What We’re Learning About Learning: Inspiring Academic Excellence

Over the last couple of years, we’ve been tuned in to a conversation about balance in higher education: how to engage and challenge students while also ensuring courses are flexible enough for all students to be able to engage (here’s one example, from Tufts University). But, as we discuss in this episode of our podcast, What We’re Learning About Learning, these two aspects of the classroom—academic excellence and flexibility—aren’t at odds with one another. In the words of MC Chan, who teaches in the Biology department, “When we talk about academic excellence, I think too often it is juxtaposed against academic flexibility. It’s oftentimes juxtaposed against equity, not only of access, but equity of experience in the classroom as well. For me I think of that as a false dichotomy. I think that both can exist at the same time.” 

We spoke with three Georgetown faculty members to get their perspective on how they inspire academic excellence in their students by serving as guides and supporters. In addition to MC Chan, we heard from Charisma Howell, who teaches at the Law Center, and Abigail Marsh, who teaches in the Psychology department and the Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience.

Helping students meet the challenges we set out for them starts with recognizing where they currently stand. This recognition is a critical part of teaching for academic excellence, to be able to guide students from one learning goal to another. As Charisma Howell put it, “if our goal as educators is academic excellence, if our goal is to give them opportunities to be successful at something new, we’re obligated to meet them where they are.” 

Throughout a course, inspiring students to get from one learning checkpoint to the next calls for the instructor to serve as a sort of academic coach, as Abigail Marsh described it. After all, motivating students to accomplish milestones in their learning is rewarding for both the students and instructor: “Why do people run marathons? Why do people climb mountains? Why do people do these things? It’s because it feels meaningful to have done something that you know is a challenge, and you did it anyways…and I make it clear as I can to my students that I have great faith in how capable they are.” 

As is the case with most teaching principles, motivating students to engage in academically challenging and enriching work should evolve and change. As Charisma pointed out, “there can be a tendency to believe that the instructor has completed that journey, that they have reached the end of that path, when, in fact, our job is to constantly reimagine, re-examine, accept feedback from our students, and attempt to provide them with the highest quality experience that we can.”

To hear more from these faculty members, listen to the episode, which is available nearly anywhere you can find podcasts. And be sure to check out our Show Notes where you’ll find resources and research mentioned in the episode, and more. 

If you have stories, questions, or an idea for an episode, don’t hesitate to reach out to us at cndls@georgetown.edu