Some people respond primarily to the challenge of mastering something, getting inside a subject and trying to understand it in all of its complexity. Such people are considered to be deep learners. University of District of Columbia Provost Ken Bain

My motto as a USC undergraduate back in the 1970s was simple: “No test was worth losing sleep over.”

While some took NoDoz and “pulled” all-nighters, I gave up the hunt around 10:30 pm or 11 pm: Once a lark, always a lark. I figured, ‘If I don’t know my ABCs before Johnny Carson comes on the air, then I won’t know them in the morning.’

As I reflect back upon to this time when dead protein covered my head compared to my present follicly challenged days as a University of Oregon instructor, I ponder whether yours truly was guilty of plugging, chugging and forgetting. The evidence seems to be overwhelmingly stacked in favor of the prosecution.


For example, USC required three semesters in foreign language among other requirements to secure that sacred B.A. diploma. Comprende? I took three semesters of Espanol, and can barely order a taco y burrito at Taco Bell.

Yep, I plugged, chugged and forgot Spanish pronto. I received my three desired letter grades, but other than these particular “accomplishments,” how did I benefit from taking three semesters of Spanish? Heck, how did I benefit from taking geometry?

The reason I raise this question pertains to the sad, unfortunate reality that only 50 percent of recent college graduates are landing a job, any job in this economy. For the first time, there are more unemployed folks with college experience as opposed to those who never stepped foot on a university, college or community college campus.

Compounding this dilemma are the ardent masses from Eastern Europe, Asia and elsewhere that realize they now have a shot at their rightful piece of the economic pie. Are they plugging, chugging and forgetting or are they embarking on a protracted quest for lifelong learning? And if this is indeed the case, how should we in America’s education infrastructure respond?

I remember vividly the Indian engineers at LSI Logic, a publicly traded semiconductor designer in Silicon Valley. Most of the Indian silicon Wunderkindern were graduates of one of the Indian Institutes of Technology. They were super bright, unflappable and polite to a fault. They were also tireless and not intimidated and overly fixated on the problem, only on the solution. Graduating American students have to face the competition posed by these engineers and many others with comparable skills and tenacity. We live in a global economy. Get used to it.

Bain advocates students achieving mastery in a subject and taking a deep dive into the bowels of the challenges that we face in an increasingly complex world.

L.D. Fink of the University of Oklahoma said that the “learning and forgetting” days associated with an overemphasis on teaching are being replaced with a focus on learning. Amen.

Guess that means that we should be spending less time on what information we are trying to convey and more on what the students are learning. Sounds like a paradigm shift to little ole me.

There is more than just paradigm shifting from teaching to learning, there is also the issue of how can we hold student attention for a class, a quarter or a semester. Should we envision sitting in a student’s seat and thinking about how she or he receives our lectures and PowerPoint presentations, and how much is too much?

One technique to break up the monotony that is held in high regard by the University of Oregon and presumably many other institutions of higher academia is to require students to work in groups or teams. Fink references the growing need for interpersonal skills and teamwork to solve complex problems.

Both large classes that I am teaching this fall will call for classmates to work effectively with others. Will there be personality issues? You bet ya. The answer may be the same that is used in the business world: confidential self and team assessments. You can’t expect absolutely equal performance by everyone in the team (except in Cuba), but you can demand that everyone contributes. A little peer pressure does not hurt in focusing student attention on a shared challenge.

What is the role of the instructor, the teacher, the professor in the quest to mitigate plugging, chugging and forgetting and inspiring lifelong learning?

According to the Journal of Business, the amount of information assimilated by students depends on two factors: the teacher’s transmittal performance and the receptivity of the student. Approximately 15 minutes into the lecture, 10 percent of the audience was showing signs of inattention, and after 35 minutes everyone was inattentive. Fink reported that as the length of the lecture increased, the proportion of material remembered by students decreased. The 10-minute attention span seems to be a straw parameter to be supported by visual aids and active-learning techniques.


At the end of the lecture, the average level of the students’ recall of information was 42 percent. One week later, even with the benefit of taking the same quiz a second time, students’ recall had dropped to 20 percent.

One can only wonder about student recall after a quarter or a semester of plug, chug and forget (e.g., my wasted Spanish classes). If this is the teaching norm, it will be no surprise if way too many students are unemployed, underemployed or give up hunt all together.

Will it be their entire fault? Or do we as instructors bear a share of responsibility, particularly if we do not emphasize learning as opposed to mere teaching.