The Last Lecture

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Teaching, Learning, and Feedback Loops Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Dreams in Reality Theme Icon
Teaching, Learning, and Feedback Loops Theme Icon
Obstacles as Opportunities Theme Icon
Attitude and Positive Behavior Theme Icon
Entitlement vs. Earning Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Last Lecture, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Teaching, Learning, and Feedback Loops Theme Icon

As a professor, Randy believes in the importance of teaching and learning. For him, one of the most effective ways of teaching is by putting in place feedback loops, which are mechanisms by which lessons can amplify and perpetuate themselves beyond the scope of Randy’s literal teaching.

Randy gives a number of examples of feedback loops in his life and what he learned from them. Perhaps the most striking is from his time at Brown, when his mentor, Professor Andy Van Dam, told Randy that it’s a shame that people perceive Randy as being so arrogant, because it’s going to limit what he’s able to accomplish. Randy was shocked and hurt by this information, but he didn’t hide from it or dismiss it: he changed his behavior and people began to perceive him differently. In each instance of feedback loops in The Last Lecture, Randy describes a mentor providing honest feedback, which leads to behavioral change, and then to the recipient of the feedback re-gifting the lesson to others who need it.

This last point is essential to the concept of the feedback loop: feedback is not simply a “loop” between teacher and student—a successful feedback loop must create an infinite loop that travels beyond the original teacher/student relationship. For instance, Randy tells a story about a time when his sister lectured her kids about not messing up Randy’s new convertible before he took them out for a ride. In order to teach his niece and nephew that people are more valuable than things, Randy poured a can of coke right onto the new seats. When Randy’s nephew later threw up on the seat, he didn’t feel guilty about it. The story is humorous, of course, but Randy extends it: when he finds out he’s dying, Randy asks his niece and nephew to make sure they impart this same lesson to his own children. Those who receive feedback become those who give feedback, and so that feedback can progress, improve, and become more refined through time. If done properly, the cycle of teaching and learning never ends, and each generation keeps improving upon the last.

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Teaching, Learning, and Feedback Loops Quotes in The Last Lecture

Below you will find the important quotes in The Last Lecture related to the theme of Teaching, Learning, and Feedback Loops.
Introduction Quotes

Under the ruse of giving an academic lecture, I was trying to put myself in a bottle that would one day wash up on the beach for my children.

Related Characters: Randy Pausch (speaker), Dylan, Logan, Chloe
Related Symbols: The Head Fake
Page Number: xiv
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs in the first passage that Randy writes in the book, right after Jai’s foreword. It tips readers off to the fundamental head fake that underscores the entire narrative of The Last Lecture—that, though Randy’s lecture is supposedly about achieving your dreams (and thus how to lead your life), the deeper purpose of his book is to leave a piece of himself—of his beliefs, ideas, and personality—behind for his young children to remember him by. The notion of teaching one thing (like how to achieve your dreams) in order to actually teach another thing (like telling his children who he was and what he cared about) will recur throughout the book. This is also an example of another trick that Randy consistently teaches: using obstacles as opportunities. Randy uses the horrid obstacle of his impending death as an opportunity to do as much as he possibly can to leave behind remnants of himself for his children (and anyone else) to find.


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Chapter 1 Quotes

…all of the things I loved were rooted in the dreams and goals I had as a child… despite the cancer, I truly believed I was a lucky man because I had lived out these dreams. And I had lived out my dreams, in great measure, because of things I was taught by all sorts of extraordinary people along the way. If I was able to tell my story with passion, I felt, my lecture might help others find a path to fulfilling their own dreams.

Related Characters: Randy Pausch (speaker)
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs soon after Randy has been told that his cancer is terminal and he is prompted by organizers at Carnegie Mellon to give a title and topic for his last lecture. Forced to confront what matters most to him, Randy lands on the topic of childhood dreams, since many of his accomplishments are rooted in his childhood hopes.

Also, rather than focus on the negative aspects of his cancer, Randy spins it in a positive light and sees himself as lucky because his last lecture has the potential to “help others find a path to fulfilling their own dreams.” Randy also feels lucky to able to show gratitude towards many mentors in his life through his last lecture, using their stories and feedback to, in turn, teach others the many lessons Randy learned throughout his life. This makes his lecture into a kind of feedback loop for the reader/viewer in which the reader/viewer uses Randy’s advice and beliefs to take a hard look at the way in which they’re living their own lives.

Chapter 6 Quotes

Have something to bring to the table, because that will make you more welcome.

Related Characters: Randy Pausch (speaker)
Related Symbols: Brick Walls
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after Randy has told the audience, “It’s important to have specific dreams.” What he means is that, as a kid obsessed with science, Randy didn’t want to be a NASA astronaut because he knew his glasses prohibited him from interstellar travel; instead, Randy simply dreamed of being able to float in zero gravity, which is a more achievable dream that he fulfills when a research team of his wins a competition to do experiments in one of NASA’s zero gravity acclimation planes.

However, Randy finds out that only the students, and not their chaperone, are allowed to ride in the zero gravity plane. Never one to let a brick wall stop him, Randy combs through the contract for loopholes, and finds one: an adult journalist can accompany the students into the machine. So, Randy calls NASA, faxes them the paperwork to apply as a journalist, and though they find his efforts “transparent,” Randy convinces them that he will use his actual connections to journalists to get the story of his team’s visit to NASA published in the press. NASA agrees, and Randy is able to earn his way to achieving his dream by being hard-working, optimistic, and not giving up until he gets what he wants. Randy’s point in this quote, though, is that simply asking for the thing you want without being able offer something in return can be ineffective and, at worst, entitled. By pointing to his genuine media connections, Randy is able to offer something in return for NASA helping him achieve his dream, which makes him a more welcome guest at NASA.

Chapter 7 Quotes

…even though I did not reach the National Football League, I sometimes think I got more from pursuing that dream, and not accomplishing it, than I did from many of the ones I did accomplish.

Related Characters: Randy Pausch (speaker), Coach Jim Graham
Related Symbols: The Head Fake
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

How you perceive failure is all about attitude: you can view it as a negative or as a positive learning experience, and the latter is how Randy chooses to view the fact that he did not make the NFL. This quote occurs after Randy discusses his deep love of tackle football, which began during his formative experiences playing peewee football under the tutelage of Coach Jim Graham, an old-school strict disciplinarian who believed in hard work and learning the fundamentals.

Randy isn’t a good enough football player to play professionally, but his experiences on the football team taught him valuable life lessons that he passes down to his students, children and readers. Those lessons include that you can’t teach self-esteem (you can only build it through hard work), and, most importantly, the idea of the “head fake,” which is that you can think you’re learning one thing (like how to play football) while you’re really learning something far more important (like how to work with others, sportsmanship, perseverance, etc.). Randy applies the idea of the head fake to many aspects of his life, including the construction of this book and his last lecture.

“When you’re screwing up and nobody says anything to you anymore, that means they’ve given up on you.”

Related Characters: Assistant Coach (speaker), Randy Pausch, Coach Jim Graham
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after Coach Graham rides Randy particularly hard after one football practice, making him stay to do drills after the official practice has ended. Getting chewed out by a mentor (especially one that you deeply respect) is never a fun experience, but this Assistant Coach does Randy a huge favor, in that he advises Randy to change his perspective on the situation. Rather than being upset at how hard Coach Graham was being on Randy, the Assistant Coach shifts things into a more positive light by explaining that Coach Graham was only being tough with Randy because he believed Randy could do better. In other words, nobody wastes their time trying to help a lost cause, and Coach Graham’s criticism actually meant that Randy had potential. We could all be better off if we shifted our attitudes towards constructive criticism from defensive to receptive. Carefully considering criticism and trying to address it in our future attitudes and behavior is one of the main ways we are able to improve as people.

The second kind of head fake is the really important one—the one that teaches people things they don’t realize they’re learning until well into the process. If you’re a head-fake specialist, your hidden objective is to get them to learn something you want them to learn.

Related Characters: Randy Pausch (speaker), Coach Jim Graham
Related Symbols: The Head Fake
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs at the end of Randy’s chapter about football being a formative experience for him, as Coach Graham gave Randy a “feedback loop for life.” Up until the day Randy wrote The Last Lecture (and presumably until his death), Coach Graham would continually pop into Randy’s head to ask the question: Are you working hard enough? And then Randy would re-evaluate his strategies and time management, and often work harder.

However, the most important thing Coach Graham taught Randy is “the second kind of head fake” (as opposed to the first kind, which is literal misdirection, like when a football player moves one way but goes the other). The second kind of head fake is teaching people one thing (like football, or making video games) so that they actually, without realizing it, learn another thing (like teamwork, or computer programming skills). This is a lesson Randy uses throughout his whole life as a teacher and parent, which is why he thinks he may have learned more from not accomplishing his dream of playing in the NFL than from many of the dreams he did accomplish.

Chapter 14 Quotes

…I had strengths that also were flaws. In Andy’s view, I was self-possessed to a fault, I was way too brash and I was an inflexible contrarian, always spouting opinions. One day, Andy took me for a walk. He put his arm around my shoulders and said, “Randy, it’s such a shame that people perceive you as being so arrogant, because it’s going to limit what you’re going to be able to accomplish in life.”

Related Characters: Randy Pausch (speaker), Professor Andy Van Dam
Page Number: 67-68
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after Randy tells a funny story about mouthing off at the bus stop as a kid, which caused his sister Tammy to throw his lunch box in the mud. As a college student, Randy wasn’t any less mouthy or arrogant, and though these traits served him well in many of his classes, they would often alienate other students.

Andy van Dam, in imparting the advice in this quote, does two things that Randy grows to appreciate through the rest of his life. First, the manner in which he gives Randy criticism opens Randy up to taking in the feedback and changing his behavior. Rather than telling Randy that he’s an arrogant jerk and he needs to change his attitude, Andy tells Randy that “it’s such a shame” that he is the way he is “because it’s going to limit” what he’s able to accomplish. So, instead of being told what to do, Randy hears the criticism and decides he must make a change on his own. Second, because of how powerful this experience is for Randy, it makes him a deep believer in the idea of receiving feedback. Randy becomes dedicated to creating feedback loops in his life so that he is always able to both examine his own behaviors and receive feedback from others to help him improve.

Chapter 15 Quotes

While my sister was outlining the rules, I slowly and deliberately opened a can of soda, turned it over, and poured it on the cloth seats in the back of the convertible. My message: People are more important than things. A car, even a pristine gem like my new convertible, was just a thing.

Related Characters: Randy Pausch (speaker), Tammy, Chris, Laura
Page Number: 69-70
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after Randy explains that, as a bachelor in his twenties and thirties, he would often take his sister’s kids, Chris and Laura, on trips and adventures. One day, Randy showed up to pick his niece and nephew up in a brand-new convertible and Tammy (Randy’s sister) lectured her kids about not spilling or making a mess in Randy’s new car. During this lecture, Randy poured an entire can of coke all over the back seats to teach his niece and nephew a lesson they would never forget (that people are more important than things). Randy’s visual example was effective in shifting Chris and Laura’s attitude towards material things: when Chris got sick in the convertible later in the weekend, he didn’t feel bad about it since he knew from Randy’s lesson that he was more important to Randy than the car. Randy notes later that he hopes Chris and Laura will pass this lesson on to Randy’s own kids after Randy has passed away.

Chapter 24 Quotes

…educators best serve students by helping them be more self-reflective. The only way any of us can improve—as Coach Graham taught me—is if we develop a real ability to assess ourselves.

Related Characters: Randy Pausch (speaker), Coach Jim Graham
Page Number: 112
Explanation and Analysis:

Randy discusses the current educational landscape and expresses his frustration that students and parents often view colleges and universities as operating in a customer-service model; parents and students think they’re buying a five-class course load in the same way that they would buy five pairs of jeans. Randy is okay with the customer-service model, but he prefers a different analogy: the university is like a gym, and the professors are like trainers. Randy sees his job as not to coddle the kids, but to give them access to tools and then present them with an honest assessment of how they’re faring so that, one day, they can be able to assess themselves.

Creating a feedback loop for yourself so that you can assess your own strengths, weaknesses, and progress in any aspect of life is the primary character trait that Randy believes colleges should teach students, just as Coach Graham gave Randy a feedback loop to assess how hard he’s working on any task. Without teachers offering students honest feedback, the students will have great difficulty assessing their strengths and weaknesses honestly, and will then not know what to focus their time on improving. Honesty and openness, on both the part of teacher and learner, is what helps create effective feedback loops.

Chapter 25 Quotes

“It does take a lot of luck,” he said. “But all of you are already lucky. Getting to work with Randy and learn from him, that’s some kind of luck right there. I wouldn’t be here if not for Randy.”

Related Characters: Tommy Burnett (speaker), Randy Pausch
Page Number: 120
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after Randy discusses the backstory of one of his former students, Tommy Burnett, who always dreamed of working on special effects for a Star Wars film. After learning programming skills from working on Randy’s research team, Tommy is hired by George Lucas’s company to do special effects for The Phantom Menace.

Here, Tommy’s response to one of Randy’s student’s questions helps to shift the attitude of all of Randy’s class. Rather than searching for luck in the form of an outside opportunity that simply falls into their laps, Tommy explains that all of the students in Randy’s class should have the attitude that they are already lucky, as they have the opportunity to learn from Randy. Tommy’s advice and attitude (which Randy largely helped shape) helps Randy break through to this class of students so he can help teach them and give them important feedback, much in the same way Randy taught Tommy. In this instance, Randy’s feedback cycles down to Tommy, which cycles down to the rest of his class, in turn making them more open to hearing Randy’s advice in the present. Hopefully, one day, these students will pass Randy’s advice down to students of their own, and so on, so the feedback loop never ends.

Chapter 27 Quotes

…if it is presented as a storytelling activity, girls become perfectly willing to learn how to write software. In fact, they love it… Everybody loves telling stories. It’s one of the truly universal things about our species. So in my mind, Caitlin wins the All-Time Best Head-Fake Award.

Related Characters: Randy Pausch (speaker), Caitlin Kelleher
Related Symbols: The Head Fake
Page Number: 128
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after Randy tells of his creation of the Alice software project, which is software designed to get people of all ages (but especially kids) to make animated videos as well as video games, while at the same time teaching them real computer programming skills.

One of Randy’s students, Caitlin Kelleher, sees that the program doesn’t seem to be as effective or enjoyable for girls as it is for boys, so she sets out to remedy that problem. Her solution isn’t to change the software much, but instead to frame it in a different way. Rather than ‘programming software,’ Caitlin presents Alice as a ‘storytelling activity,’ leading girls to enjoy it just as much as boys. This makes Randy decide to give Caitlin the metaphorical All-Time Best Head-Fake Award, as many more girls are now making their dreams into realities through the Alice program and learning valuable programming skills they can use throughout their lives. In the guise of simply telling stories, these girls will now learn skills they’re not even necessarily aware of, which is the whole idea behind the head fake.

Chapter 51 Quotes

I made a comment to my dad about the job being beneath those teachers. (I guess I was implying that the job was beneath me, too.) My dad gave me the tongue-lashing of a lifetime. He believed manual labor was beneath no one. He said he’d prefer that I worked hard and became the best ditch-digger in the world rather than coasting along as a self-impressed elitist behind a desk.

Related Characters: Randy Pausch (speaker), Randy’s Dad
Page Number: 169
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote is situated toward the end of the book, after Randy has lamented the growing entitlement among young people entering the work force today. This leads Randy to recall an anecdote about entitlement from his own life, when Randy was working with a group of teachers hoeing strawberries during a summer job and he complained that the job was beneath them.

Essentially, Randy’s dad told Randy that he really needed to adjust his attitude to be more positive, open-minded, and less condescending. Randy and the teachers are no different from those who do physical labor every day, and treating them or their job as unimportant makes Randy a jerk, not an impressive person. Randy’s father’s outburst had a real impact on Randy, as Randy took the feedback, worked harder the next day, and looked at laborers with far more respect through the rest of his life.