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LEWISBURG, Pa.— Studies have shown that students who are engaged in and out of the classroom learn more through hands-on experiences.
But taking time in solitude to reflect is just as important as the activities themselves, says Joseph Murray, an associate professor of education at Bucknell University who has studied college student development for more than 20 years.
"Students need to spend time alone with their thoughts, and there's reason to believe that's not happening nearly enough," Murray said.
How college students spend their time has become a topic of much discussion recently with the publication of a new book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, which has gained national attention for its conclusions about academic success, extra-curricular activities and study habits since its release in January. In the book, authors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, sociology professors at New York University and the University of Virginia, respectively, conclude that those who study by themselves are more apt to succeed and to retain knowledge than those who study in groups.
They, like Murray, advocate the reincorporation of solitude into academic life.
Unlike Murray's work, Arum's and Roksa's research runs somewhat counter to the National Survey of Student Engagement, which advocates extra-curricular activities as a way of enhancing the learning experience. Arum and Roksa tie academic shortcomings to certain teaching and learning methods and wide involvement in programs outside the classroom.
Reflection a key to learning
Murray draws a distinction between the ways in which such methods are employed versus the methodology itself. He notes, for example, that opportunities for reflection are a basic tenet of service-learning.
"I'm not looking to throw out the baby with the bathwater, but over-commitment can be detrimental to students' personal development of spirituality and their overall philosophy of life," Murray said. "Activities require some time for reflection. The real concern is over-commitment on a superficial level."
Murray discusses his research in a recent article, "When Involvement Becomes 'Busyness,'" published in the November-December issue of the American College Personnel Association's About Campus.
Exploring 'big questions'
Murray and Paul Macdonald, an assistant professor of religion, were part of a group of educators from Bucknell, Williams, Vassar and Macalester Colleges who examined students' exploration of "big questions" about values, purpose and intentions for the future. The research, which focused on students at secular liberal arts universities and colleges from 2006 to 2008, was funded through a $100,000 Teagle Foundation Fresh Ideas grant.
The group found, in part, that students tend to ponder questions about their own values, purpose and intentions outside the classroom, in informal settings such as service-learning trips, study abroad or other cultural immersion experiences, Murray said. One example of such an experience is the weeklong Bucknell Brigade to Nicaragua in which students, faculty and staff work together, eat together and share a dormitory while helping residents rebuild their community.
"Students who have had an experience like that, of having interaction with faculty outside the classroom, tend to have explored those big questions like, 'How will I live my life?' 'What do I believe?'" Murray said.
Solitude vs. connectedness
The challenge of reincorporating solitude into the academic experience is on par with a global culture shift, with the increasing connectedness that smartphones and other mobile devices offer, Murray noted.
"In this culture of busyness and with all this social networking, students have the experience that every waking hour should be spent doing something," Murray said. "Part of it is because student engagement is encouraged. There is a lot of evidence that students who are engaged learn better, but we need to make it OK for students to find places for stress relief and reflection and to take time for themselves.
"The millennial generation is very tech savvy, but do they know how to experience solitude? Are we asking students to be involved in just being and to unplug?"
Murray suggests that colleges and universities create more opportunities for students to think about their experiences and to process them mentally and to ask themselves what insight they can gain from the experiences they have had.
"We need to create opportunities for reflection," Murray said. "If all we are doing is engaging, engaging, engaging, we lose that piece that transforms experience into learning."
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