Learning to learn

This post is part of the Aspirations to Action series created as a follow-up to the Teaching What’s Important Symposium.

While from the bounded level of our mind
Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind,
But, more advanced, behold with strange surprise
New distant scenes of endless science rise!
– Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism, 1709

Alexander Pope may have been addressing an audience of literary critics, but his message is  just as applicable to both faculty and students. To judge fairly and wisely – he wrote – be humble, follow nature, and study deeply. So what does it mean to study deeply? Richard Hovey, Oral Health and Society, makes a fair point stating that teaching and learning can occur through presentation, but that it’s not always the case: you can explain the science, the theory, the concept to your students –but will they be able to apply this information? Not necessarily. Of course, this also depends on the type of information. In fields like Medicine and Dentistry, sometimes to practice is to learn best. To show students that that there is more to learning than sitting passively and absorbing information, Prof. Hovey decided to teach his students how to juggle. He asked a colleague to do a PowerPoint presentation on juggling. The presentation contained information about the physics of juggling, with lines and arrows depicting the necessary movements and text describing the action. Following the presentation, Prof. Hovey asked his students to try juggling. They had the knowledge, right? They should have been able to juggle perfectly. But learning isn’t always about transferring information to the brain with a click à la The Matrix. Knowing about a skill doesn’t automatically translate into learning the skill as Prof. Hovey’s students realized when they tried to juggle and failed. Once he showed them how to juggle and they tried, tried and tried again, the students eventually learned to juggle – a lesson that can be transferred from juggling to any skill. Hands-on experience and trial and error can be effective routes to learning.

However, taking the time to truly learn something may be daunting, especially when there is a demand for quickly processing large volumes of information. When mainstream media conveys the message that speed is the ultimate ace up your sleeve when it comes to processing information, then you may be reluctant to slow down and learn something in depth. What Prof. Hovey’s example teaches us is that taking the time to learn something may well lead to deeper long-term understanding.

110328-085740-5254.JPGDr. Carolyn Samuel also helps her students engage in deep learning by focusing on improving students’ reading and writing skills. She does so by helping students identify key disciplinary-specific features of academic writing: how a particular field states the problem, describes a study, defines key concepts, and supports claims with evidence. Students are asked to read scholarly articles and identify these features, repeating the exercise with their own writing. By developing an acute awareness of how problems, arguments and stories in their respective fields unfold through writing, students not only learn how to structure their own work so that it corresponds to the field, but also- and perhaps most importantly- how to really dissect and analyze the knowledge that their fields produce.

In sum, to study deeply is to immerse oneself in the subject at hand. This takes different forms in different disciplines but almost always leads to the opening of new vistas.

Check out the other posts in the Apirations to Action blog series:


For more information on the TWI Symposium please consider the following links: TWI Report and Storify.

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