suck, the K-12 system sucks, students are lazy and don't care about their education, and we're all on the short decline into post-apocalyptic chaos and destitute.


I've written in a lot of different places (like here and here) that I was not the best undergraduate student: I didn't come to class, I was distracted while in class, and was more concerned with the social side of university life than the educational side. I selected my undergraduate degree because it offered paid semester-long internships in my area of study (professional writing); as long as my GPA was high enough so I still qualified for those internships, then I was fine.

This was not the fault of the (majority) of the wonderful professors who taught in my program; if not for them being just generally great, great teachers, I wouldn't have stuck around to do an MA with them. Sure, there were some duds, but over-all, the quality of my classes was excellent. Could they have sat me down and said, you're doing well, but you could be doing so much better if you just applied yourself (code for actually showing up to class and not being hung over)? Yes, but I give them credit for treating me like an adult and letting me make my own mistakes. Thankfully, because I got good grades, I could learn the life lessons without being forced to drop out, like some of my friends.

No, the fault lies with me. What I learned in college was about life, who I was, and who I wanted to be. I knew, pretty quickly, that I didn't want to be a technical writer, that I loved literature, and I loved to write (not bad lessons, really). I learned how to budget (the hard way), I learned how to (minimally) cook for myself, and I learned that sleep was really important. I learned that I wasn't indestructible or immune from failure. I learned how to recover from said failures; I learned resiliency. Or, perhaps I learned more ways in which I was resilient. You have to have a certain amount of resiliency to survive high school, divorced parents, and participating a competitive sport. Now I knew I could survive other situations as well.

I did develop my critical thinking skills, but mostly through my immersion in another culture and language; I went to a French university in my home province of Quebec just after a referendum. I also improved my writing and research skills, and I was "forced" read books I would not have ever read (or understood) otherwise, even if it took years to come around to them again as a professor. I'm not sure, however, if I would have self-reported any of these developments in a survey or if they would have shown up in a test. My brain, throughout a lot of university, was elsewhere. I remember almost failing a French grammar class because I was unable to answer basic questions whose answers I had known throughout high school and know once again today. But in that moment of my second semester, I didn't know anything about French grammar. And I was trying.

What I learned as an undergraduate directly shaped who I am personally and professionally today. I just don't think that if you had told any of my professors back then that I would now be teaching at the university level that they would have believed you. Just because an undergraduate doesn't look like or even recognize themselves that they are learning anything as an undergraduate doesn't mean that they aren't. Maybe it just means they haven't realized it yet.


  1. Loved, loved, loved this post. I think it's part of the problem that freshmen don't realize that they're learning. So they don't apply what they learn until years later as a junior or senior. I have to remember that just because I'm not seeing them learn doesn't mean they aren't.

  2. This post hits the nail on the head. My younger son started college, did little except party, and was asked not to return after the first semester. Several years of life and maturity later, he resumed his studies and will graduate with a 4.0 from a well-known university, in a field that he loves.

    Many college freshmen start right after high school because "it's what they're supposed to do". They aren't prepared for college, in more ways than one. Often what they need to learn in order to be productive in college can't be found in curriculum.

  3. Even the stuff we did learn in a classroom sometimes takes years to sink in. Like your example of the books you were "forced" to read. @enkerli talks about planting time bombs when he's teaching, stuff you can't assess during that semester but you hope will sit in the back of your students heads and have an impact later on.

    Much of the current debate about education is being driving by neo-cons with a different kind of agenda I fear.

  4. I guess my other observation would be that we are relying on standardized tests to try and measure student learning. I "learned" to be a more critical thinker because of my exposure to Quebecois Seperatist students, but would I have known to transfer that knowledge onto a silly (as I would have seen it back then and probably now) test? Students are smarter than we think because they quickly figure out the tests that don't matter.

    And, more importantly, which skill helped me the most, being able to answer a question on a test, or actually being more open and critical when it comes to political perspectives and rhetoric?

  5. Great post! I had a similar experience. Sure, I learned a lot in the classroom (especially senior year, once I had finally figured out how to be a college student), but it was my year of study abroad that really changed my life and taught me more than the other three years put together. Like you, my undergrad teachers were surprised that I ended up in higher ed (I currently hold an administrative position and also teach) -- one of them wouldn't even write a recommendation letter for me as she said I'd been one of her weaker students (it was true). We've since presented together on a conference panel. So yes, students who look as if they're not learning might well be.


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