What makes graduate school so different from college?

This blog post is inspired by Mindful Learning, written by Ellen J. Langer. In this article, professor Langer clarifies the myths about learning and how they relate to learning mindlessly. Mindful learning requires active engagement with the subject of study, being critical, and remaining sensitive to context. In contrast, we act the way we have been programmed in the past in the state of mindlessness. Habits and routines often predetermine a mindless state of mind and eliminate the need to be fully aware of the present. People tend to only turn to mindful thinking when they find something new and worth exploring.

What resonated with me the most about this article was how the myths of learning were all successfully practiced in school. We fell into the habit of learning mindlessly for the most part, which did not provide us the required preparation for either graduate school or future job.

One of the myths of learning is “The Basics Should Be Learned So Well That They Become Second Nature.” It was easy to be successful in school by simply taking theories in textbooks as absolute truth and teachers for granted. This solidified the idea that you need to know all the basics by heart to be successful. Unfortunately, this mindset can do more harm than good in making a creative contribution to higher education research. First of all, there is rarely any absolute inviolable truth in science. The decision of what to set as the base is a major challenge. You will find many of the theories learned before failing in practice. Second, you need to look at every possible scenario and solution and have a critical mindful state of mind all the time to be a successful researcher. Because of that, restricting your understanding to a specific way of thinking while rejecting other possibilities can limit your creativity.

What makes research struggling is that you cannot blindly follow any other person anymore, and you are on your own for the most part. This considerable transformation alienates students from research. Feeling frightened to be suddenly left alone, many graduate students feel safer taking more and more courses and postponing their research with the excuse that they need to master all the basics. But this is mostly an evasion to remain in their comfort zone.

Actively connecting study material to our prior knowledge is necessary for deep understanding and looking at material from different perspectives is a catalyst to encourage mindful learning. In this regard, it is beneficial to create an inclusive environment where students are welcome to talk about their way of thinking, new possible approaches to the problems, and unexplored challenges. Promoting mindful learning facilitates students’ learning as well as their sense of belonging and unity in the class. The reason is that sometimes, one might think that he/she is the only one thinking in a particular way, but when the students share their ideas, they might find out that they have more in common than they previously thought. Also, by allowing the students to express their likely different ideas in an environment of respect, we can increase their self-esteem and bravery to have original thoughts and findings in the future.

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2 Responses to What makes graduate school so different from college?

  1. samsblog says:

    Thank you for this interesting set of interventions. One thing in particular that resonates with me is the notion that many students expect the ‘basics’ to be uncontested pieces of knowledge that they do not have to continuously interrogate. It is often the case that many scientific debates concern precisely what our ‘basic’ assumptions about the world are. For many students when class largely revolves around analyzing such basic assumptions they are left wandering what the ‘correct’ answer is, but this is precisely what no one can provide. Oftentimes, it is necessary to state in class that there is not a single ‘correct’ answer but to shift an understanding of knowledge an education towards the processes, skills, practices that bring us to a set of potential ‘answers.’

    • Sara Lamb says:

      I agree with you both on that: sometimes there is no one right answer and its not something that you can be “told” by an “authority” figure. The world we are facing is full of wicked, messy, complex problems–and coming anywhere near to solving any of them will require people that can think about how to solve problems in this holistic way that you describe. The mindfulness piece becomes really important, then, because sometimes that’s the only think pumping the breaks, making us slow down enough to really think about the issues in front of us.

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