Take an Active Role in Your Education: Play Games

The worst thing about education today is that it is a gift.  Teachers provide and students receive (usually in a lecture format).  Students rarely take an active role in their education and, if they do, it is a small role.  By active role, I don’t necessarily mean “initiative.”  What I mean is, “action.”  Homework, doing a problem in class, or debating in a class discussion are a few examples of what I mean by “active role.”

From my own experience, I have found that I must take a very active role when I am trying to process information.  Merely listening to a lecture is usually not enough.  If it isn’t stylized as a discussion or if there isn’t a problem to be solved, most of the information escapes me before the end of class.  Upon further reflection, it became clear that the best way for me to remember classroom content is to process the information and the best way for me to process  information is to have a reason to.  For example, in discussion based classes, an argument is constantly being formed.  As the teacher talks, I analyze why the teacher’s statements make sense (or don’t) and then prepare an argument for my analysis on the presented topic. By vocalizing out loud, I hear my words and can confirm (and occasionally deny) the sense and completeness of my own sentences.  In classes where there are problems to solve, a similar thing happens, I obtain information from the teacher, attempt to apply it on paper and, as the teacher goes through it, I confirm or deny my thoughts and hypothesis about the information I just received.  However, sometimes when teachers use practice problems in class, they give step by step instructions and I passively copy it down. (I would like to note, however, that traditional lectures are enough to receive an A in the course, and/or write decent papers on the topic.  The problem I am stating is, though I receive information, I am not learning much from it.  I cannot apply it, but I think it would definitely be useful for trivia night).

This may be because I am a lazy student and its my fault for not paying strict enough attention to the material coming out of the teacher’s mouth.  However, I think it has more to do with the fact that I am trying to listen so hard or taking notes so ferociously that I don’t have any time or brain space to understand the information.  In my attempts to gather all of the information presented in class, I accidentally lose it all.

However, by making information processing (which I will define as making sense of ideas through problem solving) a priority and giving information gathering a more passive role, learning will be much more natural.

This problem solving/information processing aspect is what makes games so engagingly addicting compared to school work and lecture.  Any good game is intellectually stimulating and challenging, which is one of the main reasons why it is so fun (to those who call video games brainless, read this article).  In games, there is always a reason to think.  In lecture, the primary goal is to hear and focusing on hearing, which often makes me think more about hearing and how it works, or how incredible it is that humans developed such complex and useful language skills.  Even in the most interesting lectures, I occasionally get distracted.  In games, the level of focus is extreme.

Although I would say that I am more of a gaming enthusiast than others (for me personally, I am including videogames, card games, boardgames and puzzle games), I don’t think my addiction to them is an odd phenomenon.  I think many demonstrate  symptoms for this addiction and those that don’t haven’t exposed themselves to the germ enough.

Try this: MinecraftEDU

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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.