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Learning for learning’s sake in the Covid-19 pandemic

  • 27 April 2020
  • By Luke Cavanaugh

This is the second blog contributed by Luke Cavanaugh, an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge. Luke previously wrote about how students must not bear the brunt of universities’ woes in the turmoil of Covid-19.

Covid-19 has caused a shock to the university system that is likely to be felt for several years. As a student, Cambridge has become home over the past two years, a city providing the backdrop for a formative experience far transcending the classroom. When the news broke that the we would not be returning for the Easter Term, making the journey to see friends suddenly seemed an impossibly more difficult task, and despite the fact that our problems were comparatively meagre, our studies began to seem all for nothing.

But there are bigger issues at play here than the loss of an eight-week term and, at least in my own experience, the university’s attempts to support our mental health has been admirable. Equally however, Covid-19 has been a wake-up call for us not to take our education for granted. The speed at which everyday conversation turned from complaining about the amount of work we had to do to wondering when we would next be working at all was astonishing, and it is only now, a few weeks after leaving university, that this has begun to sink in.

In many ways we are lucky, since teaching has not entirely stopped, instead moving online fairly quickly, with Zoom calls and virtual lecture handouts not only now commonplace, but fairly routine. Social media has allowed us to keep in touch with our friends, if not spend time with them. And certainly, the crisis and the sense of urgency has, more importantly, given the student body cause to actively engage with their learning.

This has manifested itself in a variety of ways. From one perspective there have been the students giving themselves a voice in determining their exam and teaching arrangements through discussions with their faculties, but just as exciting has been the chance to learn without the pressure of exams – a curiosity that you would unfortunately be hard pressed to find at the end of a long term. Studying English, where we are shepherded through three or four Shakespeare plays a week, it is very difficult to find time to read for pleasure during term-time, even if we want to. Often we don’t. One friend’s mum recently told me that upon completing her three-year English degree, she could not bring herself to touch a book for years, and there have been times where that has not been too difficult to imagine during a busy term.

Yet, even as we have been forced out of our routines, lectures have been replaced with reading lists and independent study, and the world seems so alien, it is now that students have become especially curious about it. Luckily, my term had finished before the country went into lockdown, but it was still very much a question of grabbing library books, packing up boxes and getting the first train home. Inevitably, these library books turned out not to be the exact ones I needed for coursework and the cancellation of my exams has done little to abate my lack of motivation when it comes to my course.

But for the first time in our lives, students are being told that this temporary lack of motivation is okay. I can only imagine what it is like for students without a home to return to, forced to stay at university, or to go to an environment where they are not comfortable. And yet, as the uncertainty around going back to university persists, the list of goals for the summer gets longer and longer: big projects to work on, new languages to learn, papers to write and books to read. Covid-19 has painfully exposed students’ dependency on the institutions we live and work in, but at the same time it has, at least for a short time, allowed us a chance to take stock: a period for uninhibited curiosity and interest outside of our course. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

As I write, my second-year dissertation deadline looms just a week away, and it is painfully obvious sitting with writer’s block that nothing can replace the atmosphere of university, with friends available to bounce ideas off and a myriad of resources at our fingertips. But the opportunity to be curious, to read simply because we are interested in something, to pick up and drop skills just because we have the time to, might be an attitude more conducive to success in the long run. The Covid-19 crisis has allowed students to remember the joys of learning for learning’s sake, and come October, when hopefully the world is as normal as it can be, universities should welcome this, offering their students a greater flexibility in learning, and giving them cause to remember why they are there in the first place.

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