A little story about learning about learning (while learning).

Library (Photo credit: thejester100)

Once upon a time, but not that long ago, there lived an associate professor. This professor enjoyed her work and the students she worked with. She regularly put in long hours in the office diligently planning lectures and activities, mindful of the need for well-placed jokes, illustrations, examples, and time for processing. With as much creativity as she could muster (which compared to some was quite a lot, though it depended on who she compared herself too) she formulated impossible-to-buy-on-the-internet assignments, uniquely challenging take-home finals, and generally speaking felt pride in her work . Though she dreaded reading student evaluations she knew that overall, on balance, her evaluations were really quite good. After all, she’d earned tenure in an environment where student evaluations were currency. She knew you can’t win over everyone, all of the time. Despite knowing that, however, the smattering of negative comments riddled throughout the evaluation stacks nagged at her. Did they have a point? Some, certainly not, sour grapes are easy to spot and sure to cause upset if digested. But some complaints about the tediousness of long lectures (despite clarity of examples and enthusiastic delivery), took up permanent residence in a cozy corner of her mind, summarily refusing to vacate.

Cognitive and developmental topics are what this professor taught, topics she found intrinsically engaging. Students, to the contrary, often did not share this intrinsic interest though, especially when it came to cognitive psychology. Yet over the years this professor collected and created numerous demonstrations and illustrations that worked wonders at piquing her students’ interest (despite their initial hesitation). In this way, while staying current with the research with a nod towards application, this professor read quite a bit about how cognitive psychological topics applied directly to student endeavors: debates on discovery learning, experiments on the testing effect, theorizing on achievement motivation and much more besides.  Facts, figures, and hypotheses about optimal engagement techniques took up permanent residence into that little space in her working memory too, right alongside those evaluation complaints.

Time permitting, she would let these resident thoughts take center-stage and she would mull over the contradictions and challenges provoked by the juxtapositions between student comments and research topics. Some published authors presented their “case” on best practices in a straw-man argument sort of way making many anti “sage on the stage” critiques easy to dismiss as poorly framed arguments that missed the point. But other authors compelled her with sound logic and solid data. After a time, the compelling cases reached a critical mass and took over, forcing her to act. Powered by empiricism (and a natural desire to keep things fresh) she created a new class she titled “The Psychology of Studying.” She designed the class with layers of aims targeted at stimulating active thinking, metacognition, and healthy achievement motivation – the content to learn and skills to build. With a healthy dose of anticipation mixed with anxiety she put it on the schedule.

The class was delivered in block format where students encountered 30 hours of “seat time” in a two-week period. Intense! In that time frame, perhaps only 3 hours total were spent in lecture. Students read assigned material about cognitive and motivational psychological topics every night, writing a summary and posing questions along the way. In class each day the activities reflected what they read (and wrote) about. Students were put in the driver’s seat during class time, with prompts and maps of course, but they directed themselves. In this way, students learned and lived the material for two solid weeks.  And they loved (to hate) it! By the end of week one it became clear that they gestalt of this class was even greater than expected.

The students got it. They got engaged, worked harder than they ever would have had the class been a lecture, or even a more standard seminar, and they enjoyed it.

This is way more fun than I expected” remarked one senior, unprompted and with heart-felt enthusiasm.

I wish this class could have been my *FYS class, which was pointless, whereas this is so valuable!” A freshman emphatically stated, in no uncertain terms.

[*FYS being the required freshman seminar class that purportedly prepares students for college]

Many other students admitted that they thought, coming into the class, that they already knew all they needed to know about learning, they’d gotten into the college after all, but they now stood corrected and eager to apply their freshly formed skills to other classes. Never before in her professional life had this professor seen so many smiles at the end of a block formatted class, and an academically challenging one at that. All were exhausted yet elated. Self-reflection and data converged on the message that students learned the material and built the skills, just as the doctor ordered. Indeed, psychologists like to measure things and this professor was no exception. She assessed the students’ metacognitive knowledge and motivational tendencies on the first and second-to-last class meetings, entered the “before and after scores” into her trusty statistical analysis program and hit “analyze.” The output report showed clear and significant growth. She didn’t need to read their final papers to know that her aims had been met.

This story about a professor – with its character introduction, internal conflict (Do I change, or not? is the argument driven by complainers or visionaries?), complications (What does inquiry based learning look like in psychology? All the examples are from chemistry and physics), and conclusion (Change happened and change was good) – could end here with much fanfare and hand-waving. But in reality it isn’t quite over yet. The final grades have yet to be entered and the evaluations have yet to be processed. Yet the professor can see the light at the end of the block-tunnel and she likes its rosy glow.

The story isn’t yet over though because she now has a decision to make. What should she do next? Should she convert everything? It’s tempting. We all like happy endings, and she liked the way that class ended. But the success of this new class, she knows, came in part from the synergistic blend of content and its application: students learned about learning while learning about learning (oh what fun!). But would it work this way in every case, even in those cases where the layers don’t align quite so plumb-ly? Perhaps not (oh boy, the complications just keep coming).

As her decisions about what to do next meld into plans, then, this story will continue on and this professor will think about beginnings and about middles more than she will think about endings. In life-long-learning, endings aren’t what we strive for anyway. As she simultaneously closes one chapter and opens others (only 4 working days between terms), the contents in that cozy corner of her mind are shifting and re-centering on the advice that the best teaching “style” is one that reflects the material, not the students per se. She will be thinking about what that means in all the material she teaches. For example, she’s read – and conveyed to her students – that stories are psychologically privileged. We humans not only love good stories, but we remember them too. This knowledge will surely shape her work in new ways from here on out — she’s already playing around with story telling in differing contexts.

In closing, this little story about learning about learning (while learning) intends to illustrates how a skeptical associate professor came to realize that carefully guided discovery/inquiry-based learning can cast a potentially untenable situation (e.g., 23 students, frosh – senior, spanning 6 different majors and various motivations for being there) into something else entirely – something fresh, new, and dare she say, great. But this professor also knows that she shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water quite yet. Sometimes the water just needs refreshing. And refreshment can take a number of forms.

On that note, it’s safe to say that this professor will continue to teach, and happily ever after, at that.

NOTE on citation of this work: This is an original piece of writing, not published elsewhere. If you would like to refer to this work in your own writing or scholarship activities, please use the following citation (format follows the 6th edition of the APA Publication Manual):

Kleinknecht, E. (2013). A little story about learning about learning (while learning). Retrieved from



  1. I don’t know where you work, but they’re fortunate to have you. Many teachers would think, “How dare they question my teaching style!!” but you’ve shown a willingness to look at the big picture and to try to improve the situation for all concerned.

    • Thanks for your comment Marlajayne, I appreciate it! I do always try to remember that teaching isn’t a one-way street — both teachers/professors and students have to bring something to the table to make it effective. And even more importantly, that there is no such thing as a one-size fits all model, whether in higher ed or in primary-secondary ed situations. It’s a lot of work to make big changes, but the pay-off is often great for both me and my students.

  2. Nice post. I have become a big fan of inquiry-based learning. After 21 years of teaching, the last five have been the best thanks to good faculty-development efforts. Have you heard about the POGIL project to bring inquiry learning to chemistry?

    • Glad you enjoyed it. I have heard of the POGIL project- the chemistry department in my college has adopted it completely for their Intro sequence and to great effect! I’ve consulted with some of my Chem colleagues about what they do and have significantly modified my Intro to Psych class based on those discussion and some others as well. I agree with you, that inquiry based learning really can be a lot of fun, and effective too! Fun and effective don’t always go hand in hand, but when they do it’s fabulous.

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