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Exploring the Connected Worlds of Formal and Informal Learning in the Modern University

Connected Worlds

Connected Worlds Panel and Attendees at Stanford's Paul Brest Hall.

Photography: Rod Searcey

A panel representing Stanford faculty, administrators, and students examines the many ways in which student learning inside and outside the classroom intersect.

A mid-quarter lunchtime event sponsored by Stanford’s Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning’s (VPTL) Year of Learning initiative saw a diverse panel of seven community members discussing how the formal learning offered in Stanford’s classrooms connects with the informal learning that takes place in its dorm rooms and hallways, through the extra-curricular activities that students undertake, and in the virtual social spaces that collectively constitute the modern residential university experience. 

The conversation teased out some of the many ways in which formal and informal learning intersect at Stanford, and pointed to further opportunities for enriching the student learning experience. 

During Winter Quarter, the Year of Learning is exploring the changing topography and ecology of higher education, which includes learning in all its forms, noted Year of Learning coordinator and VPTL director of interdisciplinary teaching and learning Petra Dierkes-Thrun in opening the discussion. “A huge topic within that is how both learners and learning are changing today,” she suggested.  

Inspiration for the panel emerged from the confluence of three factors, added VPTL senior director of Learning Environments Richard Holeton, who conceived of  the  event. Stanford has a long history of connecting students and faculty in a residential setting and has always valued opportunities for learning beyond the formal class environment, Holeton observed. But it’s also riding a wave of new digital tools and learning environments that offer both significant opportunities and challenges, he said, making this a moment where “Stanford is the perfect laboratory to be looking at connections between these formal and informal learning spaces.”

The panel, led by Deborah Golder, associate vice provost and dean of Residential Education and Jim Campbell, professor of history and director of Residential Programs, began by exploring the learning that takes place in the university’s residential settings. 

There was broad agreement that Stanford’s dorms present significant opportunities for student growth: from the emotional maturing that comes with leaving home for the first time and having to learn how to live with people very different from yourself, to the opportunity to puzzle out intellectual challenges with classmates, to the chance to learn from other students about classes you haven’t yet taken. 

Patti Hanlon-Baker is Associate Program Director of Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.

The residential experience also impacts faculty. Panelist Patti Hanlon Baker, associate director of Feminist, Gender and Sexuality studies and resident fellow for freshman-only Larkin House, for example, observed that “It’s changed the way I think about what’s happening for first year students when I’m a teacher – knowing that there’s probably a lot more happening that I don’t have any clue about.” At the same time, the rich opportunities presented by the Stanford experience can be hard for ambitious students to choose between, explained sophomore and residence computer consultant Madeline Saviano. “There’s this tendency among students to say, 'I might be successful in this and this, but there’s always someone who’s doing better, who has it all. It’s really hard to stop that comparison,'” she explained. Overcommitment in one kind of learning experience can then lead students to miss out on other unique opportunities. “I had a friend who had a chance to go to the Super Bowl and be in the crowd on the field at half time and she turned it down because she had a paper to write,” Saviano recalled. 

To help students get the best from their time at the university, it’s important to acknowledge that students get admitted to Stanford by outperforming their peers, noted Bryan Brown, associate dean of students in the Graduate School of Education and associate professor of science education, and a college director in Freshmen-Sophomore College. So he challenges his staff to model taking part in activities that are simply joyous rather than résumé-building. “They’ll say to students, 'Hey, I’m going on to the train to go see this concert, come with me,'” he said.

There’s an art to nurturing the intersection of formal and informal learning so that both are manageable and each can build on the other, panelists agreed. It’s essential, for example, not to try and control the student conversation about informal learning opportunities, argued Beth Coggeshall, a lecturer in Structured Liberal Education and theme manager for the Humanities House dorm. “At the Humanities House, the crucial thing has been to find as many mechanisms as we can to listen to the students,” she explained. That could result in informal workshops, speaker visits, excursions or even requests for formal, one unit courses related to issues that come up in the course of residential life. But it was important, she said, “to try to have as many student-initiated projects as we can.” 

Staff and faculty do, however, need to be consciously curating the learning experiences that result from these conversations, added Tom Schnaubelt, executive director of the Hass Center for Public Service and a resident fellow in Branner Hall, which has a public service theme. “Sometimes things go wrong and we have to step in,” he observed. “And then we have to help students own that as a positive learning moment in the dorm.”

Beyond managing residential life, students face challenges in successfully weaving the learning opportunities they receive from internships, service learning, and athletic activities into their college experience. And then there are the impacts of virtual learning and social media spaces, which have become a major part of the social experience of students.

In that context, historian Jim Campbell asked whether we’re raising a generation that is unprecedentedly challenged by group work, because they have had spent relatively little time working on their interpersonal skills in face-to-face communication with their peers. “If most of your social interactions are virtual,” he said, “then there are some really essential interpersonal skills that are not getting learned.” 

Social media also has its virtues, like bringing families closer and deepening friendships made away from campus, noted Deborah Golder. What we need to ask, she suggested, “is how do we make sure that the relationship between lived community and virtual community is one that is mutually enhancing?” 

Questions from audience provoked further discussion of the use of social media for social good; of how to help students find the courage to take time out, or fail, when they feel pressed to always appear busy and perfect; and how to encourage students to pick among options by tailoring their commitments to those that help them find deep meaning in their lives.  

Other queries saw the panel reflecting briefly on how students specifically learn from each other in the residential context; the degree to which the student residential experience should — or should not — be orchestrated; strategies for building interpersonal skills; and further ideas for helping students develop their own identities and understand other students with very different experiences from their own.