What Do Students Learn in My Class?

For those of you who know me, you’re aware that my grading system is a bit unconventional. I don’t want to go into that right now, but part of that system is student self-reflection and conferences. This is a great opportunity for me to connect to students and for students to have my undivided attention.

I often design these conferences very loosely and ask broad, open-ended questions to start off, allowing the students to take it where they want to. This leads to, in my opinion, honest answers that force students to reflect not only on themselves and our class, but education in general.

One of today’s questions was, “What have you learned this year?” I asked them to be honest and critical. If they hadn’t felt they learned anything, I wanted to hear it.

There were a lot of good answers, but there was one in particular that I’d like to mention above all the others. It came form a normally quiet student and her answer was so slow coming that I became very worried that she hadn’t actually learned anything; then her answer confirmed it.

I’d like to give you an exact transcript for this conversation, but alas, I didn’t record it. Instead, here is a paraphrased summary:

Student: Well… I mean… We didn’t learn much for school. Don’t get me wrong, I love your class because it makes me think and we’re allowed to have our own opinions, but I don’t know what we’ve learned for school.

Me: What do you mean, how did I make you think?

Student: Well, it’s like when I’m talking to my friends now. I defend my opinions with evidence and my points are a lot more insightful. In the past I would just state my opinion.

Me: How did I do this?

Student: Our class discussions. You don’t just want us to give an answer, you want us to use evidence to support our claim.

Me: What do you mean when you say we haven’t “learned for school?”

Student: I mean we didn’t learn grammar or like facts and stuff, so it’s hard to say what we learned.

It took awhile, but eventually she realized that she had been learning the whole time and that learning for my class wasn’t just about information. She was also surprised to realize that everything she had learned would not only make her a more well rounded person, but help her on the PSAT, SAT, ACT, state test, or any other standardized test we can think up. If it wasn’t something she could cram for or use a study guide for, it wasn’t learning to her.

Many other students struggled to tell me what they learned because their understanding of what learning is. They are so used to having to know information for tests (the quadratic equation, when the attack on Pearl Harbor took place, what mitochondria do, what a participial phrase is, who the only character Hamlet can trust is…) that they miss out on the “why,” or as I ask in my class, the “so what?”. We break learning down into such small chunks that students lose the big picture.


Because the big picture is hard if not impossible to formally assess. And if we can’t formally assess it, we can’t grade it. And if we don’t grade it, students don’t see the value in it. And if students don’t see the value of true learning, they are simply depositories for information in the factory system we call school.


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