Producing Learning vs. Receiving Instruction: Tips on How to be a Terrific Student

Ann Forsyth's picture

As education has become more expensive students wonder about what they are getting for their money. Evaluations of faculty, rankings of programs, and internet chat-room gossip all aim to find how to purchase the best value for money given a specific set of preferences. However, it is a misunderstanding to see students as primarily consumers of instruction. Rather the best students collaborate with faculty and other students to produce their own learning.

What does this mean? In planning, as an applied profession, the activity of producing learning has a number of components. The following represent just a few of these mechanisms.

First is focusing attention on your own learning. This includes building planning skills, developing capacities for judgment, and learning the important stories that make up the history and culture of the field. This means letting faculty and courses capture your attention, something that is easier in programs with approaches that fit your interests. It also involves time-time to learn skills, time to explore problems from multiple perspectives, and time to understand where planning has come from and what others are doing in the present. Organizing your time well using planners and calendars is essential. If you decide to work full time while studying full time, something has to give and very often it is your education. This is a decision many people make but it is important to see all its ramifications. Even stellar faculty cannot give you back that time.

Second is helping your peers learn. As faculty will tell you, one really learns about a subject when one teaches it. Students can take part in the process of teaching by taking opportunities to help their peers learn. This can be both inside and outside of classes-through presentations, thoughtful questions, or student discussion groups. In this it is important to understand the diversity of student peers and curriculum topics. Some students learn best by doing, others by talking and listening. Some subjects are better learned in structured formats; others through less structured exploration. While you will have a particular preference, and may wish all instruction took that form, there will be great diversity among your planning colleagues and even more among the publics with whom you will work as a planner. Helping peers learn can be an important step on the path to understanding others and eventually helping you develop a more reflective practice.

Third is building the capacity to continue learning after planning school. While this may seem simple these days when one only has to Google for an answer, managing to figure out how to keep asking important questions is trickier and, in part, involves creating networks of peers.

Finally is taking risks-being willing to "fail" in order to produce learning. I have had some wonderful students who risked such failure. Kil Huh, then a doctoral student at Columbia, was inspired in deciding to go against my advice in a session on David Harvey's Condition of Postmodernity. In a class dominated by those from outside the U.S. (including myself) he led an exercise starting with Postmodern Jeopardy. Most of us had never seen the U.S. television program Jeopardy-and I advised against him trying to teach us--but he managed to explain to us in a way that made complete sense and made postmodernism seem fun and interesting rather than daunting. Another student, a landscape architect whose face I still remember but whose name I do not, read the dull articles I'd set on the problems of impervious surfaces in land use planning contexts. However, rather than agreeing he argued quite persuasively for the importance of paving for civilization, happiness, and romance. Where have the most significant events in your life occurred-typically on impervious surfaces! Both these students took risks in terms of the dominant understanding-postmodernism is academic, it will be hard to teach students a format they don't know, imperviousness is bad-and produced learning for themselves, fellow students, and for me.

Certainly, program quality and faculty expertise matter to students. However, there is a big gap between the competent or even inspired delivery of instruction and the production of learning in an individual. Ultimately, that involves a commitment on the part of the learner.

Ann Forsyth co-taught her first class at age 22-way too young. She vowed never to do it again but eventually relented.

Ann Forsyth is professor of Urban Planning at Harvard University.



Robert Goodspeed's picture

Beyond the Classroom

Ann, thanks for another thoughtful post on planning education. In addition to the suggestions above, I'd add interactions and information outside of the classroom. The APA and other conferences, websites, and magazines can be ways to explore interests and find information to bring back to classroom work.

Ann Forsyth's picture

Thanks to Robert Goodspeed--Some Resources

Robert Goodspeed: Thanks, those are excellent suggestions about finding information outside the classroom through magazines, conferences, and web sites.

To explore this further, students might be interested in Bruce Stiftel's earlier advice on maximizing the benefits of the APA conference ( and on accessing planning research (

Similarly, my June 2007 blog investigates other professional networks such as the Association for Community Design and Planners Network (

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