Bror Saxberg laughs following a comment during the President's Forum on October 25.

President's Forum guest: Universities must recognize students' motivations

Bror Saxberg, founder of LearningForge , has spent his adult life researching how people learn and develop strategies for educators to implement in the classroom. But he said it was his own personal experience in the classroom that influenced his educational pathway and eventual career. 

President Philomena V. Mantella, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Fatma Mili and Vice Provost for Graduate and Lifetime Learning Kara Van Dam welcomed Saxberg to the President’s Forum on October 25 at the Alumni House to discuss what his research reveals about how learners process information and retain it. 

Mantella said she and Saxberg had met months ago and that she was “extremely impressed with the work he’s done over his lifetime.”

“I hope these discussions inspire more conversations among each other and how we can be thinking about our objective, which is always about the opportunity for Grand Valley to be the best in learning and the best in relevance for the students in our community,” Mantella said. 

Saxberg said his chief motivation toward his field of study came from personal experience. Faced with the possibility of failing high school because of his handwriting, several teachers rallied to his side. 

“I have truly terrible handwriting,” he said. “The whole faculty in my high school had a meeting about my handwriting because it was so awful, and they didn't know what to do. 

“One teacher shut the meeting down and said, ‘This is ridiculous. If you can’t read his handwriting, bring it to me.’” 

President Philomena V. Mantella and Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Fatma Mili  react to the question from an audience member during the President's Forum on October 25.
Bror Saxberg answers a question from an audience member during the President's Forum on October 25.
A GVSU student listens to Bror Saxberg speak at the President's Forum on October 25.

After high school, Saxberg went on to obtain bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering and mathematics before earning his medical degree from Harvard Medical School and a doctorate in electrical engineering and computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Mili asked Saxberg for his thoughts on how a university like GVSU can address the changing environment of preparing students for higher education.

“Students come with different expectations, different experiences,” Mili said. “We are wondering to what extent our understanding of learning needs to be stretched accordingly?”

Understanding how a person learns and their motivations plays a large part in connecting with a student in the classroom, he said. 

“What you'd like to do is have a set of on-ramps before the first day of that first semester that students can then get on depending on what they have,” Saxberg said. “The idea is to give them the practice and feedback to begin developing sets of skills so on that first day of the semester, they’re more in the middle with other students.”

Van Dam later asked how the implementation of technology can address a difficult learning problem. Saxberg said artificial intelligence will have a profound impact in offering guidance to students and helping build relevance to subject matter.

Students enter a classroom with a myriad of expertise, motivations and interest, he said. In a lecture hall filled with students, it can be extremely challenging for an educator to focus on each student.  

“If only we could have a highly trained one-on-one human tutor sitting with each student whispering in their ear on why this will matter,” Saxberg said. “This is where AI may have an enormously interesting role to play, if we get it to work.”


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