What is the most important thing for college students to learn?

That question sounds more moral than I intend it to. What stirred this thinking is a few recent conversations with colleagues online, and then an “open question” posted by another.

image: screenshot of facebook post from Peter Wallis asking, “Open question: If you could make sure people learn one thing, what would it be?”

If I could only teach one thing, or if I could ensure that students leave my courses with only one new bit of learning, I’d want them to leave with more love. Please allow me to explain.

This is a narrative approach, and it concerns how students see themselves, how others see them, and to what extent they allow the best version of the story to prevail. Let’s think through it briefly. Think of the person in your life either now or at some point in your past, who just loved you like nobody’s business. If you have such a person in the present, let’s stick with them, but one from the past will do too.

Do you have that person in mind? It could be your current partner, a good friend, a sibling, a grandparent, maybe a mentor, past or present. Think of the person who both knew you intimately and saw the best things in you. For me, I have had two people: my Gram, in the past, and my spouse today. I could tell either of these people that I won some extremely competitive award, and their response would be, “Of course you did. You’re amazing.”

My ability to see myself at least to some extent how they see me is what propels me to be my best self. I am absolutely a better person because they loved me, and because I am able to see myself how they see me, re-authoring my life story using the lens they gave me.

What one thing would I want students to get from my class? I want to help them find this lens, so they can be their best selves.

Next semester, I’m going to invite students to introduce themselves in a new way. I’m going to invite my students to introduce themselves by sharing a story of their choosing, about themselves, but to share the story as if their biggest fan in the world (past or present) were introducing them to us through this story. My hope is that this gives them a frame through which they can think about living into that narrative. (Yes, this is a very narrative therapy approach to identity development theory.) I will model this by actually having my wife introduce me by telling a very brief story about me, in her own way.

I’m eager to see how this goes! If I could leave my students with only one thing, it would be learning how to see themselves as their biggest fan in the world sees them, and to re-author their stories to align so they can live into being the best version of themselves.

I know this all may sound a bit sappy. I get that. Ideally, they can also learn the core principles of Community Psychology in my class, principles which give a sort of perspective on the world that I also think is useful to many. And I already have as a learning objective on my syllabus that I want students to learn the extent to which they really can make a difference in the world. I think the narrative introduction, best-self opening activity will only serve to make the other learning objectives more likely. 🙂

About Erika Sanborne

Erika is an award-winning, long-time educator, who consults with individual faculty and administrators on how to meet their teaching goals. She is now also a population health researcher and sociology PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota, which means for now, she is a senior adjunct professor, a consultant, a research assistant, and a PhD Candidate, all at the same time. This has enhanced her understanding of the teaching and learning issues we're facing in academia today on all fronts.

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