The importance of self-directed learning

    Why do we go to Northwestern? There is no doubt that we come here to get degrees, prepare ourselves for employment, grow as individuals and create meaningful relationships. At the end of the day though, institutions of higher learning exist to acquire and share knowledge. I think that students here, including myself, can get caught up in the pressures of classes, activities and resume-building and forget the main focus of this experience, which is to learn for learning’s sake. The reward of self-directed learning is the pleasure and intellectual growth that’s associated with the intrinsic value of collecting and sharing knowledge.

    With the pre-professional mindset of Northwestern, it can be hard to remember that we take classes not only to succeed and prepare for our futures, but because the act of learning itself is a privilege that we have the opportunity of embracing. Cultivating this mindset among the student body would help to develop an intellectual community at Northwestern with students of diverse interests and talents, making us better and more rounded people.

    That’s why I try to set aside time throughout the quarter to read for pleasure or embark on learning ventures that excite me in a way that studying for an upcoming econometrics exam just doesn’t cut it. For instance, throughout Reading Week and Finals Week of Winter Quarter, I used the unstructured time to read a book on Buddhist psychology by Matthieu Ricard called “Happiness”, a subject that I haven’t had the chance to explore in my classes. This self-directed learning not only allowed me to explore a new topic and share that information with my friends, but also relieved me from the stress of finals and reestablished the purpose of my education here at Northwestern. 

    It is also worth noting that this self-directed learning is ideal for capturing the best of our minds and creativity. In Dan Pink's lecture “The Puzzle of Motivation”, he discusses the need to rethink the dominant motivational philosophy of business management that he calls the “carrot and stick” model, instead advocating for an emphasis on promoting intrinsic motivation. The company Atlassian has employees drop their work for 24 hours to focus on creating a personal project to present to co-workers that allows for self-expression and Google’s rule that 20 percent of work time is devoted to creative personal projects has led to the creation of innovative products by deviating from structured work.

    These companies have shown that creativity and motivation can be fostered in employees by using the radical strategy of letting them work for the sake of working. I think that the same could be said for enhancing the academic lives of college students by encouraging students to engage in studies for pleasure, creative expression and developing skills.

    But what if you’re overcommitted and overstressed already and can’t bear the thought of additional work? I often hear complaints from friends that they never have the time to read for pleasure, or that their strenuous major has prevented them from pursuing multitudes of other interests. There can be time for those rewarding activities and experiences, but they have to be carefully planned into busy days. Setting aside time to read that book that has been gathering dust on your desk could also be the stress relief you needed to energize yourself intellectually. This could help you to embrace learning opportunities in the classroom. 

    The importance that I place on self-directed learning refreshes and motivates me to continue to learn all I can at this rigorous university and take advantage of the opportunities available, filling me with a sense of gratitude for this experience. The amount of ambition and intelligence at Northwestern is admirable, but I think that it’s important to balance out our classes and extracurricular activities with creative expression and self-directed learning, which can develop students intellectually and help them to grow as people within this community.

    Next time you’re stressing out about that Orgo exam or senior thesis, take some time to write in a journal or read a book. It might just help you remember why you were studying and working hard in the first place.


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