Higher Ed Outsider: Show vs. tell

In the most recent episode of Big Beacon Radio: Transforming Higher Education, guest Jeff Shelton discussed his educational background and how it led him to become the host of the Engineering Commons Podcast.

Jeff went back to school to receive his PhD later in life, decades after completing his initial degrees. By the time he returned to school, Jeff had years of professional experience putting his degree to work. Recognizing that his experience made him a more eager student, he now frames each podcast episodes by asking: “If I were a student, what would I need to know?”

Most undergraduate students, regardless of major, are in an exploratory part of their lives. Most undergrads aren’t looking practically at the future. Finally free of their parents and the daily monitoring of a high school environment, undergrad life is about testing the waters and exercising new freedoms. That push to get down to business and really figure out how to make a place for themselves in the world through a career typically comes as a result of the post-grad wake up call. And usually, that realization isn’t pretty. Students look back and realize that they weren’t internalizing their learning as much as they should have. Of course, hindsight is 20/20. But what can you do as an instructor to help minimize this future freak-out?

Show your students what they need to know, don’t just talk about it.
Professors can preface course content by saying “you’ll need this in the industry” or tell stories about their work experience ’til the cows come home, but that doesn’t make the experience personal to the students. Try creating a classroom environment, an after-hours lab, or structuring a project, to be as applicable as possible to a on-the-job task or struggle. Maybe even stage a version of an actual problem you faced, in great detail. Give your students autonomy in this mock work environment (and of course break that professorial fourth wall if needed)

If students remember nothing else, they’ll remember when they had to figure something out for themselves. They’ll remember when they were treated like respected, capable adults, yet still felt safe in the comfort of the school environment. This experience will leave students feeling confident in their abilities. And it might be the thing that will help dig them out of that post-grad crisis, ensuring them that they’ve learned something valuable for the road ahead.

Listen to this episode on VoiceAmerica or download on iTunes podcasts.

Learn more about Big Beacon Radio, here.


Emma Schoenfelner is an engineering & higher ed outsider, receiving a degree in Television Writing and Producing from Columbia College Chicago, a quad-less, non-traditional arts & media school in the heart of downtown Chicago.