Class Warfare Blog

June 10, 2020

Is “Learn at Your Own Pace” Even a Real Thing?

Filed under: Education — Steve Ruis @ 11:07 am
Tags: , , ,

In one of the many newsletters I get, there was an ad for “Online Courses” with the subtitle “Learn at Your Own Pace.” Is this a real selling point? Do we all have our own learning pace?

I was a classroom teacher for going on 40 years and I did some major experiments with “self-paced learning” and came to the conclusion that “self-paced” means “slow.” That is slow by any definition you want.

Now teaching in a school or college is a special case: students presumably are “learning” as a full-time or at least major part-time job. “Reformers” of education, i.e. people with ideas to sell or people who didn’t navigate the current system at all well and blame the system, often point to the strengths of educations and declare them to be weaknesses. No one seems to take a step back and look at the whole picture in a cost-benefit type of analysis.

Since I was a college teacher, I will frame my comments in that context. Others who taught elsewhere can comment on their situation.

In colleges there is a workload system in place, it is generally referred to as the unit load system or some such similar name. Most commonly the Carnegie system is used where a unit of load is equal to . . . on average . . . three hours of work per week, both in and out of the classroom. So, a typical load of 15 units of credit, taken over four years of study results in a bachelor’s degree (if the correct courses are taken and passed, of course). At the 3:1 ratio, a full-time student has a 45 hour per week “job” he/she is undertaking.

Now, the step back. The college/university is providing: a classroom with chairs, wall boards, AV equipment, computers, etc. at a particular time or times during the week and a qualified instructor/professor to guide the learning. The student only has to show up at the time and place to take advantage. Of course, specialized classrooms also abound: theatres, photography labs, chemistry labs, swimming pools, gymnasiums, etc. So, a great deal of infrastructure has been built and is being made available, in most cases for fairly little cost.

The economies of scale are large. The rooms get utilized well, the teaching faculty get utilized well, the specialized equipment gets utilized, and the student’s time is organized well.

Imagine the chaos if at the beginning of every term, each group of students and their teacher has to run around trying to claim some space to meet and the equipment needed to do the work.

A number of universities collect the course requests of their students, then assign professors and classrooms based upon demand, and send out class schedules to one and all. But the same economies of scale exist.

But . . . learning at your own pace?

What if you find you can’t keep up? What if everyone else in the class you are in seem to be racing away and you are falling father and farther behind? Surely you are a candidate for converting the entire system to self-paced instruction. Ah . . . no.

So as to not throw the baby out with the bathwater (the baby being an education system that was and is world-class), your first option is to work harder. The 3:1 ratio of workload to units of courses, is an average. Some people will need to invest more time, others less. Students will need more time in some subjects and less in others (nobody ever confused the workload of a three unit PE course with a 3 unit Chemistry course), so there are some trade-offs and the additional time doesn’t have to come on top of the 45 hour weekly work plan. It can be shifted around. But if more time is needed beyond the normal, a 50 hour or 60 hour workload is available to you (been there, done that, done more).

If, somehow, your other responsibilities prevent you from exceeding your 45 hour (or whatever) commitment, there are other alternatives. One is to withdraw from one of your courses and use the time committed to that subject to make the time needed to catch up in the problematic one (been there, done that . . . once).

Bottom Line
Education is a social process. It is not the acquisition of knowledge as so many seem to think. Getting an education involves learning how to learn from others (teachers, classmates, etc.) and learning how to work with others, and most specially learning how to learn and learning how to think (how not what). This requires other people to be involved, to communicate with, to work with. I, like many other students, found study groups to be invaluable. You meet somewhere (library, empty classroom, somebody’s apartment, etc.) and work together. Sometimes this was simply sitting in silence doing homework exercises. Just having someone else in the room in the same boat, as it were, whom you could ask questions of is reassuring. Having a classmate say “I don’t understand that either” somehow makes it more normal to not understand something and empowers one to ask questions when one is back in class. (In one of these sessions I learned how to use slips of paper (this was before Post-It Notes) in my textbook, so if the professor asked “Are there any questions, I could raise my hand and turn to a slip and start “On page xyz, the book says “ . . ..” and ask my question. If he/she continued to solicit questions, I had additional slips.)

Online courses can be good, to a point. But if you want an education, it requires a village. And it requires time. The general progress of any class as a whole is a social force, a force that says “Keep up!” In the absence of that push we get in the process, we all (and I do mean all) tend to slow down. Slowing down from a pace one could have met means that either less will be learned or fewer courses will be completed or one’s school years will be extended.

Keep up, Grasshopper, keep up.

And, if you cannot, there are adjustments you can make so you will have the time you need and it does not mean changing the whole system into one in which you are the only one at the spot in the process you are in. If you keep up you will have fellow travelers.

When we get out of school, not keeping up is not an option in any case. If you are slow to weed and feed your garden, you may find more weeds than anything else in it. If you do not pay your taxes on time, there are penalties. If you dawdle and not express your true feelings to a loved one, they may move on to someone else. If you don’t meet deadlines or quotas at your work, you will be looking for another line of work.

Keep up, Grasshopper, keep up.

Postscript As a purveyor of online instruction, the main selling points we see are: that you can do the course when you want, even 2 AM, dressed as you want, even in your pajamas, and you don’t have to wait for the course to be offered (it is a one day course in person), travel to that place taking time off of work, using time to travel, eating on the road, etc. No one . . . ever . . . mentions: “I really liked being able to learn at my own pace.”

An especially useful point is that if you missed the one and only face-to-face class being offered this year, you still have the opportunity to qualify for a job, etc. (I thought it was next Tuesday! I missed the training! When can I take the class?) So, such courses do have their reasons, but a need for “self-paced learning” doesn’t seem to be one or if it is, it is a small one.

Blog at