Monday, October 27, 2014

New College Students and the Nature of Learning

A little red car speeds down the road, the driving hauling everything he or she has.
Face and embrace anxiety and confusion in order
to prepare yourself to learn new things.
Learning is like driving your car in a strange place: It's exciting, it's a little scary, and you don't really know where you're going.  

When you drive your car in an unfamiliar place, you may not know which lane to use, which road to travel, or where to turn.  You might get confused, or frustrated, or tempted to give up.  Learning can be like that, too.

However, after you live in a place long enough, or visit a place often enough, you don't even have to think about your way, and you forget that you were ever lost. But, where would you have gotten if you had given up?  Would you still be sitting on the side of the road?

Embracing Anxiety, Excitement, and Confusion

When a student first goes to college, whether or not it's in a new town or a new place, professors expect students to learn about new things and to learn new ways to do things. Having previous knowledge of a topic or task is a great starting point, but without a little anxiety, excitement, or confusion, there may not be any real learning taking place.  Without pushing beyond the limits of the familiar or what a student already knows, there may not be any real learning taking place.  Students should expect a little anxiety, a little excitement, and a little confusion.

Problems occur when students are unprepared for the frustrations and discomforts that accompany real learning.  It's essential students are taught that these feelings are not only okay, but expected, and a sign of progress.  Embracing these feelings is especially difficult for students who have never been taught to cope with uncomfortable feelings, who have never previously had to struggle in school, or who have always been at the top of the class.  For some students, these feelings are entirely foreign, and are therefore discouraging, as well.  These students often want to shout, "But I have already done this!" or "I already know how to do this!"  Yet, real learning will only take place if those students accept and embrace the struggles of real learning.

Combating Discouragement with Open-Mindedness

To combat discouragement, students should remain open-minded and remember that learning is a lifelong process.

Open-mindedness entails accepting that there are multiple perspectives to issues; issues that sometimes have either no solutions or multiple solutions.  It also entails a willingness to learn about those new perspectives, or new ways to solve problems, make decisions, or communicate effectively. All experiences have the potential to be real learning experiences when a student is open-minded.

Students must also stay open-minded to the fact that learning is a lifelong process.  Giving up on learning is akin to stopping on the side of the road and refusing to drive any further.  A student can only get to where he or she is going by driving, and driving takes time.  Learning, like driving, takes time - a lifetime, in fact.

Want to read more about being a great student?  Try

I Hate My College Classes!  Help!

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess.  Please contact the author for permission to republish.


  1. Well said Professor! I can relate to what you've written in your blog. I started my journey into college much later in life. I've been in school for more than 2 months now. I felt the inhibition, the fear, and the anxiety leading into my day to day classes when I first started. I felt the challenges of juggling my personal life living as a single mom to now being a single mom going back to school after 20 years. The terror that grows with not succeeding, and the inability to manage time properly are just a couple of factors that allow the fear to reside within us. In fact, your analogy states it so well that "giving up on learning is akin to stopping on the side of the road and refusing to drive further." We, as new students should persevere and believe that continuing to learn will only increase our knowledge. Giving up on learning is not and should not be an option. We will only know what we are capable of when we make our journey from point A to point B. If we stop en route to point B, we ourselves are responsible for the limitations we've imposed.

  2. Thanks, Kiran! My job as a professor is to help students overcome those fears while still pushing students into new territory. It's a tough job on both sides of the podium. You're doing a great job!