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How can we best engage college students in the idea of learning instead of just getting a degree?

I work at a 4 year, public university and I see a great deal of students who come to school to get their degree (which they equate to money/success) and do not care about learning. What are your thoughts on the best way to engage them in the actual process of learning. I have my thoughts, but would love to hear my fellow TEDsters thoughts.

  • Mar 14 2013: I spend almost 8 years in higher education. 4 years of those were about 'getting a degree' the other 4 about learning... The students' attitude has to do with the general attitude of society. The first time I went to college I wanted to become a teacher because I knew it would bring 'bread on the table' (also because I was a little inspired by other teachers). It was perhaps not the best choice I ever made but those 4 years allowed me to grow and understand myself better.
    So after that, I felt I was stronge enough to go my own way and after a little detour in egyptology I ended up studying my greatest love: history. I studied it because I loved it, because I could learn from it.

    The problem with most students nowadays is the fact that society dictates that you have to be succesfull in order to be accepted. And the only way to be that is to be a big earner. Society shows us that the only way to do that is by having a degree that will lead to a well payed job. If we want students 'to learn instead of to earn' we need to show them that chosing money over heart only leads to emptyness. They are blinded by society's story of success and consumption. If we want to engage students we'll need them to want to make the change themselves.

    Modern society is not about making independently thinking, strong individuals of people but rather to make them productive citizens that do not question authority and unless we can change that we will not be able to engage students to learn rather than to earn.
    • Apr 4 2013: Two thumbs up, Kim. I absolutely agree with this and I remember a quote I heard a long time ago that says "you can only lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink" and that's the biggest thing about education and school itself. As an undergrad student right now, I found exactly what it is I enjoy doing and that makes the learning portion of it so fulfilling. Whether or not my professor is enthusiastic does not really bother me because either way I WANT to learn and will therefore find ways to accommodate different teaching styles for the sake of learning. I see a lot of people around me who only want that piece of paper at the end of their 3 or 4 years, not picking up a single thing on the journey and that's just not the way to live! If you're going to be there a few years anyway, why not pick up a thing or two along the way, right?
      • Apr 10 2013: Exactely!
        In my field, history, it is mostly because of the love of learning. At my unirsety they started with almost 400 students in the department of history. Some of those do it because they want to be teachers but most of us, we just love history. The problem within our field , with the education, is that it doesn't leave much room for exploring. Everything is dogma. It kills our sense of renewal. If you try to step outside of the beaten track of scientific history your professors will put you down. In that way even the study of history has been corrupted by the wil of society. For example, all of our academic career we are told that historians can not judge, only analyze. This implies howevwe, that we are not allowed to learn from it either. I think this is wrong, we should be able to use history in daily life, learn from it so we do not make the same mistakes again.
        This is why I did not cosider a academic career, I want to be able to see history through the eyes of a spiritual person. I want to be able to use my imagination, something that is a taboo in the science.
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    Mar 27 2013: Today going to college is considered the "social norm". Students believe they have to go, even if they may not be "college material". Now I'm not saying everyone shouldn't try college, but if students are going to give college a shot , they need to stop thinking it is a prison. As a current college student, I see my fellow classmates just go through the motions of the college life. I feel students will learn more outside of the classroom. If a student was to get involved with clubs or organizations and go out to places like a homeless shelter or give a presentation on something they are passionate about, they will gain more knowledge and experience that the classroom can't teach.
  • Mar 17 2013: By the idea of teaching. I think the teacher is the most important part of a course. As a student, I could see when the teacher was truly excited about the subject and it made me excited and interested. When the teacher was bored and just doing their job, it made learning strenuous and job-like. Teachers need to love what they are doing so they can do it well and with passion, it makes most students as passionate about the subject and enjoy going to that class.
    • Mar 19 2013: A fine analysis of the problem. A good insight view is presented.
      As a medical teacher I found the teaching , learning becomes successful & beneficial when the subject is taught with stories from clinical field and personal experience with passion.
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    Apr 8 2013: Teachers today primarily do the following mistakes.

    Mistake #1:
    “Their goal is to increase knowledge.”

    Mistake #2:
    “They Assume that Knowledge = information.”

    Mistake #3:
    “Conduct a quiz, and we’re done!”

    Every Teachers Goals should be:

    1. Change performance, not just knowledge
    2. “Teach” through realistic experience, not just information presentation
    3. Win learners’ attention and respect with challenging activities, not just bling
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    Mar 30 2013: I suspect few share my view. University and college is not about learning. It is a way station between childhood and adulthood, or a substitute for a right of passage, and is primarily viewed as a way to a better job and life. If you have a passion for learning, it matters little where or even if you go to University, as you will learn what you need to learn.

    So, I would suggest the only way of engaging college students in learning is by exposure to others with that same spark.
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    Mar 27 2013: I think we can best engage college students in learning, by having teachers, alumni and parents sharing their passion for learning. You need to get this fire in your belly to go out and learn about the world, about the universe - anything you need to learn. It must be a life-long passion, not something you do for four years and then you move on to the next phase of your life - maybe a job. If you have that passion, then it almost doesn't matter what school you go to. Sorry, expensive private schools...
  • Mar 21 2013: When schools teach children to think for themselves, the world will undergo massive changes for the good, in most cases.
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    Mar 21 2013: The idea of engaging people with learning should have sparked initially from childhood education. I believe it is a bottoms up type of situation where changing the foundation will definitely perpetuate into adulthood.

    Peak interests by making learning fun and realistic. Education needs to be easily related to the specific age range and demographics of the students.

    The government, or whoever, needs to do more research and actually apply their findings to the educational institutions. We need to break away from factory made children and move into individual growth focused education.
  • Mar 21 2013: Take away the incentives for achieving high grades. A test score of 97% is not an indication of learning or proficiency. It is an indication of memorization. (in general)

    Better yet - Take away grades. Learning is not a competition. And in my opinion, grades reflect poorly on talent. How can a person learn when there is the higher priority of a passing grade?

    Reward based on accomplishment. In the academic world, success seems to be measured by 3 hours exams (or similar). In the rest of the world - the "Real World" - success is measured by achievement of objectives. The time frame of these is weeks, months, or years.

    Do not give lectures and do not require students to read textbooks. Provide students with a challenge, provide them with access to a list of resources, and expect delivery. Who is motivated to read a textbook because they were ordered to? But would you be motivated to seek out and read a textbook on Thermodynamics if it was your mission to design and build a heatsink? Or a textbook on Computer Programming if you had to write a program?

    You cannot force someone to learn. The current model of university tries to. It fails.
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    Mar 19 2013: Great questions!

    As a student, since my first year i discovered something. Acing exams was impossible UNLESS i start to LEARN and UNDERSTAND. The highschool type of studying was not working anymore, I had many chapters to study in a week or so. So I started to look for other ways to gain this knowledge. And here i became engaged in education and it stopped being a matter of acing the exam. When I LIVED what I am learning, seriously things started to be much easier.

    But it was not all me, it was my biology 101 professor who ignited that in us with his excellent way of conveying science. Almost all professors are highly intellectual, smart people, however, few the ones who are good at teaching.

    So as an answer to your question i would suggest:
    - Make exams and assignments impossible for those who just cram to pass and make it easy for those who are familiar with the material. This can happen by including analysis questions, general understanding questions from documentaries and movies... etc.
    - Find professors who are good at teaching, and not only with great researches and achievements.
    - Make students feel that their knowledge is useful. Allow internships, organize fairs....etc. And create a culture in the university that values any effort the student makes towards their understanding of their courses.

    Thank you
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    Mar 17 2013: Learning needs to be a two-way process. Find out what your students are attracted to, and incorporate that into your teaching. Let everyone in the room share their experience. Align your examples with the areas of interest. Show them how what they are learning is related to their goals. Syllabuses are boring, improvise!
  • Mar 17 2013: Teach children to question everything and everyone. Teach them that justice is at the heart of all truth and understanding. Teach them comparison thinking in everything and, teach them how everything and everyone are connected. Teach them its not just what you do say, but just as much about what you don't say.
  • Mar 17 2013: I've read a number of the posts here, and I'd like to give my two cents.

    As a student:
    My job is to get good grades, in order to get scholarships for the next year, in order to get money, in order to get a degree, in order to get a job, in order to get money. It starts at good grades.
    Everyone has their own opinion on grades. Some people consider them harmful to learning, others essential. In my experience, it depends wholly on the teacher. "Get a good grade" can translate to a lot of things. It could mean "demonstrate the material", or "repeat after me", or "participate in class", or "think on your own".
    Different base purposes lead to different results, but more so than that, different ways of executing those base purposes lead to positive or negative results. In short, it's not the format of the class, it's how the format is used.

    As a teacher:
    I need to make sure my students get a good balance of "what is needed to pass the test" and "what is needed to actually do something".
    I've been teaching martial arts for four years now. There is a significant divide between knowing the katas and using the martial art. Students need to know the kata to pass the test. Practical application is often implied, but rarely tested. Knowing the kata trains students in the proper technique, without which they would hurt themselves using the art. Using the art though, is why you learn the katas in the first place.
    I think the important lesson to take from this is that the majority of students will learn what you test them on, but not much farther.

    We then return to the original topic. The test format parallels the martial arts tests. Students want a degree (or their next belt). They will learn whatever is required of them to do so, but not any farther. To go farther requires a different mentality, or a different way of teaching. The teaching is part format, part execution. Set a goal that relates to further learning, then execute it in a way that encourages further learning.
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    Mar 13 2013: I'm an engaged and idealistic learner who entered college incredibly scornful of students who only wanted a degree and had no love of learning, only to realize I was painfully ignorant of the socioeconomic factors involved. My ideals of learning for the sake of learning came from a place of extreme privilege, and I found that by and large the students who simply sought a degree were those who didn't have the luxury of thinking differently.

    I think there are some important curricular shifts that need to happen in order to address this issue. Both courses of practicality and courses of passion need to be requirements in a four-year degree, so that schools aren't divided between liberal arts students with no concrete career goals and preprofessional students who aren't being inspired in class. I think there's a lot that structural reform can do to encourage risk-free exploration.
    • Mar 14 2013: I get what you are saying but I think it comes down less to SES (socio economic status) and more to the individual. I came from a lower SES (my families expected contribution based on my FAFSA was 0), but I still wanted to learn to improve myself. This is based on how I was raised. I know that a lot of factors can drive this sort of thing (SES, culture, etc.), but I think its less about privilege and more about values (which aren't always tied to SES).
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        Mar 18 2013: Eugene, thank you for making this point. You're absolutely right. I certainly didn't mean to imply that I thought all college students without privileged backgrounds were uninterested in learning for the sake of learning. It was just my realization that a utilitarian approach, when present, was often fueled by factors beyond the student's control.
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    Apr 10 2013: Another thing students must understand is that teachers are doing a job. They are trying to build up their credentials so they can get the next big promotion. How students "feel" about the teacher is not high on the list of criteria for promotion. The teacher has to write and get published, has to show initiative, leadership, personal excellence. Teachers are not there to pander to the needs of every slow or lazy student. Kids have to be self motivated and self directed to learn.
  • Apr 10 2013: Curiosity is the difference between actively learning and passively acquiring knowledge. We need teachers that arouse the students interest in specific fields; teachers that engage students to be curious and self-motivated to seek out their own information. A teacher who inspires a student to search and explore for information on their own, in my opinion, is of greater value than the many teachers of today who simply deliver knowledge and information.
  • Apr 9 2013: Have interesting teachers who can engage the students. I am in school right now and I have changed my major several times because I did not like how I was feeling about school. I found myself in an anatomy class and it was there that I found my desire to learn. My professor was engaging, modern, smart, funny, and he didn't read from powerpoints. He was passionate about what he taught and it showed. If we had more professors like that then students may begin to care about learning again. However, college is a means to an end, and most students are not going to school to learn about something that they care about..they are going to school for something that is relatively uninteresting to them in order to get a job. A lot of the interesting degree choices yield very few prospects for jobs though.
    • Apr 9 2013: I also am a college student and I'm in love with learning. As far as my colleagues are concerned I see they miss the big picture of learning. Parents and culture are also stressing financial security over following passion and learning as far as I see it. But above all these I find Galileo's quote absolutely relevant to this subject: "We cannot teach people anything; we can only help them discover it within themselves." Once a student discovers the joy of learning in himself no matter how old-school the teacher is, he will learn from him whatever he has to share in terms of passion and knowledge. It will have a healthy disregard for the formal education system in order to make learning a particular subject worthwhile. Of all the teachers I had, the only ones I clearly remember are the ones that made me discover something within myself, that I continued following to this day.
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    Apr 8 2013: Education in our day and time has a distorted meaning to what it actually is. People who study and research things that they are passionate about do it out of curiosity and are driven by finding the answers, while degrees and careers are driven by working and earning a living. To be able to get a job, we require a skill, and thats where what why we choose to study further most of the time, thought we also find when we are studying that there are people who continue studying most of their lives where money plays less of a role than the satisfaction they get from finding answers to their questions!

    I feel that it is some kind of a culture, since companies mostly use degrees as a yardstick for hiring a person so that they certainly have the skills to do the job, yet during interviews, we find that outstanding companies tend to find people with the skills as well as the passion that they require for future development and long term goals!

    I write a blog about many things, and if you see the following link you may see my views on what i feel about the learning process: http://thinkrandomness.blogspot.com/2012/04/everyone-is-scholar-and-teacher.html

  • Apr 8 2013: I have been working with this firm and giving lot of my ideas and working on project simultaneously while studying is what gives responsibilities and which gives a better purpose for life than to just study and pass out which merely wastes time in finding a direction to life.
    i am thank full that i could work on this project which aims to get the sports equipment reach houses where shooters can train. http://www.elitescorer.com/Home.aspx this the firm..
    also i got a chance to learn people skill with interacting with lot of customers in this http://www.ifuturecapital.com/intradaytradingtips.aspx
    here i got to learn lot of techniques in marketing and people skill..
    one of the main reason why ppl invest is because they are usually successful in their field and hence its important to deal sharply with the successful sharp people..
  • Apr 3 2013: Since I am a student and have found flaws in the way I have been learning I have found their is an absence of accountability. On students and professors parts, I want and need to be challenged so I know I can do these things at a job and professors must want to teach and have a passion for the subject. The use of the internet has even though added a great addition to learning it has made finding information easier therefore s student doesnt have to rely on themself to know or understand something.
  • Mar 31 2013: I think it's more of a cultural thing... I'm a first generation student and my initial reasoning for getting into college was based on bettering my life (money/success). That's just what you did to have a better life...

    As for how to engage the process of learning, I'd have to agree with Mark on this. Some of the classes I learned the most in were taught by professors with the highest expectations. Each professor tailored their class to test for understanding, not memorization and regurgitation.
  • Mar 30 2013: I find it interesting how many answers interpret the word "learning" in a very specific way, as method and not as objective. Your cue, which opposes learning to "getting a degree" leaves me with the interpretation of learning as "knowledge for its own sake", or more to the point; "knowledge which enhances ones quality of life in ways that are not directly marketable."

    I see the essence of your question as: "how do we convince students that 'non-directly-marketable knowledge' has its own self-defining value?" .

    I think our culture is so currently so wrapped up in "education as survival skill," that the idea of paying money to gain knowledge which is not immediately weighted by its ability to return a visible, quantifiable profit (by your implied definition) lies, essentially, outside of the awareness of most current academic settings, public forums, political agendas, and, finally, and most telling for our collective future; candidates for, and graduates of, higher education. May you find success in your efforts.
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    Mar 29 2013: Make it hard to succeed. Really hard. Design your course so that students are pushed to the very limit of what they're capable of. When I know I'm only going to have 3 hours to write a 4 hour exam I'm forced to go beyond simple memorization and regurgitation; I need to know the material inside and out. When I walk out of that final I couldn't care less about the grade; all I feel is a profound sense of accomplishment. I have a few professors who challenge me this way. I have no idea what they get paid but I can say with confidence that whatever it is it isn't enough.

    My university is a cash cow for the government. It markets heavily to international students (who pay 3x tuition) and pumps out degrees. Academic misconduct is widely tolerated and many students are handed credentials they do not earn. By raising the bar you help people like me by preventing my degree from being watered down. When an employer sees Bachelor of Business Administration on my resume I want him to think of 'Rocky Balboa' and not 'Bill and Ted'.

    I can't help but wonder how many of my resumes will be cast aside because the person I'm hoping to replace came from my school.
  • Mar 23 2013: If getting a job is the primary driver, it is questionable that you can engage most college students in learning itself as a primary priority. Most entry-level jobs require at least a bachelor's degree. Many mid-level jobs require a masters. The focus is on the paper or the letters after your name; not the knowledge. My experience [in human capital businesses and as a business owner and now human capital consultant] indicates:

    1. the degree provides a quick & dirty way to assess assumed knowledge and ability to learn. It is a false assumption. A degree indicates that an individual sat through a series of required classes, absorbed at least the minimum information required to pass tests required to graduate. Much of this experience is unrelated to the skills required to perform well in most industries - profit or non-profit, public or private. There are many people with advanced degrees who can talk about their area of expertise, but have no idea how to actually product results. There is also very little if any emphasis on the communication skills and emotional intelligence needed to move ahead in almost any job.

    2. To actually assess knowledge - and very importantly, ability to continuously learn and adapt - would require time, knowledge and ability that is absent in most organizations. It's easier to slap a 'must have' requirement on the job posting, even if a large percentage of people with that degree are not a good fit, don't produce expected outcomes, and either wash-out or are accommodated indefinitely as under-performers.

    3. Most assessment processes do not adequately predict ability and willingness to do the job, perform well as part of a team to produce results, nor even minimal skills needed to be functional.
    Bottom line, sad to say: Most students are smart enough to understand the rules of the game and need a job to pay off their student debt.

    Love of learning is a luxury. Still waiting for superwoman!
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    Mar 21 2013: hmm. I can think of several ways which are more foundational. Changing the culture of learning or Instill the love of learning at a younger age. Encourage learning for life skills etc.

    However, I see the main challenge you are addressing is the reason the students are at college. They are there for the degree to get a job. The students that are attending the college NOT for a job and instead are there to actually learn will not need to be addressed in a new manner. They already want to learn.

    So for those that want the degree and that is all they care about.... How about getting several high level executives from local companies to visit and give them this speech. "Ladies and gentleman, our company requires a 4 year degree. But that just gets your name on the list as a candidate. We will very quickly weed out the individuals that have not really learned this material."

    From my talks with hiring managers, that is the approach they take.....hmm. perhaps not the best solution. But it might get them to actually take learning seriously
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    Mar 21 2013: In a world going faster and faster, i think it will be an effective idea for the majority of universities around the wold to get involved in the online education why classes in colleges study courses from big universities like MIT or Harvard to their students.
    i think it will make a big jump in the educational process in the developing countries in Africa of Asia.
  • Mar 21 2013: focus on teaching them techniques, and not on random general knowledge, combine this with work as apprentice ships, the main need of any student is money and not knowledge, if the knowledge produces or guaranties money, then every one is happy!,it sounds simple, and it is. the second priority is ethics as no one likes abusers
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    Mar 21 2013: Please don't think that college students haven't learnt anything before they come to your college to get a degree. Most of them have learnt that they need an earning and getting a college degree increases the chance of getting a paying job. We have devised an utilitarian society where being rich and resourceful equates success in life so there is no point blaming our youth having lesser concern for learning in academic sense of meaning.
    We have systematically dissociated academic inspiration of learning from our education system. In India, Education is simply a career option. If you are a mainstream teacher possibly you are teaching for a pay, your University must be having a placement office catering to job market. Education system of this type is an economic enterprise and the incentive is clearly fiscal. To try to get the young minds inspired to learn for pure academic fulfilment in this system is like trying to pull a cart sitting on it.
    We look at brilliant and genious minds of our society with awe because we feel deep inside that the system sucks and these gifted people are exceptions not rules.
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      Mar 21 2013: So according the system actual intelligence no longer matters, and as long as you can make a profit, then you are considered "intelligent"?
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        Mar 21 2013: Intelligence does matter but as long as it can be applied to make 'profit' not a life changing value set. Real learning is not concerned with money but how you see its dispensing value, among other things.
        I would like Ethics, Morality and Philosophy be part of academic syllabii right from junior school and Institutions will laugh at me.
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          Mar 21 2013: I think the earlier the better. I don't think it could hurt to introduce them new ideas, unless study shows that children at the ages of 7 learning Ethics, Morality, and Philosophy will explode....ha.
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        Mar 21 2013: Sure. I tried it with my son when he was 4 years old. I would take a Cadbury chocolate to him amd say: you can eat it and have all the fun but you can share it with a friend and have fun together. He ate the chocolate all by himself first time. From next day on, he would give half to his cousin and ask: did you enjoy it?
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          Mar 21 2013: That's awesome!
        • Mar 21 2013: You should really be honest and tell the full story. First we should name the characters to make this fable easier to follow. We will label your son as Al and his cousin as Chad.

          If we back the story up to the previous day we find out that Chad already has in his possession one-half of a Cadbury chocolate bar. Chad leverages his Cadbury to barter self-indulgent pleasures such as a footlong Subway sandwhich, a 20 oz. Coke, two cigarettes, and a Redbox movie rental. Chad wakes up the next morning and starts throwing a temper tantrum after coming to the realization that he has no more chocolate. The conniving little cousin quickly calls his Aunt, your wife, to make sure others feel pitty for the kid who has to live without chocolate. Your wife pulls Al aside and guilts him to feel like he is a capitalistic pig for hoarding chocolate even though Al busted his backside for the past two weeks doing chores around the house to win favor with his mother.

          Al reaches out to his cuz Chad, semi-reluctantly giving him one-half of his hard earned chocolate bar. Al's dad applaudes the move and feels the jesture is just since Al has more chocolate than the average kid in his neighborhood. Chad mean while snatches the gifted chocolate bar, stomps out of the room where he and Al were conversing while complaining that Al should be donating even more just before slamming the door in anger.
  • Mar 19 2013: Ignite the students passion for learning. Test the fundamentals, but inspire every student to create or participate in projects that will reinforce the fundamentals while expanding knowledge, skills, wonder and awe. If your classroom is not like kids happily playing in the park, try to make it more so. My passion for learning was not truly ignited until I was doing my Master's degree in Special Education, when the professor asked, "is this project going to be something you will use in your own classroom? No? Then, why are you doing it? Pick a project meaningful to you." Wow, I realized. School is supposed to be about learning that is meaningful to me? Fasten your seatbelt, Frank, we're kicking in the afterburners.
  • Mar 19 2013: As a medical student I have felt the exact same way! I have been inspired to go into medicine by a single class of high school biology... Ever since I've been more passionate about medicine than anything else in life :) but now as a medical student I find myself more interested in the subjects in which my teachers are enthusiastic and interested themselves!