After reading Ellen Langer’s Mindful Learning, one point in particular really stood as as being fundamental to my educational experiences, especially in engineering courses. The article calls out several myths about learning, the first of which is that “the basics should be learned so well that they become second nature.”
Undergraduate engineering courses tend to be packed to the brim with memorizing equations, practicing over and over how to approach problem sets, and the like. I’ve always believed that this was the only way to approach engineering education, but as I look back, it’s clear that a lot of this memorization didn’t make a very meaningful impact on me, given the amount that I’ve forgotten after only 2 years after undergrad. This focus on memorization is a hard mold to break, as I think it is valued in industry, even if not practiced. One time at a job interview for an internship, I was asked to recite a series of equations that are fundamental to civil engineering. Fortunately I knew the equations at the time, but I’m sure I couldn’t recite them today.
The article suggests that the alternative may be to present learning opportunities as situations where students have options about how they choose to apply knowledge and approach problems “mindfully”, which in turn has been shown to make students more easily adaptable to change. This approach makes a lot of sense: when I think back to solving problem sets in engineering, I was more likely to memorize an approach for solving problems rather than actually learn how to reason through a problem and mindfully reach a solution. Hopefully such mindful learning is a life-long skill rather than something to be memorized for a course and then quickly forgotten.