Science & Research

Making the most of shopping period

Strong advising, intrinsic motivation important when navigating abundance of classes

By and
Senior Staff Writer and Science & Research Editor
Thursday, February 5, 2015

As shopping period came to a close Wednesday evening, so ended a two-week span of myriad educational choices for students — choices that can be both empowering and overwhelming. While the open curriculum affords a unique type of academic liberty to students, the underlying empirical merits and drawbacks of free-choice learning are often forgotten amidst the bustle of shopping period.

“It puts students in a position where they really have to think about their educational goals and interests,” said Professor of English William Keach.

Students change a lot in their first years at college, and Brown’s curricular structure gives them the freedom to act on these changes, he added.

John Falk, professor of free-choice learning at Oregon State University, said there have been few studies on liberal education because in most studies, students do not get to choose what they learn.

“A key variable that has often been neglected in terms of learning is motivation,” Falk said. Research studies that examine the outcome of college education styles typically include biased participants — students who have an inherent incentive to succeed in school and earn their degrees, he added.

These biases preclude researchers from rigorously studying how personal motivation factors into a student’s education. Intrinsic motivation — the internal desire to do something because it brings pleasure — can be more effective than extrinsic motivation, which is driven by external rewards such as money or grades, Falk added. Intrinsic motivation is particularly vital for Brown students navigating an educational model  like the open curriculum, he added.

“By giving them that choice, it increases the likelihood that (education) is meaningful to them,” Falk said.

Though choosing classes during shopping period may be stressful, the decision-making process is beneficial to students in the long run, said Matthew Kraft, assistant professor of education. Free choice in college gives students a sense of independence that will benefit them after graduation, he added.

Everyday schoolwork may not be the most important benefit of college, Falk said. “There’s plenty of research that shows people can learn things to take tests, but years down the road they virtually remember nothing,” he said.

“Creating situations where people can bring their own interests and their own needs to the learning process turns out to be really important,” he added.

Individuals who have an interest in a topic are more likely to be motivated learners — they are more likely to seek out challenges, use efficient learning strategies and respond effectively to feedback, Falk said.

But while a student’s drive is a vital ingredient in the free-learning concoction, it cannot sustain a student’s education in itself, Kraft said. It is “less about the type of student and more about high-quality advising,” he added.

“A key step is for students to have full access to information pertaining to the decision-making,” wrote Kenneth Wong, professor of education and chair of the department, in an email to The Herald. Peer advising, faculty mentoring and academic fairs are productive ways to support students, he added.

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