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Optimal Learning  on  a  NOLS  Course   Research by Jim Sibthorp, University of Utah Article by Mandy Pohja, NOLS Research January 30, 2012 NOLS is a school that takes pride in offering learning opportunities that are engaging and fun. The question remains, does this make our students better learners when the return to their daily lives? The University of Utah recently partnered with NOLS to explore this concept with NOLS semester students.

CONTEXT Learning Experiences: Research from over 100 years ago points to the idea of finding the right combination of engagement and goal relevance amid learning experiences. Below is the language used to define the intersection between fun and goal relevance (Dewey 1910/1991). FUN!


The next question is whether a NOLS experience makes students better learners following the course. This is known as lifelong learning and outside research tells us that the combination of intrinsic motivation and goal relevance in recreational, educational, and work-related experiences has been linked to learning and continued development over time. (Rathunde, 2009).

DOES NOLS CREATE LIFELONG LEARNERS? The study consisted of 47 college-aged students (average of 20.6 years-old) over the course of a six-month period. Twice a day over four separate week-long periods the participants filled out a form to report what they were doing, who they were with, how much they were enjoying it, and whether or not it contributed to a goal. The weeks were spread out to include one before the course (during which 82% were enrolled in college), two separate weeks during the semester course (different sections), and one following the course (during which 75% were enrolled in college). Of the data collected, 32 participants were put in the final group of study. The data is represented in the graph below.

Learning Experience as Defined by Experience Sampling Form

60.0% 50.0% 40.0% 30.0% Disinterest




Drudgery Optimal

0.0% pre course

on-course 1


on-course 2

post course

It is not surprising that the NOLS education is more engaging and interesting than classes at a university. However, it is noteworthy that the study found an increase in the optimal learning quadrant between the pre-course and the post-course surveys. As far as on-course learning is concerned, students were in the optimal learning quadrant less than 50% of the time. This is still FAR better than other types of educational opportunities, but there is always room for improvement. Another interesting observation is that drudgery was at just over 20% during the first on-course study and dropped to 10% by the second on-course study. A good reason to think about how independence factors into learning. Five Things You Can Do on Your Next Course • Talk about learning styles with co-instructors and students. • Make early-course lessons and topics more attention-grabbing. • Tell students why a class is relevant by sharing what it will allow them to accomplish in the future (i.e.: learning maps to be able to hike alone). • Listen to your students about the next steps in their lives and help them think about the place that will provide enjoyment and personal development. • Find new ways to put yourself in the optimal learning quadrant. References Dewey, J. (1910/1991). How we think. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. Rathunde, K. (2009). Experiential wisdom and optimal experience: interviews with three distinguished lifelong learners. Journal of Adult Development, 17(2), 81-93, DOI: 10.1007/s10804-009-9083-x.

NOLS Optimal Learning  

Study from 2011 to determine learning engagement before, during, and after a NOLS Course.

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