The Fun of Learning

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Crystal Ramsay and I are collaborating with Assistant Professor Michael Tews in the School of Hospitality Management.  Michael, an energetic and enthusiastic professor, is questioning the impact of fun on students' learning. While at first glance, this may seem like a trivial topic or perhaps one that is best left to the gaming enthusiasts, I'm finding it a perplexing issue. We have begun by looking deeper at how fun is defined in higher education and we are exploring how to measure it.


As a preliminary step, the three of us each asked a group of students to think about a professor they've had in college and to describe three things that he/she did to make the class fun. The class of aerospace students I queried provided a range of responses with hands-on learning, humor, and relating topics to everyday life topping their lists. They also shared some that got me thinking. For example, several mentioned that they found it fun when a professor starts class with a fact trivia or an airplane of the day. Doing something like that gains their attention as suggested by Gagne's Nine Events of Instruction. One student noted, "The professor was a likeable person who wants to teach" and that made me wonder why we have professors in our classrooms who don't want to teach. Several of the students listed they found it fun to be able to set their own learning goals with one student stating it this way, "Classes where the teacher lets you learn the way you want to learn."  One professor has one a day a week for "gripe day" so that students can voice their agitations with the class or life in general.  Doing so leads to a release of anxiety and with the professor's coaxing; students get to figure out possible solutions as well as sometimes see the silliness of their dilemmas. 


I find it very telling to listen to students and I'm looking forward to hearing more as we make progress with this study. In the meantime, I am going to get back to the fun of thinking about teaching and learning.

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Talking casually with students about what makes a course fun has given me some deeper insight into the characteristics of our students. When you ask them what makes a course fun, you get some of the typical responses you'd expect: food, humor, holding class outside. But it's some of the other themes in the responses that should give us pause: content is made relevant to students' lives; interactive--students and instructor get to know one another, mix of strategies are used to engage students; mixed media or short field trips provide examples of concepts and content; when the instructor takes the content seriously, but not him or herself. Our students are more thoughtful than we often give them credit for being.

I don't really know how to define fun. But I know it when I experience it. And so do our students. Seems like a lot of things that are fun in the classroom are also great teaching strategies. Fun and learning are not mutually exclusive!

I am the "gripe day" professor mentioned in Kathy's posting. While gripe day is indeed fun and students often comment on the SRTEs that they enjoy it, its primary purpose is to get students more at ease talking in class. By having them talk about things that relate to their everyday lives, they become comfortable speaking up in a classroom setting. This strategy has been effective in classes of over 100 as well as in much smaller enrollments. And it is fun.

Managing this activity requires a quick wit and the ability to tease out some of what they want to share. Perhaps not all professors would be comfortable being the stand up comedian, but I've found that the students are appreciative of this technique and enthusiastic.

Interesting discussion; thanks!

Mark: This sounds like a fabulous technique to build a learning community and rapport among students as well as between them and you. Do you do this more often at the beginning of the class, or is it a regular activity throughout the semester? I'm wondering about how much class time you devote to it overall.

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