Self-Reflection for Identifying my Ideal Learning Experience

Response paper for the session "Understanding the Learner"
Certificate in University Teaching Program - University of Waterloo

A commonly voiced belief is that the learning environment greatly influences the learning experience of students. In fact, mostly the teacher is the one to blame, when students' expectations are not met in regards to their imagined ideal of classroom instruction. In this essay, I will reason that learning is a bipolar experience, greatly dependent on both the student and the teacher. Via an acute self-reflective analysis, I will identify my own learning characteristics in the context of two very different learning experiences - one negative the other positive. Meanwhile, I shall keep in consideration the potential experiences of other types of students, based on my retrospective observations. I will begin with a brief description of myself as a learner, to provide a working foundation for the subsequent analysis of my experiences.

Currently I am a graduate student working on my PhD in Applied Mathematics, primarily occupied with doing research, which is quite different from my undergraduate mindset, when studying was my primary focus. Therefore much of this discussion will be a travel back in time, though my main characteristics as a learner have not changed, only become less elaborate and refined. When I was an undergraduate in Hungary at the Eötvös Loránd University, I was literally like a sportsman of the mind - constantly monitoring myself for what shape I was in. This was of utmost necessity so that I could allocate my time and efforts to the most appropriate times for a particularly or less demanding subject. I monitored my diet, breathing, everything - it was a bit insane, but the tasks at hand required it. I was also very independent as a learner. I did not value having to sit through lectures, where I was superimposed with a "sequential" learning experience in time, in which I was unable to flip back and forth as I would do by myself with a book, to connect formerly learned concepts. I am what I can now properly categorize as an absolutely "global" learner. Even in doing research, I feel more like a bird flying over the savannah than an antelope galloping through it. Whenever I notice something interesting, I zoom in somewhat, then zoom out, or zoom in more if I find it to be of value, guided by my intuitive inner compass. Just as a bird, I am a great lover of freedom, and being restrained in any way, whether by a non-liberating lecture or else, can be very disheartening to me. I feel lucky to have been endowed with a considerately adaptive supervisor who understands me by instinct, and is willing to act as a companion, versus a guide.

Considering the above, the ideal learning condition for me is most likely an environment in which I am given a chance to contemplate the material with freedom, allowing me to internalize it in a gradual process of digestion, in which I reassemble the buffered information packets into a new didactic whole within myself, via a highly independent process. Is this possible through any kind of lecture or tutorial format? Does not my own sense of independence make the reception of any external learning projection impossible? Sometimes it does feel like I have this impediment. In rare occasions however, I encounter a learning environment in which sequential spoonfeeding is not the primary mode, and which I find highly enlightening and motivational, activizing my neurons on all levels.

A specific negative experience was my Partial Differential Equations (PDE) course as an undergraduate. It was undoubtedly a large bulk of information we had to internalize, or perhaps only seemed like it? The professor acted like a sage on the stage throughout the lectures, speaking his mind like a radio, and scribbling away on the board, without any consideration for our understanding. Certainly contrary to a multilevel learning experience, that would have sent off sparks in the minds of various types of learners. I personally felt being given no chance to reflect on the material, the pace was too fast and uninterruptibly monotonic, which made me feel disconnected, from both the professor and the material. I was given no opportunity to make a connection either, as it felt like the instructor had no idea there was even an audience. I was not motivated in any way to learn the material, and suffered greatly when I "had to" in the exam period.

I believe a good teacher not only connects with the audience, but monitors their level of understanding throughout a lecture, and sets a fluctuating pace accordingly. Before the process of information flow is even initiated however, the professor must set a base tone for the rest of the lecture in some way, much like a painter might paint a base color for a painting to be laid out upon. The base tone might involve some motivational words of wisdom on the nature and relevance of the material, its historical importance, or their own enthusiasm for the topic. These may serve as an extension of a hand to help students on board for a journey of sailing the waters of knowledge. Most of all, teachers must primarily know themselves and their own motivations, so that they may accompany students on their own journey of learning, whether as captain or companion. In a classroom, a teacher must above all create a multilevel learning experience, in which learners of all kinds shall thrive.

A specific positive experience was my Functional Analysis course as an undergraduate, which I remember as my favorite one of all time. Unlike the PDE course in which I never got past learning the toolset, here I internalized it from the notes quite naturally and largely independently, since I was eager to apply it in assignments given at the tutorial. The tutorial was also held by a professor who I have had for years in Analysis, and found his approach reliable and respectable. His opinion and marking represented to me the unquestionable law carved into stone. In other words I truly trusted him, regardless of him being a difficult personality, who did not think much of "applied" mathematician students. So clearly, I had an incentive to prove myself in attempting to solve the rather difficult problems given by him. Indeed week after week I handed in each assignment in full completion, even though a vast majority of students sabotaged the tutorial by missing it and not doing the homework - the general consensus was that this was a teacher to be disliked. Yet, I saw him as a representative of mathematical rigour from the past, and his very character projected reliability and wisdom. So even though I was a largely independent learner, his character still had an influence on my motivation, captivating my interest as if by undetectable magic. I was not alone though among those who were motivated - some were hard-working by nature, some saw me as competition, and a few were just trying to get by on a mediocre level. I however saw this class, which presented the pinnacle of modern Analysis (Calculus), as a chance to mature into an able mathematician. When the course was over, it felt like I have gone through a training period harsher than ever. Yet by overcoming independently the challenges I have faced, I have reached a new level of mathematical awareness and understanding, inaccessible via any other learning process. Then and there, I became a mathematician.

How was any professor able to evoke all these feelings alone? Analyzing my memories, I believe the answer is that he did not do it alone, I was an equally necessary ingredient. In fact, being the experienced educator he was, I believe he tailored his classes to specifically the kind of student that I was. This was quite irresponsible, since the rest of the class was left behind. I have observed however, that many professors grow tired over the years of having to deal with other - perhaps less motivated - students, and hold their classes for the most worthy. I must however voice my criticism, being a great believer in student potential. While I may have felt good in this particular classroom experience, it was unfair to the other students. Therefore I once again arrive at the conclusion, that a good educator creates classes which run on multiple levels, as an orchestral concert involving winds, strings, and percussion, for various musical sounds which may appeal in varying degrees to individuals in the audience. For instance, there are lovers of rhythm (percussion) and those who are more receptive to tunes (winds or strings), whether brief or overarching. A great symphony like a good lecture, weaves elements in a magical fashion, sparking the minds of as many listeners as possible, ie. optimizing the learning experience for the entire class.

In conclusion, I deduce that the ideal learning experience for me is one where I am granted freedom to explore, and the material is shown to me to be a toolset for practical application in the gradual exploratory process. Even though I have always thought that the personality of the instructor has no effect on me as a learner, I have now realized that it is indeed a major factor towards connecting with the material. A demandingly harsh yet nurturing environment, can be better than the nowadays common easy-going attitude of many professors, on the lookout for high student ratings. A professor can still remain accessible for a personal connection, in many ways. In regards to presentation of material, I have reasoned for a multilevel orchestral manner of information propagation, for optimal exploitation of student potential. Though certain manners of instruction I may see selfishly as ideal to me personally, as a teacher I feel I must become a more complete individual, growing beyond my own natural ways of learning.