The Checklist Phenomenon

Shannon has been blogging about her first-year experiences over at Loaded Learning. In her most recent post she describes her frustration with some of her fellow students who seemed to just be in college to check off a bunch of boxes.*

The checklist phenomenon is one that has always bugged me, though I think I understand where it comes from. It’s easier to go about one’s daily life without having to question everything, without having to constantly reexamine one’s direction, path, education. There is a reassuring certainty to having a checklist, to knowing exactly what one needs to do that is less draining than having to think too much constantly about one’s future or present.

I say this not to rag on college students in particular; I see it in my own life and among my colleagues and our attitudes toward the curriculum. If we know that students will take X set of classes from Y set of categories, then we can be reasonably certain that they have been exposed to a set of ideas that we call “liberal arts” and a major with a particular set of skills and fluencies, and therefore we can rest easy about it.

I’ve been thinking about this assumption lately, however, as our institution reexamines its general education curriculum. I’m not resting as easy as I have been with our Gen Ed course structure. Why? Because what we don’t know with as much certainty is what the students actually get out of these classes, or if checking all those boxes off truly makes them better students or better employees or better human beings. We also don’t know if those students make any connections between the various checked boxes or their learning. [With a few exceptions, we don’t encourage such connections in structural or specific ways.] I’m beginning to wonder if what we need is fewer requirements for specific content areas and more requirements for self and guided reflection by students on their work, their goals, on their education itself.

Of course, that might still create a checklist of courses and/or requirements that students (and faculty) could check off without the kind of buy-in that real learning and teaching would need. Still, it seems like it would be a start in the right direction, an acknowledgement that we as an institution valued the connections between their various classes, between their classes and their learning, between their learning and their lives, and between their education and their participation as members of larger physical and intellectual communities.

Thoughts? How might we implement such an approach beyond individual classrooms or particular instructors or interested students (because I think that kind of breadth is essential the kind of reflected learning)? [Given the audience for this blog, I suspect I’m preaching to the choir here, and, if so, help me figure out what the counter argument(s) is/are. Why wouldn’t this work (and why are they wrong)? :-]

*I think many of us at MW would agree that Steve’s Freshman Seminar should be seen as a success if its only contribution (which this is not) was to encourage this depth of reflective public writing by students.

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  1. You are definitely heading in the right direction, there needs to be a push for reflective work, otherwise what does any of the stuff we are learning matter? Perhaps college always assumed it was implied that students would be reflecting on subject matter in various courses, thus giving them a liberal education. The truth appears to be that students are skipping over reflection in favor of taking the shortest path to get their “liberal education”. I keep coming back to the thought that real learning is hard to measure and produce because it doesn’t work unless the individual does something with it. I suppose that is your question though, what could the college do to set students up for success in real learning? Ah, I think I am right back where I started. Ok, one last thought and this is from personal experience too, so we will see. After taking the Globalization FSEM I wanted to learn more about economics, so I took an economics course. Never in my life had I wanted to take an econ class, I had zero interest but, after that class I wanted to learn more. What if there was a way to allow the natural progression of interest to evolve? Like create your own major, except an individualized gen-ed of sorts. Less content specific requirements could help foster a natural exploration of interests. I’m not sure if this would be possible to execute but, maybe people would be less concerned with checking specifics off their list and more concerned about finding classes they will engage in. If real learning is taking place people could find themselves seeking out classes they didn’t think they’d be interested in. What if there were more gen-ed classes that were geared towards specific topics? It seems like most classes that count as gen-ed are broad and maybe even boring. I might be asking more questions than providing answers; in any case you’ve got me thinking.

  2. Ok, so I didn’t realize how long that comment was, oops. Next time I’ll make a post and just link back šŸ™‚

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