“What is learning?” – Michael Wesch

This is the question that I ask myself and will always ask myself. Now that I am in my 20th year of education, I still have not figured out the most optimal way for me to learn and retain information. Although, I think I am close in finding the answer for myself. But even after I manage to answer, “What is learning?” will my answer apply to anyone else? Probably not because everyone learns information differently. That is one of the reasons why I am in this class. Throughout this semester, I want to learn about new methods of teaching, as well as develop an understanding of the debates that occur in the pedagogy field.

For me, experiential learning, or “hands-on” learning is the best way for me to learn, which I why I enjoy research so much. In research, we sometimes make mistakes, which is mostly fine; except in some circumstances, the consequences of making a mistake while working on a research project is higher than making a mistake in a class. In a class, I might get docked a couple points on an assignment or a test that is worth a fraction of my grade. Therefore, I feel the need to know everything before I start a research project. I wonder if others feel this way about learning and weighing different educational priorities in their life.

Watching “What Baby George Taught me about Learning” actually made me think about my journey through the systematic education system that we have in the United States. I was a pretty lousy “learner” all throughout K-12 and undergrad. I hated studying and memorizing concepts for tests. If I was presented with the option of studying for a test or sleeping, I would sleep. I never felt the urge to study everything before a test and would often go into tests unprepared. I was better at presentations and papers; however, my science major did not have many classes like this because the classes had too many students. This also makes me wonder, how can we integrate this type of “hands-on” learning to large classes that everyone has to take? For example, this semester I am a TA for a senior level class with 200+ students. Maybe some of the students do really well with traditional lecture style classes but are they learning? or are they memorizing? And what about the students like me who do poorly in this type of education setting? Should they be docked points because they can’t conform to the traditional learning system?

I want to touch on blogging as well since we had readings related to blogging. I am one of those people who dread blogging. Sure it has many pros (mentioned in Tim Hitchcock’s article and Sam Godin and Tom Peters’ video) such as serving as platforms for debates, establishing public positions, and improving writing skills, but I just can’t get myself to do it. I am an awful debater and I avoid conflict as often as possible. I do not like seeing or being a part of online debates or “Twitter Wars” because they often get really nasty. If I were given the opportunity to debate a scientist in my field I would do it. I just do not feel comfortable taking a side in issues that I do not fully understand. There is a part of me that always believes that I probably will not fully understand everything, even topics that I research about. I feel like there is always someone who will know more about a topic than I do and that they are more qualified to speak about it than I will. Another reason is that I feel like my writing is not great; therefore, I need to practice before I publically write anything. Or else someone may call me out and say something like “this person is not credible because her grammar is awful.” These barriers prevent me from blogging or tweeting publically.

With this being said, I am excited to work with all of you this semester! I want to learn about new perspectives of teaching, which will help me shape the way I view learning. Perhaps I will learn new techniques to help me help my 200+ students in the class that I am a TA for.

10 thoughts on ““What is learning?” – Michael Wesch

  1. mgbullar says:

    I think we need to change the paradigm of “teaching to the test”. If students feel like they’re just memorizing concepts to regurgitate onto an exam, only to forget the material once the class is done, we’re failing as teachers. Unfortunately, pre-college education does a great job of requiring students to learn material just to pass a test. Somewhere between early elementary school and senior year of high school, the “joy of learning” disappears for most students. It seems like the educational system as a whole doesn’t inspire students to see the reward in learning something new and applying it to a real-life problem.

    As an engineer, one thing my discipline can do is encourage students to engage with the real-world applications of what we’re learning in class. It’s not just about learning groundwater equations, it’s about applying our knowledge of how groundwater travels to current public policy debates about groundwater rights. If we can show students how what they’re learning fits into what they might be doing with a career in their field, it’s more likely to “stick”. That’s why we should be incorporating our research into what we’re teaching — a way to show students how what they’re learning can be applied in a hands-on situation.

    • schen518 says:


      I agree that the “joy of learning” disappears sometime during pre-college years. One summer I was collecting research data at a youth summer camp. During my down time, I liked to hang out and talk to the kids. I remember one time we asked an 8th grader and an 11th grader what they wanted to study once they got to college. The 8th grader was so passionate about becoming a vet while the 11th grader had no idea. I wonder if this also relates to the “joy of learning” thought. Perhaps something happens in high school that really unmotivates students. Of course, this was only two people so I definitely can’t generalize to all pre-college students.

  2. mfb106 says:

    I like your point about not teaching to the test, though I think that model is perpetuated by students as well. How often have you thought, while studying, ‘well this isn’t going be on there so I shouldn’t really worry about it’, or how many times during a lecture have you heard ‘do we need to know this?’. I think the problem is that education requires some metric, some standard, or some level of accountability to measure the efficacy of the fundamental knowledge transfer. It’s a necessary evil, so to speak, and because it exists it is easy to equate success to those metrics. The hard part is getting students to look past the ‘finality’ of these scores and buying in to focus on their actual learning.

    • schen518 says:

      Yes! That happens all the time. Just like in the Baby George Tedtalk, students always ask administrative questions about what’s going to be on the test, how much is this weighed in the syllabus, and what’s the minimal grade I need on all of these assignments to get a passing grade. I definitely agree that there needs to be some sort of metric, maybe just not in the form of a bunch of tests. I wonder if instructors who incorporate different types of assignments, like having one test, multiple assignments, a couple of presentations, etc., we would see different results in retaining information.

  3. Great thought! I, like you (seem to be), am a student that has to really try. In many classes my very best effort would get me a “B-“. I always knew that I wasn’t stupid, but many of the classes made it seem that way. I believe that education, especially higher education will see a significant transformation within our lifetimes and I hope to be a part of it. Education should be more available and more “customizable” to the individual. I believe that technology combined with thoughtful educational innovators will provide this.

    • schen518 says:

      Same, no matter how hard I tried, I would always do poorly on tests. Every semester of undergrad, I would try really hard for the first half of the semester, realize I didn’t and couldn’t really improve my test grades, and then for the second half of the semester, I would just try and get a passing grade. It really unmotivated me and I didn’t even want to learn the rest of the course information.

  4. skinzie says:

    I really appreciate that you point out in your post that different individuals learn differently and that education is not a “one size fits all” endeavor. I think we far too often create a system (that may be effective for some) and expect all people to fit into that mold.

    I also really appreciate your honesty about not liking blogging and your reasons behind that. I myself do not generally like to engage in any type of debate that feels argumentative and at times have shied away from giving presentations on things that I am truly passionate about in order to avoid conflict. Thanks for sharing your opinions on this!

  5. Nayara says:

    Your post made me think. I am the type of student who does really well in the traditional lecture style of class. I guess I have learned all the tricks I need to do well in this type of environment. However, as I moved to the US to get a Ph.D degree, I am struggling with myself and research. Sometimes I feel I have been memorizing my whole life, but I have not learned anything. Even in the graduate program here at Virginia tech, I do not feel there is much of “hands on learning”. Honestly, I am a good at memorization, but I am not sure how good I am to apply concepts “learned” in my whole life. That being said, I have been thinking on quitting Ph.D and get a “normal” industry job. I guess the system made me a good “student”, but I do not believe I can be quite effective on applying concepts in the research life.

  6. John says:

    Susan, I enjoyed your blog. For the last twenty years, I have heard employers looking for students to hire that had a “B” average because they are not a memorizer versus students that had an “A” average. I think the other side of the coin for your blog is how a person works as well.

  7. Stephanie Gonzalez Maldonado says:

    I have the same hesitation when blogging and simply publicizing my opinions. Indeed, there will always be someone that is better informed on a subject but there is value in different opinions. We all have different perspectives, experiences and even information to give. This fear of being wrong, or sounding “uneducated”, I feel is what keeps students from speaking up in class, and what probably keeps them from networked learning too. This hesitation that we share about blogging, I believe somehow connects with the misconceptions of what it means to learn. Mistakes are part of the learning process, but why have students (and myself included) become afraid of making honest mistakes? Perhaps, it has to do with the traditional grading system, we all learn differently so why are we all being tested the same way?

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