Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Learning is breaking out all around

By Rosemary Joyce

As I walked back from my afternoon lecture, I had to step around students standing and sitting around models of what appeared to be chairs built from popsicle sticks. Some of the students leaned against the wall writing down comments on printed copies of an assignment. Others were deep in conversation.

A week ago, on the same route from class to my office hours, I passed students out on the grass using hand-built wooden survey instruments. Groups of students helped each other adjust the instrument, or explained the principles to each other.

I thought of these routine encounters when I read coverage of the latest UCUES-- University of California Undergraduate Experience Survey -- in Inside Higher Education today.  The authors of this article chose to emphasize that students reported spending less time on studying than on leisure activities (a category which combined everything from socializing with friends to using the computer), advancing a storyline that suggests that UC students are not giving enough time to their coursework.

But to make that argument, they had to ignore the more interesting information about student engagement in learning that can be found in the survey. For students in the social sciences, study time outside the classroom average 11.5 hours, which the authors compare to 41 hours total on all leisure activities. But a more accurate comparison would add study time, classroom time, and extra-curricular activities, which together total 34.1 hours. Add the average time spent working a job-- 7.6 hours-- and UC students are spending about the same amount of time working and learning as they are on their combined leisure activities.

More impressive, this UCUES survey showed that  one-third of upper-division undergraduates at UC were engaged in research outside the classroom. Programs like the Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program at Berkeley provide students a chance to find out how research fuels learning. That may be part of the reason that 52% of the undergraduates surveyed plan to get an advanced degree after they receive the BA.

That's the spirit that animated those groups of students I made my way past today. And it was what brought almost 200 students in my lecture room to life today, breaking into small groups, preparing five-minute briefings on articles by leading scholars, and then presenting the key ideas to their entire peer group.

The number of hours spent "studying" is a poor predictor of success anyway, as the authors of the Inside Higher Ed article admitted. What is making UC students successful is how well they learn: and that happens all around this campus, including in informal discussions among students who connect what they are reading and hearing in the classroom to what they are doing outside it-- and changing the way learning happens along the way.