What Did You Learn?

—Jeanne M. Slattery

Nick, Nicole, and Jennifer, talking about their research on stress and well-being.

Nick Plante, Nicole Morine, and Jennifer Lucus, talking about their research on stress and well-being.

Earlier this semester, my Senior Seminar students and I were reading about what they should be learning in college and considering how their educations matched these ideals. More recently, I asked them to consider what they have learned as psychology majors and how they might sell this to possible employers, much as Catron (n.d.) does. Most had never really thought about why they were learning what they were learning, why it was important, and whether they were meeting their goals. Many students were simply following our directions, doing what we faculty asked without really understanding it. Many of my students suggested that we should discuss these issues with freshmen, during a period when they often found their General Education classes boring and their faculty disengaged. Having observed many Clarion faculty teaching, I suspect that it was really my students who had been disengaged, perhaps because they didn’t know what they were doing or why.

I often talk to my Psychology of Personal Growth students about predictors of success in college, two of which are relevant here: engagement with the content and process of their education, and seeing opportunities for growth from their college experience. If they are seeing college as boring, if they’re just doing it to avoid McDonald’s, they’re not going to succeed. I want my students to find the excitement—and succeed.

Jennifer Lucas, creating a waterfall

Jennifer Lucas, creating a waterfall

My students, especially my Growth students, focus on the content we discuss in class and believe that’s why they are in college. As a result, when they study for exams, they frequently attempt to memorize definitions and use other types of shallow processing. If that’s all they think they’re supposed to be learning, it makes sense to approach tests and classes in this manner.  Instead, I want them to apply the material we talk about in class. I want these students to think critically about their world, question their first assumptions, become more empathic toward others, and handle stress and their relationships better. If they approached my class in this way, they would use deeper strategies of processing—and do better on my exams.

My seniors better understand what they have been learning in college than my freshmen. They know that we’ve been working on written and oral communication; critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, and information processing skills; and interpersonal and teamwork skills. Of course, this is only a subset of what I want them to learn.

With Viz Artz club

In process. Photo by Jennifer Lucas.

Still, it was one of my students who is both a psychology major and an art major who most impressed me in this discussion. Jennifer Lucas looked at the things our department hopes our students will learn, and then observed how she also learned these skills in her art major. For example, she recognized where she learned to think critically in her psychology classes, but also observed, “in every art history class we are taught to analyze paintings for style, content and context. This means we have to think like the artist and try to figure out what he or she is trying to communicate to the viewer.” And, although interpersonal skills are a frequent focus in her psychology classes, they are also being strengthened in her upper level studio art classes where “we have to participate in group critiques of our individual work. Also, we have to respect each other to provide constructive criticism of something we have put a lot of work into.”

I had majors in both psychology and art as an undergraduate, but I don’t remember being able to identify those skills in my art education—I focused on color and line and form, and very little on issues of meaning or process. Was that me or the time? Does Jennifer’s stronger ability to identify what’s happening in her art major reflect a change in our educational process or our ability to articulate it to students? While not all changes in our colleges and universities are for the better, I think this is a real improvement.

My best friend from high school, Melanie Herzog, went on to earn a doctorate in art history. She and I often find ourselves talking about education when we get together and, even though we are at two very different schools, in different fields, we often find more similar than different in our experiences. She says that the content in college is just a hook to engage students, that the really important stuff learned in college is how to engage, think, and analyze; to ask questions and answer them; to work alone and with others; to listen and communicate.

All of this is to say that discussions about the value of a college education, especially of a technical education, miss the boat.  The most important thing about being a psychology major, for example, isn’t learning about Maslow, Rogers, and Freud, but in gaining the communication, interpersonal, teamwork, and work skills that employers want—and that make graduates successful in a wide range of settings (Fischer, 2013). Delong (2014) suggests: “It’s not the value of liberal arts that needs to be debated. It’s how skills acquired with the degree are recognized by students and communicated to employers” (para. 4).

Nonetheless, an education’s value is more than job skills: its value is also personal and civic. A strong education prepares us to understand ourselves, learn where we fit in the world, consider where things have come from, identify strategies for shaping the world for others, live with the most aware set of intentions, and more.

We need to have a stronger discussion about education’s value–for students, families, employers, and our nation. How can we better communicate the importance of these skills and the ways that our students and graduates contribute to a better world?  How can we at Clarion be a more active part of the national conversation about liberal arts education?  Perhaps this blog and others like it is a step?


Catron, (n.d.). What theatre majors learn: The advantages theatre majors have for all jobs. Retrieved from http://lecatr.people.wm.edu/majorslearn.html

Delong, D. (2014). How liberal arts colleges can stop fueling the “skills gap.” Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from http://blogs.hbr.org/2014/02/how-liberal-arts-colleges-can-stop-fueling-the-skills-gap/

Fischer, K. (2013). A college degree sorts job applicants, but employers wish it meant more. Chronicle of Higher Education, Retrieved from https://chronicle.com/article/The-Employment-Mismatch/137625/#id=overview

Thanks to Melissa K. Downes for her thoughtful and insightful comments on earlier drafts of this piece.

Jeanne Slattery is professor of psychology at Clarion University. She is interested in thinking about what makes teaching and learning successful, and generally describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has written two books, Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy, and Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill (with C. Park), and is writing Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Research and clinical perspectives. She can be contacted at jslattery@clarion.edu

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One Response to What Did You Learn?

  1. Pingback: Final Assignments: What Did We Learn? | Hand in Hand

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