Purposeful learning

Published On: May 6, 2017 12:35 AM NPT By: Shyam Sharma


Intellectual and professional purposes are the horses that we must put in front of the cart of higher education
I am about to finish teaching a graduate-level writing course that has fifteen students, mostly doctoral candidates from computer science, applied math, and various specializations in natural sciences, as well as fine arts, Hispanic literature and healthcare. Let me draw on a conversation I had with one student in this class, Wendy, to explain a fundamental challenge faced by both students and teachers in the implementation of the new semester-based system/culture of higher education in Nepal. 
Wendy’s research director had asked her to write a “literature review” on the current scholarship on how physical therapists help heart stroke patients regain control of their limbs so they can get back in their cars and drive. The rehabilitative therapy in question uses simulated driving, as in video games, using car-like physical controls. As a ‘writing’ professor, I help students communicate effectively. Students and fellow teachers in other departments often assume that my work is to help students fix grammar and improve wording, but there’s a lot more to writing than that at the graduate level—as I hope to illustrate in this essay. 

In a previous meeting, Wendy had brought summaries of two dozen articles she had found from a systematic database search on the topic. In that day’s meeting, it became clear to her (and to me) that she understood the first objective of the project: to report on current knowledge, approach, and research in her future profession. However, she hadn’t fully understood and had hesitated to tackle the assignment’s second, larger objective: to take an intellectual position. She understood the research she found, but she didn’t want to assess it: she wasn’t sure if she had learned enough. She mentioned what seemed less understood or developed, but she borrowed from existing criticism because she didn’t think she was qualified to judge. She circled back to the significance of the therapy and its research, included a lot of general information, and repeated the same findings of her review. 

If it is a part of a thesis, dissertation, or short research paper, a review is done before stating the objective of one’s own research, the method used, and the plan and outline of the writing. Even when it is done as a separate project, like Wendy’s, the assignment asks students to survey and assess current state of knowledge, practice, research and methods in their field. A review is done to identify a gap or prospect for one’s own further intellectual exploration or professional specialization. 

The review assignment is foundational to graduate education today, and the difficulty that students face in writing it goes deep. It signals much broad and complex challenges students face when trying to transition from school to college and from college to university, shifting focus from learners to scholars, readers to writers, consumers to producers of new knowledge, and from the mindset of being followers to also becoming leaders in their future professions. 

The above rather universal challenge for students gets even worse in societies where educators can’t or won’t shift from lecture-dominated and exam-driven annual system to learner-centered semester-based education that demands students to grow both intellectually and professionally. Wherever educators refuse to try and shift the focus, they can make higher education (or at least their fields) increasingly out of date. In fact, if students come to them expecting to become teachers, especially if as a primary career option, then it is professionally and ethically irresponsible of teachers not to help students move in that direction. If business studies professors know their students must use the knowledge of management and administration learned in university when they become managers and administrators, then the professors are responsible for teaching how to translate that knowledge into skills, and to help students tackle changes and challenges ahead. 

Whether we are teaching content or skills, or both, our responsibility as educators begins with situating learning in the context of broader educational objective (being an educated person) and also the needs and prospects of professional development in front of our students. This is where research becomes a means of finding a space and writing a means for expressing intellectual voice and professional identity. 

In the humanities, we can start by helping students “appreciate” great fiction and painting and philosophy, to experience aesthetic beauty in fine art and emotion in poetry. But if we stop there, we could destroy the remaining respect for these disciplines in society, the chances of our students’ success in the professions, and the advancement of knowledge in the academic disciplines themselves. 

In the social sciences, we may start by providing students foundational knowledge of the theory, history, research methods, and current debates in the field. But we cannot deny that this objective is increasingly competing with other objectives of exposing students to social reality outside classroom, of providing experiential learning and practical training, and of imparting professional skills that students can practically use. 

In management and in engineering, natural sciences, agriculture, and medicine, teaching colleagues and academic leaders have reported positive developments, which build on progress they had made before the semester system was adopted. Students in the sciences spend more time in the labs and report findings. In anthropology, they work in the field/society and students in business studies and management do internship in the private sector. Medical/healthcare students work in hospitals and community settings.

And students in education do some practical teaching before graduation. In these fields, more needs to be done to further update the practices and to align them better with semester-based teaching and assessment. More change is both necessary and possible. 

There are two challenges to broadening objectives in graduate education. Some scholars create false dichotomy between the original focus of education or their discipline and all the “new stuff.” Both classical and new things should and can be done. Others cite limitations of time, resource, and expertise for why they cannot include professional development in higher education. Usually, scholars in both camps have the luxury of not having to catch up with the times. But their students cannot afford to reject change, avoid challenges and ignore new opportunities. 

Towards the end of my meeting that day, I asked Wendy to tell me three major findings of her review, writing them down on one column of a blank sheet of paper. Then I asked her to explicitly state how “she” would like to use those findings in her research now and in the future, including as a member and leader of her profession in the future. I wrote them down in the second column. Reviewing the second column, she said, “Wow!” In telling me what to write in the second column, she had not only found a clearer voice with which to write the paper; she had also better understood and appreciated the broader intellectual and professional purpose behind her research. 

She may not want to say, “I want to pursue X in my future professional career” in the paper itself. The tone of the paper might require her to more neutrally assess the strengths and prospects in her field, describe the major gaps that need further research, and offer recommendations for intellectuals and professionals toward helping more heart stroke patients return to normal life. But the clarity of the larger purpose of her graduate education would directly bolster her “review” and her “writing.” 

Intellectual and professional purposes are horses that we must put in front of the cart of higher education in the journey of social progress.

The author is an assistant professor of Writing and Rhetoric at Stony Brook University (State University of New York)

ghanashyam.sharma@stonybrook.edu


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