Big insights from little lessons

People often gain profound insights from experiences that seem trivial.


Like many other college professors, I have great hopes for my students, but often I’m dismayed by how little they seem to know. As I begin to plan future courses, I’m tempted to add more content in a vain attempt to cram more knowledge into their heads. But I think it’s wise to resist that temptation to focus too much on knowledge. As I review students’ work this term, I realize that people often gain profound insights from experiences that may seem trivial.

Each semester I teach two large lecture classes, several smaller classes in a computer lab, and I guide individual research projects. My students do a lot of writing.

Weekly writing for lecture classes often shows more insight from everyday encounters than from knowledge that I’ve tried to impart. Students gain wisdom from general ideas and the process of reflecting on ideas and writing about their experiences.

In my computer classes I teach students how to make Web pages with source code for XHTML and CSS stylesheets. They use a text editor and software to validate their work and check for accessibility. Students write every week, and they write whatever they want. Their content often seems trivial, and sometimes I wonder if they learn anything. But students always rate these classes very highly, and many report profound learning experiences.

What makes these classes work so well? For one thing, students learn that they can create something of value from nothing but their own imagination and effort, and for many that’s a big deal. Many gain a lot of confidence, and some become much more interested in writing and photography.

Also, the idea that empathy leads to action, such as making Web pages more accessible, is an enormous insight that surprises many students. When they learn that low-contrast color schemes or lack of alternate text for images can make their work inaccessible to some people, they realize that not all people perceive the world as they do.

As I think about what and how to teach next term, it’s good to remember that college education is not just about knowledge. It’s also about attitudes and ideas that help people understand themselves and approach life with confidence and wisdom.