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Where do students devote much of their time and intellectual energy? A common line you hear on admissions tours and in peppy brochureware suggests an answer: “Most students learn the most outside of the classroom.” Why such an outcome might not be measurable, the advent of enhanced / experience transcripts from places like Elon University) suggests it goes beyond marketing copy.

Co-curricular activities, structured learning activities that complement the formal curriculum (and more often than not do not count for credit or toward graduation), are often more “core” than you might think.

These include research intensive experiences (like the famed Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) at MIT), internships and externships, global opportunities, innovation activities (like Harvard’s I-Lab or Stanford’s StartX), and community involvement.

Moreover, freeing up time so students can engage in co-curriculars suggest that institutions are meeting students where they are. The move towards flipped classrooms and experiential learning spaces also indiciates that such activities are becoming part of the infrastructure, rather than just add-ons.

The co-curriculum, however, differs in important respects from traditional extracurriculars: athletics, student government, theater, and various clubs, which historically constituted a big part of the college experience. Unlike extracurriculars, the co-curriculum intentionally aligns with and augments and enhances standard curricular goals.

Sometimes, the co-curriculum is embedded within existing academic programs, as is the case with study abroad, formal undergraduate research experiences, and the growing trend toward requiring students to participate in a service learning activity. In other instances, the co-curriculum stands somewhat apart, as is the case with the various maker spaces and entrepreneurship incubators: the idea labs accelerators, greenhouses, workshops, and innovation hubs that are sprouting up on many campuses and which give students an opportunity to transform abstract ideas into concrete accomplishments.

Today, students frequently complain about high tuition costs, boring classes, and being unable to get into their chosen classes.  But when students protest, it’s rarely about such matters. That is likely because they find the true meaning of college elsewhere.

Students need to acquire core skills; but they also want to build their own education. That's what the co-curriculum provides.  For many students, it’s the co-curriculum that offers the most interesting, compelling, and institutionally-defining educational experiences.

The co-curriculum does what the standard academic curriculum generally does not: It is developmental, transformative, and future-focused. It is also experiential, offering authentic, hands-on opportunities to hone skills, put ideas into practice, and showcase achievements of potential interest to employers.

Among the challenge facing institutions is to make the co-curriculum intersect better with the current academic curriculum, for example, by making the course schedule more flexible, with more classes online, to give students more time to invest in a start-up.  Similarly, it might make sense to scale certain introductory courses so that faculty can devote more time to higher impact practices such as mentoring expanded research opportunities.

Going back to the phrase we started with---“most of your education takes place outside of the classroom”----that certainly seems the case. What does that mean in practice?

For most college students, it’s outside the classroom that they learn about interpersonal relationships, intimacy, managing emotions, and developing an adult identity and sense of direction. But it’s also outside the classroom that students can acquire the proficiencies, expertise, and experience that will matter most after graduation.

For most faculty, deans, and administrators tasked with developing a more innovative curriculum or one that leads to various ends like specific learning outcomes and job skills/employability, it’s outside the classroom where they might be able to make the most impact---and do so quickly. It’s also outside the classroom where learning innovation and experimentation can happen in a far more unfettered way.

Steven Mintz is Executive Director of the University of Texas System's Institute for Transformational Learning and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin and Michael Patrick Rutter is Director of Media Relations at the MIT School of Engineering. 

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