Contexts for Inspired Learning

By Maisha Rumman 

What kinds of contexts inspire us to learn? What situations and environments drive us to go above and beyond to investigate a question, learn a concept, or adopt a hobby? What contexts can enrich our personal and formal education? My intent in asking these questions is to see how we can better become active learners, as opposed to passive ones doing the bare minimum required to get a good grade. I asked students about enriching learning experiences (in the classroom or outside) in order to gain insight into these questions.

“We sometimes get so wrapped up in our formal education that it is easy to forget why we came to college in the first place: for a passion to learn. I try to combat this and keep my innate curiosity by forcing myself to enroll in a class each semester on a subject that interests me outside my degree plan. For example, this semester I am taking Nutrition and last semester I took a seminar in the LBJ School of Public Affairs titled "Leadership through Public Service". Both were incredibly engaging and I gained a significant amount of insight from the professors. It is a blessing, not a given right, to be able to attend a university and I try to remember this when I approach my school work and coursework. Even though the work may be challenging, I remind myself that education is such a powerful and transformative force that makes us better people while allowing greater opportunity. If I could, I would be an architecture, psychology, archeology, history and anthropology major! Even if I can't feasibly declare all these majors, there is nothing keeping me from reading, investigating and engaging myself in these topics!”
 – Lauren Caton, Biology Major

I would say that, at least for me, the teacher makes the difference. Although I am a physics major, I took three semesters of Spanish here at UT (two more than I needed). For the last two that I took, I had a professor that was not only extremely intelligent, but also very approachable and likable. Although I already was interested enough in the subject to take extra classes, I had never stayed after class (almost every day) to talk to a professor about the subject before.  He presented the material so that it was very technical, but also made sense. The fact that I was able to follow what he was doing and understand his explanations allowed me to grasp the concept enough to form my own questions about it, and his friendliness made me confident enough to ask those questions...I feel that his combination of a technical approach, simple explanations, relevant examples, and genuine friendliness toward his students, made him one of the best teachers I have ever had.  The subject was explained well enough for me to understand and technically enough for me to build upon, and his interactions with the class let us know that he loved to talk about the subject and that our questions were not only welcome, but enjoyable to him” –Marshall Laughead, Physics Major

Taking the time to appreciate the beauty and complexity of natural processes during my field courses and while doing field research allowed me to truly engage in the study of plant biology. Something in between getting my hands dirty and picking berries while at work convinced me that field biology was right for me.” Cristy Portales, Biochemistry and Biology Major

“I came from a very economically deprived town; the county is among the 25 poorest in the nation. While my family was financially well off, that economic drought hugely affected the public education system and the overall attitude about learning.  In the 7th grade I became involved in an academic competition coached by the most motivating and inspiring teacher I've ever had.  He understood the situation of many of the students, particularly about how poor of an education we were all getting.  He coached me throughout middle and high school, as the academic competition was a cumulative program.  My senior year, the team won 3rd place in state as a team, bulldozing many privileged schools from Houston and Dallas. That experience and isolation from the culture of mediocrity that he desperately pulled his students from gave me the confidence, study skills, and ambition to be a life-long learner and has allowed me to believe that even a kid from that impoverished and deplorable town could accomplish anything.” –Franz Puyol, Biology Major

"My favorite way to learn is to learn while traveling. I have spent time in Vietnam, Japan, and soon, England, and I have loved every minute of it. Although I had always been set on pursuing a career in health sciences, my trip to Vietnam changed my life and instilled in me a passion for international development. My two months in Japan showed me that traveling is not just about visiting tourist attractions, but truly experiencing the nuances of a culture. It also confirmed my desire to work in other countries in the future. Every time I go abroad, I don't just learn more about the world, but more about myself. You realize that you are small in comparison to the rest of the world. From my travels, I have come back humbled, open-minded, and thirsty to learn more about the rest of the world and its people."
Sarah Nguyen, Undeclared/Pre-Pharmacy Major

Asking others about the contexts that enhance learning made me realize that not everyone likes one certain environment or technique, despite my approach to the problem as a mini-research research question to look for an underlying link and similarity which could be quantified. Which leads me to my next question—has there been research done in this area? The answer would be a resounding yes. 

For instance, the pioneering research done by Mary Budd Rowe highlights that teachers who wait approximately three seconds after asking a question, as opposed to one or two, obtain higher quality responses from students. Another famous experiment done by Martin Seligman shows that environments in which subjects learn “helplessness” impedes learning. In one of the experiments, dogs who could not change their fate by pressing a panel to escape electric shock, as opposed to their pair who could, stopped trying to press the panel to control their fate and had thus learned helplessness.

I was inspired to ask my initial question because of videos and articles provided by an online course called “Teaching Character and Creating Positive Classrooms.” One such research article by Angela Duckworth and colleagues emphasizes the importance of “grit,” which they define as "perseverance and passion for long-term goals." They found that grit was correlated with Big Five Conscientiousness and GPA scores but did not relate to IQ.

One of my favorite moments was the interview of Walter Mischel by the instructor Dave Levin (co-founder of the KIPP Foundation) about the importance of self-control and delayed gratification. In the video, Levin introduced Mischel’s study (conducted 1960) on delayed gratification in children who are four to five years old. These children were given a marshmallow and told that they could either eat it immediately or wait until the adults came back, in which case they would receive a second marshmallow. Some children had little self-control and ate the marshmallow while others waited and consequently received a second marshmallow when the adults came back into the room. Some of the children that waited used their imagination to pretend that the marshmallow wasn't there or turned their backs on it—one girl even imagined that there was a picture blocking the marshmallow. This little experiment beautifully illustrates how we can do little things within our control to get amazing results and rewards.

There is much emphasis on what is flawed in our formal education, but I hope that we instead turn our attention to what we can do. We must take control of our own education if we wish to reach our potential; this begins by first asking some simple questions.


Duckworth, Angela. "Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals."Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 92.6 (2007)

Rowe, Mary Budd. "Wait Time: Slowing Down May Be a Way of Speeding Up!" Journal of Teacher Education. 37.1 (1986)

Seligman, Martin, and Steven Maier. "Failure to Escape Traumatic Shock." Journal of Experimental Psychology. 74.1 (1967)

Link to the Coursera class called “Teaching Character and Creating Positive Classrooms”:

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