Universal Mentors Association

Having students write educational narratives promotes active learning (opinion)


“I know college is something that exists out there. It’s something that I can do. But will I be able to do it?” —Seema Ramdat, graduate of John Jay College

The voice of a student from John Jay College in the City University of New York system opens this brief reflection on slow active learning. As educators at CUNY, we have heard similar voices many times, each offering a version of the same message: my educational journey is not clear. It is precarious. I see red flags.

And indeed, this is true for many college students in the United States today, including first-generation students, lower-income strivers, students who experience racial barriers and disabled students. Those students are asking, “How does higher education work? How do I fit into this thing called college? How does college fit within the trajectory of my life? How did I get here?”

Such questions point to the students’ desire for integration, their desire to better understand the relationship of college life to their life. Yet they suggest that education can interrupt or stymie the desire for wholeness rather than satisfy it. A survey published by the World Economic Forum revealed one of the top reasons students drop out is that they simply do not know why they are in college.

In our experience as college instructors, we’ve found that the practice of writing their educational narratives is one way to help students turn their educational question marks into coordinates. Educational narratives promote slow active learning. Like narratives in literature that relate events and characters, active learning helps students to piece together their own educational moments, experiences and influences.

For all kinds of nontraditional students, their educational stories are not easy to tell or relate to. So much about education can seem random. Yet not piecing together their educational narratives makes students bystanders rather than active participants and authors of their own educational and life stories.

So how can classroom instructors help students write educational narratives that foster integration and orientation? And how can we do so in ways that do not smooth over or ignore students’ often broken trajectories, their doubts and questions, and their sense of educational disorientation?

We can ask a simple question: “How did you get here?” Note that this is an active learning exercise that faculty members in all types of disciplines can use early on as part of classroom introductions and then throughout the semester. The question lends itself to the work of creating complex educational narratives, because it asks several questions at once.

How Did You Get Here Today?

This seemingly mundane question makes students’ commutes to classes part of their educational journeys. It prompts students to think about their lived experiences of getting an education, which requires getting to an education. Drawing on the work of disability rights scholars, we know that overlapping systems need to function in tandem in order for many students to get here.

For example, public transportation systems such as New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or MTA, must be working if our commuter students are to have any hope of getting to and then navigating public higher education systems like CUNY. Disabled students may also rely on working elevators or reliable paratransit, neither of which have a great track record.

When transportation fails or is delayed, educational progress can also stall. Making these kinds of connections between students’ experiences gives them a manageable way to begin to answer and conceptualize the larger question of “How did you get here?” It also provides an opportunity to work toward an anti-ableist pedagogy that recognizes our shared needs and invites conversation about the barriers present in the systems we depend on. When educational narratives become material histories of access and resource distribution, students learn to entangle the individual and the systemic in order to resist the allure of triumphalist student (and teacher) success stories.

How Did You Get Here, Into This Class?

This question asks students to narrate the process of class scheduling as part of their educational journeys. How did your class schedule get determined? Was the process transparent or opaque? Did you follow your work schedule or a formal degree plan? Did you consult an adviser or peers? Getting into a particular class is a question of systems, bureaucracies and the availability—or not—of information.

Unfortunately, this scheduling thread of the narrative can often seem like the major plot line of the college story, as though enrolling in the courses one needs to graduate is the most important graduation requirement. Certainly, understanding how to navigate one’s degree path is crucial to student progress. But the process of figuring out which classes will count and, in turn, advance one most quickly and cost-effectively toward graduation—a primary concern of poor and working-class students—ought not be the drama that our students report it to be in their educational narratives. Their negative, stressful experiences of course selection could be avoided with more robust advising, greater student-to-student engagement and improved technology.

Asking this second version of the question “How did you get here?” thus reveals two important findings. First, students retain quite vividly their feelings of frustration about how—or whether—they got into a class. Educational narratives take such affective experiences seriously, incorporating them as key data points.

And second, the question reveals that students are highly attuned to the work of avoiding classes that seem to obscure the path to graduation, classes such as queer studies or disability studies, our two areas of expertise. Educational narratives thus reveal the power of the recognizable and the normative to curtail discovery and the surprise of learning. Recovering the possibility of discovery and surprise can become a previously unthought educational goal for students who develop narratives of their journeys.

How Did You Get Here, to College—and This College?

This is the most straightforward formulation of the question—and the hardest to answer. It asks students, and also professors, to explicitly integrate the here of college with the there of their lives. That integration is, of course, the entire goal of education.

The goal is neither to “go away” to college (the traditional, residential college narrative) nor to “get through” college to earn a degree (the transactional, social mobility narrative). The goal, rather, is to integrate and sustain one’s education for life: on the job, at home, in the community. Such big questions often produce big question marks as answers. “I’m not completely sure how I got here,” many students say. To which the exercise of writing their educational narrative helps provide an answer: “OK, but try to tell us. Start with question No. 1: How did you get here today?”

A Continual Redrafting

These three questions produce a first draft of an educational narrative, a form of authorship that each student pieces together from sometimes disconnected or disorienting educational experiences. Yet educational narratives require revision as a class progresses, not least because in a peer-to-peer, active learning classroom, students have the pedagogical orientation and tools to produce a shared educational narrative. Students in one of our classes reflected this shift to collective narrativization and knowledge production:

“Sharing our personal stories of how we got to CSI with each other made us realize that not many of us planned to come here. A common denominator for why we ended up here was financial reasons and convenience. Many of us have jobs and some have children. Now that we are here we realize that CSI has great opportunities and programs, but it is very underfunded.”

In that this layered and now collective question “How did I/we get here?” needs to be ongoing, answered and answered again, it captures the necessarily recursive drafting and redrafting process of writing our educational narratives. In this sense, the continuing work of constructing integrated educational narratives produces slow active learning, a long-term project of making sense of education for life: “While we came to this class for many different reasons,” one class wrote in a collective voice, “we hope to take all that we learned here and apply it to our everyday lives and careers.”

Near the end of the semester, we can ask one final question that further shows that active learning is sometimes revealed only slowly, over time, even as active learning also often succeeds through immediate engagement. “To whom did you teach our class?” Notice that it’s now “our” class, not “this” class.

Students react to the question “To whom did you teach our class?” with authority and variety, reflecting their ability to internalize and extend classroom pedagogies. Reversing student and teacher roles, this question elicits responses including, “My peers outside of class,” “coworkers,” “parents and siblings,” “children,” “customers” and our favorite: “my professor.” It often reveals that our disoriented students, who sometimes can’t say quite how or why they got here, have in fact been teachers all along.

Like the best lessons, this is a lesson our students teach us, not the other way around. In writing their extended educational narratives, they show us that they are constantly teaching others in rooms their professors never see. They are actively engaged in the slow, integrative work of moving transformative pedagogy out there, beyond the classroom and walls of the academy and into the rest of their lives. Indeed, an educational narrative that students carry with them into their daily lives, communities and the world is an educational narrative that does not end.

Matt Brim is professor of queer studies in the English department at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York. Jessica Murray is director of digital communications for transformative learning in the humanities at the City University of New York.


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