Rethinking our approach to learning

Graphic by Carleen Loney @shloneys

Higher education should be a blessing, not a curse. 

Learning often doesn’t feel as meaningful as it should. I am often frustrated by how easily my attention slips away from my academics and how little I retain after hours of class time. The reality for many students is a daily cycle of cramming information and then regurgitating it, only to forget or never fully understand said information. 

Because of the sheer volume of material we’re given to consume, we’re often unable to give it the attention and interest it deserves. Stress levels are ridiculously high with no time to breathe and sit with what we’re being taught. So many students are constantly in a frenzy, struggling to keep up with what is required of them to achieve high results. They aren’t enjoying their education, only doing their best to survive it. 

We’re in dire need of solutions. One such solution is creative teaching methods that emphasize genuine engagement. I spoke to Professor Norman Cornett, a former McGill professor who realized that the standard approach to learning was having a destructive effect on his students. These students were suffering, and falling through the cracks of a system that only pushed them down farther. 

Upon this realization, Cornett adopted what he refers to as the “dialogic” method, a method that spotlights engaging dialogue about educational material by encouraging stream-of-consciousness thought and unfiltered opinion. He allowed students to share uninhibited responses to works and invited creators to engage with these reactions, thus forming a dialogue between student and material.

This was often achieved through creative practices (such as making students listen to a symphony in the dark, to name one example) that sought to emphasize the individual needs and interests of the students, and to present material in a way that wasn’t the typical “read and regurgitate” practice. “Imagination represents one of the foremost assets human beings innately possess,” said Cornett. “To realize its full potential, higher education must therefore harness the imagination as an essential dynamic of learning.” 

But beyond professors reconsidering their own teaching methods, what can be done by students who are at the mercy of educational structures? Change is slow, and we’re subjected to degree requirements and rigorous curriculums. A few solutions can help you maximize your experience. 

Choosing courses whose content reflects your own interests whenever possible, as well as engaging more with professors and seeking out instructors that present material in a way that works for you, are just some of these solutions.

It’s also helpful to consider alternatives or supplements to higher education entirely. A degree doesn’t need to be the emblem of success—we’ve all seen those lists of successful figures who never graduated. The knowledge that comes from non-curricular books, interpersonal learning, and life experiences like traveling can be just as (if not more) valuable. I’m not saying you should drop out when school gets tough, only consider all the possibilities in your life’s trajectory.

It has already been said by many that the education system is deeply flawed. Students need more time to breathe and more space to actually absorb what is being taught. More than that, they need to be engaged more deeply with the material. This will require imaginative solutions, and the willingness to accept that learning could be so much more. 

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