Have you ever heard a student ask the question when they study their lessons, “Why am I learning this, I’ll never need to do this in my life?” Of course, you have. It is likely most, if not all, people have wondered the same thing at some point in their academic career and how to focus.
So, why do we fill our classes up with nonsense? Why are students expected to study dates in history, formulas, lessons, and complex rules that seemingly have no value?
This question came up when a student was working on finding the surface area of a cone. He was having difficulties visualizing the cone rolled out and “seeing” what was being measured. He was clearly frustrated. The pencil was dropped to the table as he leaned back in his chair, shoulders slumped, and looking down at the ground, he asked, “Why am I learning this?” Looking back up, he continued, “Am I ever going to use this in the real world?”
The directness of the question was striking. It could only be satisfied by a direct answer. The fact is, no, he will probably never need to find out what the surface area of a cone is outside of a classroom. Frankly, much of what he is learning will not have a direct impact on what he will do in the real world. Alright, that begs an interesting question. Are teachers being mean, or is there more meaning in what we learn?
The student agreed there had to be more meaning, he just did not understand what it was. Looking back at the surface area problem helped the student to see he was given limited data to work with. From that limited information, he was expected to find unknown information.
We talked about that as a skill. Would there ever be times in the real world where someone would have a few facts to work with, and a decision would need to be made with little information? Of course, there will be those times. That is called problem-solving.
Problem-solving or troubleshooting is a skill set needed for everyday life. The student was at a point in his academic career where what he was learning was an exercise in logic. We agreed this was less about finding the surface area of a cone and more about critical thinking. This realization led him to understand this was about training his mind to take limited information and make connections to a greater meaning.
Knowing this exercise is about training his mind to think critically, he now had much more motivation to work at finding the surface area of a cone. The problem now had a real-world application. He now understood the real skill he was learning and seemingly wanted more.
This example demonstrates the reason students need to focus on the “why” rather than the “what.” All too often students focus on what’s. It is common to hear students ask, “what is going to be on the test?” They do this because grades are greatly affected by tests, therefore most study time goes towards identifying and memorizing lessons that is needed for the exam. The challenge is simple memorization does not generally lead to true understanding. True understanding comes from the why.
When students simply concentrate on what’s, they focus on memorization. Memorization is needed for simple facts but is not helpful for understanding concepts. Learning why takes more time but leads to a deeper understanding of the material. When a student memorizes a fact, the test needs that fact to be presented in nearly the same manner as it was memorized.
If a question is asked in a different format, the student who is relying on memorization may be unsure if their fact fits or not. Conversely, finding deeper meaning in the whys leads to a deeper understanding of the concept. This allows a student to answer test questions, in any format, with confidence because the information has real meaning. Focus on the whys, not the what’s.
Here are some ways students gain deeper meaning in the materials and lessons they are studying from.
Students will be more motivated if there is an answer to “why am I learning this?” Helping them see the deeper meaning and providing connections to how the material they are learning is relevant outside the classroom will foster that motivation. Motivated students are more confident, and as that confidence grows, they are better able to see connections on their own. In all, this leads to an independent student who will be successful in their academic career.
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