In my previous post, I reflected on the impossibility of today’s full-time, undergraduate students’ completing the two “independent student learning” homework hours for every “instructor-led” class hour as standardized by Carnegie. Fulfilling these mandated homework hours was not possible before the pandemic because students did not have enough time in their weekly schedules. After the pandemic, students face even more obstacles. Still lacking enough time to study, students seem to be missing critical independent study skills and are experiencing limited cognitive capacity as well as increased mental health concerns. In this post, I will offer a few concrete ways to address these two concerns in our syllabi and support the vocation of student learning.
From High School to College: Difficult Post-Pandemic Transitions
Transitioning to college can be a real shock to many students. For first-year students who experienced the pandemic in their formative years of high school, entering college seems to cause a seismic shift. One of my students characterized her experience this way:
I was in regular classrooms my freshman year of high school and then we were on-line for two years and back in person senior year, so for all of high school, [I saw that] none of it mattered. None of my classes seemed real and none of the grades really mattered until my senior spring when we were leaving for college. Now [at university] it seems like everything matters and everything counts. From “none of it mattered” for three years to “everything matters.”
In college, she discovered, there are real deadlines, exams, attendance requirements, classroom-engagement requirements, social and behavioral expectations, and self-directed learning expectations, as well as the need for organizational skills and an ability to set priorities. By spring semester, this (and many other) bright, second-semester, student-athlete was overwhelmed and paralyzed. She had no idea how to break projects into smaller steps, how to tackle homework assignments in a focused manner, what to take notes on in class, or even whom to ask for help. She, like other students, defaulted to the learned passivity of a Zoom room. She watched me teach. She watched the readings and the content float by as if on a screen, but engaging the content herself felt out of reach.
After another of my first-year students failed his midterm, I met with him to talk about retaking it. I explained how to answer the questions and how to outline an exam essay by breaking down the prompt. He listened carefully for an hour. A week later, he had answered five out of seven questions, but his essay attempt went off the rails. We tried again, but he could not analyze the prompt on his own; when he read the online instructions, his mind drifted to a different script. Meeting regularly one-on-one and giving him step-by-step, oral instructions helped. After four weeks, this student felt more confident and completed the midterm revision. The following week was his final exam.
Student Independent Learning Hours: A Different Approach
These two students exemplify the difficulty we face preparing to teach this fall. Clearly, we cannot address every student’s packed schedule or specific deficit in self-directed learning. Nor can faculty members take on the complex manifestations of a mental health crisis in the classroom. But perhaps our syllabi can take into account a new student profile that anticipates their lack of sleep, increased anxiety, loneliness, depression, and even fear of classroom engagement. Perhaps reconfiguring the “problem” of the Carnegie independent student learning hour offers a solution.
Students cannot add more homework hours into their week or adopt more “self-care” requirements into their days. They can, however, learn to think about and allocate their homework hours—independent learning hours—differently. This fall, I am designing my syllabi to put Carnegie homework hours in service of the self-care that facilitates student learning. The aim is to teach students to prioritize non-homework activities that support mental health and emotional well-being, and that are critical for building cognitive function inside and outside of the classroom.
For example, a typical student spends between two and four hours completing the homework for my introductory, four-credit class each week. This leaves four Carnegie hours unaccounted. If the same student also prioritized four more hours of sleep, then her brain could move what she learns each day from her short-term memory to her long-term memory, and she might retain more from her class and homework. This is a simplification, but well-supported by the science. Thus, I will offer “sleep hours” as one of the “cognitive support” or self-care options that students may choose to allocate for their Carnegie student-led learning hours this fall. Asking students to schedule homework and cognitive support (self-care) time calls attention to how sleep improves cognitive function, focus, and emotional stability. Perhaps making these choices more obvious to students, and inviting them to reflect on their choices, will empower them to think critically about what self-care they need to fulfill their vocation to learn.
My upcoming syllabi include student independent learning assignments, cognitive support or self-care choices, and journal reflections, based on the Carnegie hour ratio of instructor-led to student-led learning. I provide multiple self-care options for completing independent learning hours beyond course assignments: sleeping, eating regularly, exercising, spending time with friends and/or family, and being outside in nature.
Student Independent Learning Journal
The independent learning journal is a core component of my courses. Students first enter course assignments and regular weekly homework hours—probably three or four—into a calendar in the journal. Then, they find the difference needed to meet the required eight Carnegie hours for a four-credit class (probably four or five hours). Students distribute these hours across each week by choosing from the “Student Learning Support” (self-care) options: sleep, social time, brain rest, breathing, walking outside, eating a meal without multi-tasking, spiritual practice, or family time. Students will reflect on their learning for ten minutes in class every two weeks and adjust their “learning support” allocations for the coming weeks. A few times during the semester, they will problem-solve in groups around their completion of assignments and learning support hours, and, most importantly, on what happens in their learning.
Requiring these activities incorporates best practices from trauma-informed pedagogies. In chapter one of My Grandmother’s Hands, Resmaa Menakem reminds us that humans cannot learn when they are stuck in a freeze, flight, or fight pattern. Group work, routine, a clear schedule, more sleep, time with friends and family, exercise, and time spent in nature all have calming effects on our ancient lizard brains. Such activities support cognitive learning. (Listen to the podcast episode “The Thrilling New Science of Awe” for more on the health-giving quality of moments of wonder.)
The journal and group discussions have the added academic benefit of helping students develop research skills. Students learn to gather data at regular intervals, to assess their progress, and to evaluate learning goals. With others, they develop a narrative about how they learn best, and they make adjustments to improve their learning outcomes and goals.
The Vocation of Student Learning
Neither vocation nor learning are located solely in the human brain. Vocation and learning involve the whole person. Even the cognitive-based learning that is central to western academies requires engaging the whole person through complex somatic, emotional, social, and mental capacities. By articulating their self-care habits in relation to self-assessments and reflections on learning course material, students may begin to experience this relationship more clearly and choose more habits that support their learning. My hope is that Carnegie hours offer them a structure they can use to improve their mental health, practice academic skills, and increase their cognitive retention to fulfill their vocation to learn.
Julia Lambert Fogg is Professor of Religion at California Lutheran University. Her most recent book, Finding Jesus at the Border: Opening Our Hearts to the Stories of Our Immigrant Neighbors, was published in 2020 by Baker-Brazos Press. Julia was an invited speaker at the NetVUE gathering held at the 2021 AAR meeting in San Antonio, Texas, on religion and justice issues in the undergraduate classroom. For more posts by Julia, click here.