College Week

College Makeover

Let them solve problems.

What should students be studying in college? No one seems to agree anymore. Slate has taken the occasion to ask an array of prominent academics to tackle the question at the heart of this debate. Click here to read more from our symposium on reinventing college, and here to read more from Slate’s “College Week.”

I’m a cognitive scientist who is also a university professor. There is a staggering contrast between what I know about learning from the lab and the way I teach in the classroom. I know that human beings are designed to learn as part of their deepest evolutionary inheritance. I know that children, and even adults, learn about the everyday world around them in much the way that scientists learn. I even know something about the procedures that allow children and scientists to learn so much. They include close observation of real phenomena, active experimental investigation, and a process of guided apprenticeship. Children, and novice scientists, carefully try to imitate their mentors, and their mentors carefully watch and correct them.

Almost none of this happens in the average university classroom, including mine. In lecture classes, the teacher talks and the students write down what the teacher says. In seminars, the students write down what other students say. This is, literally, a medieval form of learning, and it’s no coincidence that modern science only began to take off when it abandoned it—at first divorcing itself from universities in the process.

This is particularly ironic because modern universities have become the home of science and scholarship. And yet, notoriously, research is divorced from teaching. Faculty immersed in research think teaching is a distracting chore, and students are increasingly taught by academic lumpenproletariat adjuncts who don’t do research. Students only get to do real research themselves in graduate school. What would French cooking be like if aspiring chefs never cracked an egg till after they had listened to four years of lectures about egg-cracking?

Why not make all teaching like graduate teaching (or, for that matter, the best preschool teaching)? Let freshmen students select five different areas of study—with no disciplines overlapping. Tell them about the unsolved problems that the professor is actively working on—analyzing that Jane Austen text, deciphering that Assyrian inscription, working out the economics of slavery in that small town, discovering a particular virus genome. Post the layman’s abstract in the professor’s latest grant proposal in the catalog. Let students choose a problem to work on.

All but the most technical areas of research can be translated into terms that a student can understand. Nowadays almost every professor has had the experience of explaining what they do to a lay audience—and if they haven’t they should learn how. Give students articles about the problem to read as background—there are a plethora of popular science journals that deliberately appeal to broad audiences—instead of making them plow through a homogenized textbook with a sentence per study. Instead of zoning out in lecture halls, make them sit in on lab meetings, run the simple bits of experiments, find documents in the archives, hang out with the graduate students in the bar.

In subsequent years let them specialize more and take a more active hand in research. They might not help too much at first—everyone who has taught someone else to cook knows that— but the extra hours would be more productive for everyone than the ones we spend now translating professorial PowerPoint into student notes. At the end of the four years students wouldn’t know everything that science and scholarship can teach, but they would know the most important thing. They would know how science and scholarship work.