Learning Without Obligation

I am currently in a very enjoyable class. There are no tests and no papers. We are not evaluated in any way for the knowledge that is presented in class. Where do we get our grades from? We are responsible for three presentations in front of the rest of the class: the first is on a chapter in the book, the second is on a research paper related to one of the chapters in the book, and the third is a group project based on a chapter in the book.

Despite having no obligation or responsibility over the material, I have never paid stricter attention than in this class. So, in terms of educational gains, I am learning a lot.

How could this be? Shouldn’t I be relieved and proceed to space out? There are a couple of factors that prevent this:

1. Technology use is forbidden: I can’t play computer games.
2. We have to evaluate our peers’ presentations: there is a minimum amount we need to pay attention to (alternatively, we could just make up our evaluations without penalty, but I don’t and I doubt my classmates do either).
3. There is discussion in the second half of class: there’s a possibility of sounding stupid during this part.

The above factors are not very strong but subtle enough to get the most important factor going:

As it turns out, this class is interesting

Without the obligation of needing to “learn” (or shall I say, “memorize”) terms, when they fit, when they don’t, when its used in a tricky way, or other ways it might be tested, I spend less time taking notes and straining to catch every word and more time relaxing, listening, and making eye contact with the speaker. The amount of effort used to stressfully “learn” is enough to tire anyone to just retreat, chat online instead, and cram later (at least you only have to do it once, instead of multiple times a week).

We run into some problems of course. How can we assess whether a student has learned anything? According to the current syllabus, it is obvious whether or not a student has learned their designated chapters according to their presentations. There is also some evidence that a student has learned according to their participation in the discussion. The second, however, is not guaranteed factual learning like a test might be.

However, what do we want out of a class?

Ask any student and they will tell you that for most tests, they cram hard and almost instantly forget everything they just “learned” once the test is over. Rather than memorizing the facts, perhaps it is more important to learn how to think in context with the subject. How do we solve problems in this field? How can we think about this? What are some strategies to tackle these problems in this subject? In order to answer these questions, facts are naturally needed and learned along the way (and it may encourage individual and extra research from the student). Although, a student may not be able to reproduce every single detail of the class, but is that really important?

Projects are the best way to demonstrate and practice thinking within a subject. Whether it’s an engineering design project, writing a short story, performing a literature review, or conducting a presentation, a student must have a grasp of the knowledge of the class and must know how to use it (which is arguably the important part) in order to produce a good product. Projects that are shared with peers often encourage even better results as their is an added responsibility for students to represent themselves well.

Bonus about projects: it allows a student room to go above and beyond the class’ expectations.


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