Sean O’Rourke: Uncomfortable Learning

Sean O’Rourke, a senior majoring in accounting and economics, provides us with our first Student Fellows blog of the year. Sean works as a tutor in the Academic Support Center, and his essay emerges from that work and his own experience as a student. Watch for our next blog post at the start of the spring 2020 semester.

Allow me to paint you a picture. You are a freshman in college, starting your day in English Composition. You arrive at class, and take one long look around the room. In the back of the class you see the star football player who has always had a love for science, but never found a love for philosophy. In the front of the room, you have the President of the Philosophy Club who loves reading, but has never fully been engrossed or captivated by the subject of math. Everywhere you look you see a different student, each one with their own taste and preferences. These differences are what make us who we are, but they can also lead to some challenges for teachers.

In order to mitigate some of these challenges, it would seem rational that teachers should cater to these differences in learning styles in order for students to get the most out of their education. The research, however, points to a different conclusion. In an article written for the New York Times, author Daniel T. Willingham argues that catering to a particular learning style offers a simple and easy solution to a complex problem that cannot be solved so easily. Instead, we need to accept that sometimes learning activities or experiences that challenge us can be rewarding and productive. “We are not constrained by our learning style,” Willingham explains. “Any type of learning is open to any of us” (Willingham). Understanding our learning style is important in our development as lifelong thinkers, but those styles do not define us as learners. The same holds true for teachers. In my time here as a student, I have found that I learn best when professors step outside their comfort zones, try new things, and take risks that challenge me to go beyond what makes me feel comfortable.

In Assignments

The constant stress to do well in a class can be a lot for a student to handle. For example, some students feel a great amount of stress and anxiety when taking a test, and this stress can have an negative effect on their education experience. If a student always feels like they are doing poorly, they are never going to be fully invested in their work. Test and quizzes are important to the overall assessment of students, but they do not have to be the only way of assessment.

For example, Professor Michael Matraia, a new accounting professor here at Assumption College, has found a way to balance the way students are graded. Test and quizzes still exist for our assessment, but they are not the only type of assignment. During the semester, Professor Matraia has offered to us a case study assignment that involves both our understanding of core concepts, but that also asks for us to make our own judgement. The case focuses around the idea of revenue recognition, and the core concept of control. Using three distinct examples, we are asked to apply both accounting standards supplied to us and our own professional judgment to come to a conclusion about the recognition of said revenues by the company.

This assignment pushes a student to operate outside of their comfort zone, and it allows students to experience a different type of challenge. There is no right or wrong answer as long as we are able to fully back up our claims. Learning the concepts is the first fundamental step of education, but the next step is learning how to apply these concepts to real world problems and in turn make decisions. By giving different types of assignments, Professor Matraia is finding a way to balance the way students are assessed, and in turn giving more students a chance to feel fully engrossed in their course work.

In the Classroom

Another way that faculty can challenge students is through different methods of presenting class material. This can be done in multiple ways. For example, in Professor Bryan Coleman’s Federal Tax class there is a combination between text-based studies and what he calls, “Thing of the Week”. The text-based class studies are the considerations of concepts from the text, and include the use of related practice problems associated with these concepts.  The “Thing of the Week”, however, is a weekly class in which the students learn about a new section of a tax return. One week we could be discussing the importance of a W-2, while the next we could be discussing the difference in the types of dividends and their place on the return. This form of classroom discussion allows students to see the applicability of the concepts they are learning in class. By finding a balance between conceptual learning and real world application, a student can feel as though they are not just memorizing material, but learning how to apply it for the future.

Another way that this can be achieved is best shown from Professor Molly McGrath’s Property and Civic Life course. Unlike a typical course in which a professor would lecture to the class, Professor McGrath creates a classroom that feels more like a dialogue than a lecture. The students dictate the conversation. Professor McGrath would always have a set of topics she wanted to discuss, but the topics were determined by the students. The class would begin with one person discussing one section of the text that they found interesting or confusing, and the conversation would branch out from there. People were able to speak what was on their mind without fear of judgement. It was freeing and liberating. We were still able to take in all the text was trying to teach to us, but it didn’t feel forced upon us. It felt very natural, almost like you were talking with a friend about a good book you had read.

The Big Takeaway

In my short time here as a tutor, Allen Bruehl, the head of the Academic Support Center, has always expressed to me one key point: students do not always learn in the same way. Each student has their own independent learning style and preferences. With this fundamental truth, it has become important for me to try new and innovative ways to reach students. It can be hard to step outside of my comfort zone, but it is necessary.

By offering up different types of assignments, teaching students using real world applicability, or by creating a classroom based in conversation, a professor is stepping outside of their comfort zone. This can be scary, but we cannot be afraid of being uncomfortable. It is from this discomfort that we will become better students, educators, and thinkers. In the end, one of the goals of an education is to find comfort: comfort in being uncomfortable.