What is Learning?

When we talk about learning, we are talking about an activity and experience that involves the whole student, that leads to significant changes in who we are and how we experience the world, and which happens in numerous different places and times during the college experience. Learning is “a comprehensive, holistic, transformative activity that integrates academic learning and student development” (Learning Reconsidered, 2004, p. 6). Learning that is transformative changes how we learn—it is not a matter of information exchange. It is not a transaction of knowledge from one entity to another—it is a change, a transformation in how we understand and engage the world around us. This is a key concept as we consider the idea of learning as it relates to our students, to the work we do, and also to ourselves as we engage in our work.

Where Learning Happens…

Learning and development happen in many situations throughout a college campus. Those spaces include academic spaces like labs, rehearsals, seminars, and discussions. But because learning involves the whole student and their growth and development, learning also occurs all over campus—in student groups, in dining halls, residence hall rooms, in community service, and countless more places.

Students experience college, and their learning during college, as an interconnected system of interactions, experiences, and environments. This system—which is really a student’s life, includes all kinds of contexts and experiences, some of which are designed by the institution and many that are not. These experiences all constitute a student’s learning over time—it spans the different areas of the institution and the many different areas of each student’s life. These are “students’ affairs,” if you will. Moreover, students experience this learning and growth along multiple, overlapping dimensions: cognitive, emotional, interpersonal.

But how do we approach students’ affairs, and their learning and growth in multiple dimensions? Generally, the institution is divided into Student Affairs and Academic Affairs and is then further siloed into hierarchical structures that address specific aspects of the students’ educational experience. For the most part, we think of the cognitive aspects of happening in academic affairs, and the emotional aspects happening in student affairs. There are expectations for interpersonal learning in both areas, though mostly in student affairs. Also, the interpersonal and emotional learning and growth is often not thought of as learning at all, but as an add-on to cognitive learning.

Returning to our definition of Learning…

Learning is comprehensive and holistic—that means that it involves the student’s whole life and doesn’t happen according to the hierarchical and siloed paths of higher education organizations. It happens according to the complex, interconnected experiences of their lives.

It is transformative—it’s not information transfer, it’s a process that changes and transforms you. Learning integrates academic learning and student development. The cognitive, emotional, and interpersonal domains of learning are all learning. They are also all interrelated, can’t happen without each other, and happen in all different types of settings. Emotional and interpersonal growth are not the “back-up dancers” to Cognitive learning. All of these things together are learning. Finally, this learning happens in the types of settings that are the purview of student affairs organizations.

The idea that meaningful learning and development happens throughout a college campus means that we, in student affairs, have a significant impact on students’ learning and a responsibility to provide intentional opportunities for students to learn through involvement with us. Realizing this responsibility and opportunity is central to developing a curricular approach.

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