Skip to main content

From a Student’s View: Freedom and Structure within a Course

Posted by on Monday, February 21, 2011 in News.

This is a guest post by Mara Truslow, Vanderbilt Class of 2013 and Ingram Scholar. The post is part of our spring “From a Student’s View” blog series. We occasionally feature guest posts here on the blog as part of our efforts to cultivate dialogue about teaching and learning among Vanderbilt faculty, students, and staff. We recognize that everyone’s teaching context is different, but we hope that hearing others’ perspectives on teaching and learning will help our readers reflect on their own teaching. If you would like to contribute a guest post, please let us know.

Mara’s post is a response to this prompt:”Do you like to have a clear roadmap from your instructor for the ideas and content explored in a course? Or do you like to have more freedom to go in directions of your own choosing? Does it depend on the kind of course? If so, how?”

I have very different needs from every course in which I enroll at Vanderbilt, but overall, I enjoy structured freedom. I like to know what the content and learning objectives are for the semester during our first meeting as a class, and I want an outline of how the professor believes I can reach the end goal. I want a list of assignments, due dates, and required readings. I want to know the professor’s expectations for the course and from the students.

Yet, within this framework, I want the flexibility to explore what I feel is pertinent in the course because that helps motivate me. I have to want to learn and that can be a challenging feat to overcome when I am in the doldrums of the Arts and Science AXLE Curriculum. In my Systematic Inquiry class, we recently watched a TED Talk by Dan Pink about the science of motivation. He says there are three key factors to motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  The more I reflect on these principles, my belief that true education emanates from motivation becomes firmer. What do I mean by true education? My definition transcends a textbook, an exam, or a paper. From the words of Mark Twain, “I will never let my schooling interfere with my education.” I want my classes to include those exams and papers, but the curiosity emerging from those assignments that leads to further exploration is where I glean my “true education.”

The more I have reflected on the classes I have enjoyed most at Vanderbilt, I have discovered that there is no common thread in terms of the format of the course, the subject matter, or the amount of papers or exams. My favorite courses are the ones that have first and foremost given me autonomy within my assignments to explore what I am interested in. They have challenged me to acquire new skills. Whether it is Foucault’s makings of a prison, Michael Bess’ book that challenges us to think about the moral implications of WWII, or the biological processes to conceive a child, I have acquired a myriad of competencies that matter to me in some fashion. My overarching purpose in life is grounded in a desire to serve others. From each of these classes, I have gained knowledge and skills that have furthered the purpose I feel permeates my life.

I have no expectation of a uniform roadmap for every course. I want the course to be structured so that I have the leeway to be creative with my thinking and explore what interests me within the subject. I want to be motivated to use the newly acquired knowledge in a broader context that is relevant to my life. The freedom to do as you choose in the context of assignments and exams is liberating as long as there is organization within the autonomy.

Is a roadmap necessary? Yes, but only to the extent that a course will take you from Point A to Point B, and the journey between the spaces is where each student defines what they want out of their education!

Image: “Merseyside on a road map,” Scorpions and Centaurs, Flickr (CC)

Tags: , , ,

Leave a Response