Turning Undergrads into Independent Learners

Academic Freedom, General Interest

By: Joyce Johnston

College educators have often lamented the unintended influence of standardized testing on students’ thinking skills. In my discipline, English, freshman instructors note that the short reading passages that appear on tests limit students’ ability to follow — or even finish reading — longer pieces. Worse, as National Council of Teachers of English has noted, the tests’ multiple choice format gives readers the impression that every text has one, and only one, definite meaning — no ambiguities, no multiple interpretations, no symbols, metaphors or extended themes. To come up with one-issue readings, tests feature non-fiction passages, even advertisements, while (to the dismay of most teachers and librarians) fiction is disappearing. With its disappearance goes creativity, open-mindedness, individual viewpoints and textual richness — in other words, higher order thinking.

Then, just last week, my own George Mason University (GMU) completed a mature draft of a brief but powerful document designed to reinstate innovative, complex thinking for undergrads. The university’s Students as Scholars initiative is encouraging creative research investigation at the undergraduate level rather than waiting — as was my own experience — until a grad student needs a topic for a master’s thesis.

True, even here the effect of standardized testing can be seen in the very fact that GMU feels it needs to specify student learning outcomes instead of allowing each professor to do his/her own thing in the name of academic freedom. However, the seven new SLO’s all derive from one core goal that is central to becoming an independent thinker: “Students will articulate and refine a question, problem or challenge.”

That one sentence sounds so simple, so obvious, so NOT like advanced thinking. But to implement it, all undergrads must grapple with complex issues like research ethics. They have to achieve something often difficult for adolescents: to tell the difference between their own beliefs and actual evidence, then take responsibility for their own results. Not only that, they learn ways to locate research-based versions of that evidence while staying on-topic and remaining objective. Then they practice communicating as upcoming professionals by sharing their findings with real people in their future fields. Students are urged to “be contributors to knowledge in your field, not just memorizers of facts.” In other words, they train to become informed adults who can not only follow, but also create, complex arguments.

So I am encouraged as I get ready to implement these principles into my own instruction, starting next week. Creativity and resourcefulness have long been hallmarks of higher education in America, drawing both native and international students here in ever-increasing numbers.  With emphases like George Mason’s, we are ready to fully educate them.


Joyce Johnston teaches at George Mason University and has been writing and speaking on digital intellectual property and virtual instruction for more than 20 years. As a non-librarian, but a proud member of the Virginia Association of School Librarians, she has provided updates on intellectual property at its annual conference for the past 10 years and serves on the Executive Committee for the World Conference on Educational Media and Technology (aka EdMedia).

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.