"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       


A Defense of BS

September 28th, 2017 by

Now that I am five weeks into teaching courses for the fall term, I am confronting the other tension I always feel as a participant in undergraduate education. The first tension comes specifically from being a writing teacher and has to do with students who have learned the five paragraph theme. The tension I face is that most of these students will fear or dislike writing, and I will spend an entire semester unsuccessfully trying to get them to expand on their ideas.

The second tension I’m referring to here has to do more generally with what some have termed passive learning. This has to do with students who have learned to sit passively through lectures and then take tests on those lectures and to think that they are really learning something.

They may be learning a few facts. They may even be the kind of learners who process lectures well and do learn. But there are questions about this most common method of classroom delivery that is used for every discipline.

The student takes in lectures, writes notes, studies for and takes an exam, and then comes away as a B or an A student of the discipline. They take every class like this and are told to stay quiet.

We see the same thing in most churches, where the main event is considered to be the sermon. Week after week, month after month, we sit passively as a pastor, evangelist, or special speaker expounds on some point or other.

There was a graphic out a few years ago about what most people remember from these speeches, sermons, and lectures. The drop, after two days, is something like 60%. After a week, the average listener remembers less than 7% of what they’ve heard.

I can attest to this. A week after listening to a sermon, what I remember is the illustration from Noah’s ark. I remember little more.

What this means for many college students, who have been paying tens of thousands of dollars to get an eduction, is pretty bleak. It seems to mean that after four years of lectures and test taking, they will have accumulated a stack of scantron test results, but remember only a few pecentage points of what they’ve learned.

When I talk to graduating students I had as freshmen, I ask them what they remember. “Oh, that was a long time ago,” they say, laughing.

Yes, it was, especially when I remember them remaining passive in class, refusing to discuss their ideas.

Like the five paragraph theme, passive learning is the method most students have been schooled in. And I would agree that learning to listen is important. But listening is one part of being. The opposite of passive learning, active learning, requires their participation, their commitment.

This is what I attempt every semester, and it is my main struggle: getting students to talk about ideas in class with each other, to find out what they are really thinking, to find out how they can construct knowledge.

When they’ve been schooled the other way, they sometimes act as though they’ve wasted their time with a discussion, or what they might call a BS session. “I’d rather hear from the prof,” they say.

When you think about what they retain from that endless prof-talk, though, they might wonder about this. At the end of four years, what they have to show is a stack of scantron tests with digital readouts and about 2 or 3% retention of what the various profs said.

Maybe they should rethink those BS sessions.

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Comment by Emily Griesinger on September 28, 2017 at 11:59 am

Exactly. I just returned from a class session where I posed what I thought was a “softball” question. No takers! Nada. Maybe I will forward your post, Tom.

Comment by Tom on September 28, 2017 at 1:22 pm

Sorry to be so timely, Emily, but hope that we both keep asking questions.

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