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Learning how to learn


By Dean K. Whitla

A lifetime interest of mine has been the exploration of learning styles. What has always fascinated me is the heterogeneity of people who gather here each September with their diverse personal and intellectual styles and how some Junes later they graduate with a common understanding. While each has his own individual modes of thinking, each also has something in common, which, on occasion, has referred to as the Harvard style.

In one recent study we sought to measure students' "capacity to analyze problems by collecting relevant data and mastering pertinent arguments." With Professor of Psychology David McClelland's assistance, we had constructed the "analysis of argument" test. It consisted of an excerpt from a sermon by the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale in which he criticized the permissive child-rearing practices advocated by Dr. Benjamin Spock, claiming that these practices were creating moral lassitude among the young, resulting in the most undisciplined age in history. After reading the article, students were asked to argue against his position. When this task was completed, they were asked to reverse their stand and argue in Peale's behalf.

Reversing the field is an old Harvard trick: Schumpeter, one of Harvard's great economists of an earlier era, spent the entire semester using his considerable persuasive powers to extoll the merits of Lord Keynes. The final exam consisted of one question. Criticize the theories of John Maynard Keynes.

I am unaware of Schumpeter's results; but our results from the analysis-of-argument test were striking. The scores of seniors were significantly higher than those of freshmen, especially on the second part of the test, when they were asked to reverse their positions. Seniors were more adept at mounting effective and logical arguments supporting an alien viewpoint.

One commentator suggested semi-humorously that such flexibility might be interpreted as a lack of commitment on the part of the seniors. It is more accurate to interpret such flexibility as evidence of the ability to understand both sides of an argument and thus comprehend an issue more fully. It is reassuring to be able to demonstrate that college does improve reasoning ability of this kind.

Some people have claimed that Harvard's success simply reflects the talented people it admits (there is no question that you are a talented lot), but my studies indicate that you have learned a great deal while you have been here and, frankly, more than most students at a number of universities. As well as teaching some skills quite effectively there are some things that Harvard does poorly; for example, this University is terrible at improving your spelling.

Let me return to the Norman Vincent Peale story. The analysis of the argument is an attempt to get at some fundamental dimension which I would like to call analytical thinking, one of the keystones of an even larger concept: that of learning how to learn. Having stated that I think we teach this somewhat better than most places, let me go on to develop the issue of how fundamental it is to our intellectual life and to suggest that Harvard must do an even better job at this.

One must first realize how dysfunctional memory is. George Goethals makes the point effectively by recalling Ebbinghouses's 19th-century finding: 90 days later one remembers only one-third of what one has learned. There is a small but significant exception to this easy generalization about how little one remembers. It is called over-learning, and it takes place when you use the same information repeatedly: e.g., your phone number, a zip code, your Harvard ID, your name, etc. Even at times of stress this information is available.

Our defense against being insulated by new information and folled by memory losses is to establish methods of coping. Cognitive psychologists have formalized these processes a bit. Jerry Bruner, in an essay entitled "Going Beyond the Information Given," illustrates one aspect of the phenomenon with a clever example using a string of numbers: 58121519222629. It doesn't take long to memorize the series if one recognizes that the numbers can be grouped 5-8-12-15-19-22-26-29: i.e., and that the series begins with 5, and that successive numbers are the result of adding 3's and 4's alternately.

Ask youself how well you would do now on exams you wrote in your freshman your. When you unpack your luggage, glance through a notebook or two and compare the number of "facts" you have retained to those you have forgotten.

A few years ago, a former professor of economics, Liz Allison, re-examined some Social Analysis 10 (then Ec 10) students to see how much knowledge of the course they had retained a year after they had completed the course. She was pleased that students still knew so much of the analytical method but disappointed that they remembered so little of the nomenclature and had read so little in economics since the course had ended.

The course was then revised to reflect more current reading and to provide more emphasis on analysis; it emphasizes the qualities that I am suggesting fall under the rubric of learning how to learn.

William G. Perry Jr., professor of education emeritus, wrote a very clever essay defining types of examsmanship. A student who has just received an "A" on an exam objects. "But sir, I really don't deserve it, it was mostly bull, really." To this kind of remark, there is only one possible rejoinder. Alfred North Whitehead's: "Yes sir, what you wrote is utter nonsense, utter nonsense! But ah! Sir! It's the right kind of nonsense."

Perry used the vernacular "bull" to describe a style where one analyzes a problem and thinks constructively about it's purpose even though one is short of facts. Perry called the answers that the "fact knower" writes in his bluebook "cow" answers--lists of appropriate facts which just don't add up. Perry's metaphors of cow and bull may help to characterize approaches you used when writing in bluebooks. The true "a" comes with the integration of cow and bull answers.

You may recall responding to a survey last year, written by Sidney Verba, associate dean of the Faculty for undergraduate education, and myself, in which you were asked whether your courses "increased your knowledge," "increased your analytical skills," "evaluated your work fairly," etc. In general you rated "knowledge learned," "evaluation procedures" and the rest higher than the "mastery of analytical skills." However, some courses stood out as contributing especially to the the mastery of these skills.

It is interesting to explore what these courses emphasized. One of them was Stone-Radcliffe Professor Emily D. Vermeule's course Literature and Arts B-22. "Ancient and Classical Painting." When I told Professor Vermeule how well her course had done on this measure she said; "That's what the course is about"--learning how to look at a painting, how to analyze what one sees.

Adams University Professor Bernard Bailyn's Historical Studies B-31. "The Revolutionary Transformation of America," also received high ratings. How does a historian teach analysis? Bailyn does it by raising a few major problems in sequence: "Why was the British Empire vulnerable at the time just proceeding the American Revolution? For years, there was always a group of aggressive people trying to take the Empire apart. What were the conditions that permitted it to happen at that time?" McKay Professor of Computer Science Harry R. Lewis '68's course, Computer Science 11. "Computers, Algorithms and Programs," was another "winner" on analytical skills. His approach emphasizes logical requited analysis through problem sets; programming itself is only part of the process.

One goal of my current research is to extract the generic qualities of analytical thinking--a skill which can then be applied to any of hundreds of intellectual tasks. By the way, ministering analytical skills appear to be the best way of coping with the fact that even at your age, alas, you have lopped out in learning speed. (Parents and grandparents in the audience may be interested in some very attractive new findings. They show that for people over 85, removing time limits on tests allows those who are healthy to do very well. A lot of intellectual power remains in the geriatric set. This story has two morals: keep healthy and give yourself more time.)

At some point, when you have a bit of distance on Commencement week, I would appreciate it if you would take a moment to drop me a note about your learning at Harvard. You might like to begin by commenting on whether you agree with my basic thesis that the most valuable part of your education has been the mastery of the learning process. I can, however, be dissuaded; perhaps you really feel you need more information rather than better ways of thinking about information.

In your letter, please tell me of courses that stretched your mind. I am willing to hear about failures; but frankly, I would much rather hear of successes. Since this is a continuing interest of mine, if you would prefer to send me your reactions after you have more perspective, that would be fine. Best wishes wherever you will be doing your analytical thinking and using your skills as a learner

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