Bridge is published by the Boston University Office of University Relations.
life lesson: think
How does one learn to learn?
is not merely about meeting the right people or preparing for a vocation
or filling a knapsack of facts," says George Erhlich, a University
of Pennsylvania rheumatologist. "The true objective is to open the
minds of students to the world -- and help them to learn to think so they
can act appropriately when they encounter new facts and ideas."
So how does one learn to learn? This was the question posed to a number
of BU professors by B.U. Bridge writer Jason Pallante (COM'02). Following
is a sampling of the responses we received. The Bridge invites faculty
and staff members to contribute their thoughts on this subject. E-mail
firstname.lastname@example.org or write "Learn to learn," 10 Lenox Street, Brookline,
"I've been involved for a number of years in a course approach that
deals with how scientists go about gaining knowledge," says Ray Stephens,
a MED professor of physiology and biophysics, who teaches a course entitled
Critical Thinking in Cell and Molecular Biology to biomedical graduate,
M.D., and Ph.D. students. "This depends on examining primary data
in the form of key publications, plus direct observations, experiments,
and demonstrations, and then getting the students to draw conclusions
and come up with constructive criticisms.
"My simple-minded answer to the question is you learn to learn by
asking questions. This involves being taught or encouraged not to be afraid
to ask questions, but also to pose questions critically or incisively
(i.e., what is the right question to ask and will it yield a clear-cut
answer?). I've used the approach of first giving specific historical examples
of the scientific method, typically (and intentionally) in a very specialized
field, followed by a chronological series of current, often controversial
published observations in primary literature. This (usually) forces a
student to (minimally) learn the basic vocabulary, read and digest primary
information, then hopefully to go after sufficient background material
to pose an intelligent question and/or seek a rational alternative explanation
or course of action. It is rather surprising how much one can learn in
the background of such an endeavor, although I must admit that the motivation
on the part of many students is simply to avoid embarrassment when publicly
presenting their findings and conclusions, or at the other extreme, to
show off in a competitive way. Either is perfectly acceptable, however,
since the goal of learning is accomplished.
"Regardless of a student's level of covert motivation or overt participation,
in the ensuing group discussion resulting from such an experience in critical
thinking, it is difficult not to learn something!"
This simple and concise answer comes from Paul Barbone, an ENG assistant
professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering: "One learns to
learn in the same way that one learns or acquires any other skill: practice,
Anita McGahan, an SMG professor of strategy and policy, offers these thoughts:
"In my experience, one of the greatest benefits of a university education
is in exposure to different ways of thinking about problems. There's nothing
more frustrating than analyzing a problem or issue in a way that yields
no insight. University education provides people with an intuition for
whether prevailing frameworks and points of view will work in practice."
"Your question has either no simple answer, or innumerable ones,"
says Hans Kornberg, a UNI professor. "One rather facile approximation
would be to say, 'Be curious and do not rest until you have satisfied
your curiosity!' But the question you should have asked is how does one
learn to think? And here one might suggest a sequence of operations which
experience shows is certainly useful in thinking about scientific matters
-- learn to define what question you are actually asking, what approaches
you can use that are both logical and feasible to answer that question,
and (as is often likely) if there is more than one feasible answer, how
to test which answer is most likely to be a valid one. Then reflect on
where you have arrived and whether your answer makes sense quantitatively
as well as qualitatively. As one of my best teachers put it to me, 'It
is only when the dust settles that you can see whether you have been riding
a horse or an ass.'"
"The question concerns method," says Eugene Green, a CAS professor
of English. "Method alone, though important, is insufficient as a
focus for students. What expands and deepens focus concerns desire and
commitment. Unless students have a genuine desire to learn and commit
themselves to the undertaking, no method is likely to help.
"Suppose the desire and commitment are strong. Then learning is not
some mysterious process. If we have a desire to learn what our friends
are doing and if their plans are promising, one thing we do is talk to
them and ask questions. The same method applies to learning at a university.
Think of every course as an opportunity to find out what's going on and
what promise it offers. If our desire to learn is strong and if we want
to learn about the natural sciences, the humanities, and the human sciences,
to see what promise each has, then we act as we do when we meet with friends.
The chief difference is that when we set out to learn what we do not know,
we have to find our way into the conversations of the university's many
"What does it mean to enter into a conversation with instructors
and students in physics, literature, or economics? We have to learn the
language of the discipline, to be able to talk and ask questions. Entering
an unfamiliar discipline has its challenges, just as learning another
language does. Find the desire, make the commitment, and the promise of
satisfaction is palpable."
Elizabeth Godrick, a CAS professor of biology, says, "There will
be a multitude of answers to your question. For me, fundamental to learning
is curiosity. The sage has said that theologians ask why and scientists
ask how. Whichever the mode, it is asking the question and trying to answer
it that is the key to learning.
"In biology one has to be continually receptive to changing discoveries,
techniques, and vocabulary, upon and with which to formulate and construct
new facts and ideas. Knowing where and how to find information and then
to evaluate, test, and assimilate it to answer questions are keys to problem-solving
-- the essence of sciences. We often see education as a series of attainable
goals -- passing the test, completing the course, receiving the degree,
or winning the job. But learning is the journey. It is the process of
solving the puzzle, the continual encounter with the unknown."
"Socrates and Plato teach us that the best way to learn how to learn
is through personal dialogue with others," Kevin Stoehr, a CGS assistant
professor of humanities and rhetoric, tells us. "Dialogue shows us
that even the most abstract and complex learning derives, in most cases,
from ordinary situations and everyday concerns. Dialogue opens our minds
to the perspectives of other persons and forces us to evaluate and to
justify our own beliefs. Dialogue teaches us to be tolerant and patient
in sharing the tasks of pursuing objective truths. And personal dialogue
breeds a healthy skepticism that impels us to question constantly while
continuing to test old convictions."