Grazing - a personal blog from Steve Ehrmann

Steve Ehrmann is an author, speaker, and consultant.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Life experience and academic learning: how should they relate?

George Washington University attracts undergraduates who are exceptionally interested in:
  1. Internships, 
  2. Service learning, 
  3. Study abroad 
  4. Undergraduate research.  
  5. Student organizations 
  6. Athletics.
Should such activities be seen as competing with their academic programs? Or as fuel for academic learning?  

To answer that question, let's start with the goals of an undergraduate education, goals that should span all majors.  Below is one way to categorize the essential learning outcomes of a college education, assembled by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U)  through work with hundreds of institutions over the last decade.  (By the way, these are all interlocked; you can't teach much about 'inquiry and analysis' without applying it in one field (e.g., study of science; the arts) or another.

I. Knowledge of Human Cultures and the Physical and Natural World
• Through study in the sciences and mathematics, social sciences,
 humanities, histories, languages, and the arts
Focused by engagement with big questions, both contemporary and enduring

II. Intellectual and Practical Skills, including
• Inquiry and analysis
• Critical and creative thinking
• Written and oral communication 
• Quantitative literacy
• Information literacy

• Teamwork and problem solving 

• Ethical reasoning and action

• Foundations and skills for lifelong learning
Practiced extensively, across the curriculum, in the context of 
progressively more challenging problems, projects, and standards for performance

III. Personal and Social Responsibility, including
• Civic knowledge and engagement—local and global 
• Intercultural knowledge and competence
Anchored through active involvement with 
diverse communities and real-world challenges

IV. Integrative and Applied Learning, including
• Synthesis and advanced accomplishment across general and specialized studies
Demonstrated through the application of knowledge, skills, and responsibilities 
to new settings and complex problems 

Couldn't activities such as undergraduate research, service and the like help strengthen 'intellectual and practical skills, personal and social responsibility, and integrative and applied learning?' And perhaps engaging them with some big questions about  human cultures and the world?

Sounds good, but, in reality, there's a huge gap between formal learning and practical applications. 

Example: Imagine you're looking at your reflection in a bathroom mirror. You see your reflection from the waist up.  

Now imagine yourself backing away from the mirror. (It's a big room). 

As you move further away,  do you see more and more of your body in the mirror until you can see your shoes? the same amount of you? or less and less as you back up until, finally, the top of your head disappears?

When I was first asked that question, I answered incorrectly, a rather alarming outcome considering that:
  • I've walked by mirrors about 100,000 times in my long life. So that's 100,000 times when I should have noticed what happens to my reflection when I move toward or away from a mirror.
  • It worse than that. When I took high school and college physics, I was taught the law that describes how light reflects from a mirror.  If I'd truly understood that law, I'd have known what happens when backing away from a mirror, even if I'd never seen a mirror. 
Moral of the story:  Academic learning and real world experience, separately, can be weak teachers.   Working with people born in other countries while doing an internship or an undergraduate research project with a faculty member, for example, doesn't guarantee that the student will gain valuable academic insights into how teams work, or into other cultures.

This raises two questions for discussion:
1. How is our institution currently helping students harvest academic value from those six kinds of experience? What's working?
2. What more might we do? 

What do you think? (I'll suggest a few answers of my own in a future post)


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. I don't think GW is helping engineering students to find an internship. It's really ironic. We are at the heart of the Nation's Capital, there are hundreds of engineering companies, and we don't do anything to help our students. Even if make an agreement with middle size and big companies to send a single student every summer, we would be able to provide an internship opportunity to every engineering student.
    What I understood in 2.5 years at GW, people talk about good things but they just talk. They do nothing to change anything.