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Learning to Think: Disciplinary Perspectives

By Janet Gail Donald
352 Pages
ISBN: 0-7879-1032-5 (hardcover)

Reviewed by

Charles C. Turner

Department of Political Science
California State University, Chico


Learning to think is hard for all students, but the way in which it is challenging may differ depending on one's academic discipline. This is one of the central themes of Janet Gail Donald's Learning to Think: Disciplinary Perspectives. The findings Donald presents in this book are the culmination of a quarter-century of research on learning in higher education. The thoroughness of her research is impressive. In addition to situating her work appropriately within the postsecondary learning literature without overwhelming readers from other fields, Donald led a research team that interviewed dozens of professors, surveyed numerous students regarding their experiences, and conducted ethnographic studies as participant-observers in multiple semester/quarter- long courses in eight different disciplines at five universities in four countries.

The organization of Learning to Think is well suited to Donald's task. She begins with a crucial, compound question: how do the requisite thinking processes differ across disciplines and how can attentiveness to these processes enhance student intellectual development (ix)? The first chapter, which is available for review in its entirety from the publisher's web site, establishes the parameters of the study. Donald reviews the relevant literature, bringing non-education faculty up to speed, then briefly lays out the methodological and substantive approach of the remainder of the text. The next seven chapters provide a detailed look at the learning process in specific academic disciplines: physics, engineering, chemistry and biology, psychology, law, education, and English literature. The variety of Donald's coverage is admirable, as she provides a mix of "hard" and "soft" disciplines, sciences and humanities, old and new disciplines, and the theoretical and applied. In each of these chapters Donald describes the state of the discipline based on faculty interviews, uses findings from student surveys and ethnographies to present a student perspective, examines the learning task by exploring model courses in impressive depth, and identifies significant challenges to instruction in the discipline. The identification of challenges and the concluding section in each chapter point to potentially successful strategies for helping students develop the thinking skills and strategies crucial to the field. In the final chapter the author provides a comparative perspective, addressing cross- disciplinary concerns.

Donald's work has a lot to offer many audiences, but three groups in particular will benefit the most from this study. First, those faculty members teaching in the specific disciplines Donald explores in detail should enjoy the thoughtful approach the author has taken to defining the context, learning tasks, and challenges of their discipline. Most helpful are the occasions where Donald first identifies a difference between what instructors want students to learn and what their teaching strategy promotes and then suggests strategies for improvement. For example, Donald notes that when physics professors discuss goals for student learning they often mention a mastery of key concepts, but many rely almost exclusively on lecture in the classroom. Donald notes that such a strategy may not be the most effective at promoting conceptual learning and that a collaborative and interactive peer-learning approach may be better suited to meeting the learning objectives of the discipline (58).

Second, faculty members in fields not explicitly discussed can benefit via analogy. As a political scientist, I was able to make several useful comparisons with psychology and law, even though the author did not address my field directly. I was also able to develop a better understanding of the learning perspective that students from other disciplines may have when they enter a political science classroom. Indeed, in any given semester a CSU student may be taking courses in several different disciplines. The realization that this means they may also be bombarded with such a wide variety of learning expectations further heightens one's respect for the daunting tasks of university students. In addition, some of the strategies, such as concept mapping, that Donald introduces for understanding a discipline can be employed by the reader on her or his own. Using Donald's description of the process, I created a concept map for my Introduction to Political Inquiry class. This exercise was useful for thinking explicitly about the concepts I wanted students to master and about the learning processes that I would need to address in order to facilitate that outcome.

Third, chairs, deans, and other academic administrators will find the clarity with which Donald demonstrates cross-disciplinary epistemological similarities and differences eye-opening. Donald provides these educators, who have multidisciplinary responsibilities, with a set of comparative case studies, which should aid them in developing strategies for enhancing learning across the curriculum. Especially useful to such educational leaders is the concluding chapter, where Donald makes both small- and large- scale university-wide policy recommendations for enhancing student learning through, for example, building scholarly communities.

In addition, all readers will benefit from Donald's subtle, yet consistent, call for educators to develop an awareness not just of the content they want students to learn, but also of the thinking processes they want to develop. Donald's presentation of student perspectives encourages the reader to see course objectives through a student's eyes. Her extensive case studies suggest that explicit attention to a discipline's epistemology may help educators identify learning processes that should receive particular attention in a field. The examples of course strategy that she provides, based on model classes and instructors, help the reader see how thinking processes can be highlighted and encouraged without sacrificing other, content-based course objectives.

Though the highlights of this book are many, a few shortcomings should be noted. First, though I appreciated the variety of methodological approaches employed in the text, I found it difficult to discern the big picture of Donald's data collection and analysis. References are made in each chapter to the number of courses and instructors surveyed, but (perhaps revealing a bias in my disciplinary approach to knowledge and evidence) I would have found helpful a methodological appendix that explicitly discussed the procedures for course and instructor selection, class observation, and student survey. As it stands, I found Donald's arguments convincing, but felt limited by being unable to evaluate independently the data she collected or the strength of her conclusions.

The lack of methodological explicitness also leads to some confusion regarding the courses Donald evaluated. In the chapters on law and, to a lesser extent, education, for example, it was sometimes difficult to determine whether Donald was discussing courses taken by undergraduates or those taken by graduates in a professional degree or certification program. Part of the difficulty here may stem from the cross-national nature of the study. Donald observed universities in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, and educational differences between the countries may have made generalization difficult. Nevertheless, instructional expectations differ for graduate students and undergraduates, and the reader would be better served by greater clarity on this front.

As a final concern, Donald makes the implicit assumption throughout the text that students enter a major early in their college career and pursue intellectual development primarily through courses in that major. This assumption has two shortcomings. First, though early selection of a major may be common at the (typically highly-selective) universities observed for this study, it is less common elsewhere, particularly at institutions where significant numbers of students transfer from a community college system where they may have spent two years taking general education classes. Second, most disciplines offer an array of courses designed for non-majors. While the disciplinary context may remain the same, an instructor's goals in reaching a more diverse audience may differ substantially. A consideration of these broader aspects of undergraduate education may reveal even greater challenges, but might also present a more accurate picture of the student learning experience.

Donald notes that the "ultimate challenge" in her book is to figure out "how to encourage understanding and change the learning context so that it becomes more supportive of higher-order learning" (271). Her work rises to that challenge. Donald's text encourages the reader to think seriously and explicitly about the learning task and about one's goals and objectives for learning within a disciplinary context. This is a crucial endeavor, as university students take courses in a variety of disciplines and may have never had to think explicitly about how their major field approaches learning, or how this approach may differ from that taken in their courses from other fields. Learning to Think puts educators on track for helping students learn to think in their disciplines.

Posted January 16, 2003

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board. ©2002 by Charles C. Turner.

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