This fall, our faculty members discussed the many demands we place on our students. Certainly classroom time is important, and so are the challenging problem sets and creative papers we assign. Equally important is reflecting upon, assimilating and integrating the new-found knowledge. And, of course, we hope our students regularly consult with their professors and classmates. When I think about all the opportunities and expectations our students face, I am reminded of my own hectic life as an undergraduate.
I must admit that those recollections of college days are sometimes a bit hazy. They happened, after all, many decades ago. But perhaps the real reason I can’t remember them clearly is that even at the time, my days were a blur. I remember feeling overwhelmed by what seemed to be a never-ending barrage of homework assignments. Calculus, chemistry, physics and symbolic logic exercises were enough for every wakeful hour. Add to these the need to prepare speeches and read complex essays on political science, and my days and nights were filled to overflowing.
To be certain, there was value and sometimes joy in those exercises. Nearly 40 years later, I remember my excitement upon calculating how much higher the water level is on the west bank of the Mississippi River than the east bank. I have long since forgotten the equation I used and I can only guess at the variables and constants that were important. Perhaps I had to take into account the direction and speed of the river flow along with the direction and speed of the earth’s rotation. And it seems that the answer may have depended on my knowing that the Mississippi is in the northern hemisphere. At any rate, I clearly remember the pure delight in being able to calculate a magnitude for this wonderfully mysterious phenomenon.
Too often, though, one problem blurred with the next as one cup of coffee became a whole pot and late nights became early mornings. There was little time for reflection and little time to think about the significance of the assignments. I didn’t have the luxury to consider how my work was related to what my professors were discussing in class or how a calculus problem might relate to a physics exercise or a symbolic logic assignment.
While I loved the excitement of completing assignments and solving a seemingly endless series of puzzles, I eventually became frustrated, coining the phrase “my homework is getting in the way of my coursework and my coursework is getting in the way of my education.” How nice it would have been, I thought, to have time to truly reflect on all these assignments. Even as an inexperienced, sometimes cynical undergraduate, I was certain that there was some order and purpose to the work I was doing. But stopping to make sense of it would have made meeting deadlines impossible.
Between my sophomore and junior year, however, things changed. When I returned to campus, my college had adopted a less-can-be-more approach to learning. The most visible change was a decrease in the typical course load from five courses (plus labs) to four courses (plus labs) per semester. The expectation was that with fewer courses and a less frenetic pace, we students could reflect on our experiences and find meaning by identifying connections between homework and classwork, between one course and another, and between schoolwork and life.
Initially, I was somewhat indignant, worrying that future generations wouldn’t understand what it meant to work hard. Why had the faculty gone soft? I soon discovered, however, that learning had become a richer and deeper experience. I saw connections and subtleties that I would have missed before. I began looking for and understanding the significance of the exercises I worked and the papers I wrote. Reflection became a part of my study routine.
To this day, I have a special memory from that first semester after the transition. Late one night, I was working through a problem in quantum mechanics. With the newly found luxury of time to reflect, I thought about the equation that I had just used to find a numerical answer. For most students — and I was no exception — a scientific equation is generally seen as a tool for solving a quantitative homework problem. One picks the right equation, finds appropriate constants in a table, plugs in the numbers, works the slide rule (now replaced by the calculator or computer) and the correct answer magically appears. During that memorable 3 a.m. study session, however, I suddenly saw those equations in a very different light. They weren’t simply tools for solving homework problems; they were concise attempts to describe physical reality. A few symbols summarized the results of hundreds of experiments and thousands of observations even as they predicted events yet to unfold. That insight transformed for me what it meant to be a student and a scientist. If I had had 10 more problems to solve or another course awaiting my attention, I would likely have skipped the reflection that produced the valuable insight.
As I listened to a series of faculty conversations this fall, my mind often drifted back to my college experience. My colleagues were considering the right balance between a “rigorous” academic schedule and opportunities to reflect, assimilate and integrate ideas. This conversation has been part of a debate about the maximum number of courses students should take at any given time. I am delighted to hear our faculty talking about the important place of reflection in their courses, our curriculum and the lives of Monmouth students.
Our students must learn facts and equations. They must know about important people and events. They must also understand complex ideas. But to achieve the full benefits of their liberal arts education, our students must learn to integrate and apply these ideas. They need time to consider what they are learning and they need to talk to others as they imagine the meaning of ideas and insights.
When we are operating at our best, our students will begin to understand how they will use the wonderful mix of ideas and information to advance their personal and our collective good. We can’t promote this important goal if we don’t provide a rich and challenging array of classes and activities. But we undermine our efforts if we don’t also provide the time and space for thoughtful reflection and reflective discussions.