- Understanding the Development of Student Thinking in the College Classroom
Colleges and universities are institutions that are designed to educate students and a key assumption in postsecondary education is that a college education [End Page 476] helps develop student thinking. Two main questions arise from this assumption. First, how can we describe or characterize student thinking, or more generally, what develops over the course of a college education in terms of student thinking? Besides this question of psychological development, the other important question is an educational one and involves issues of how can we best promote the development of student thinking in college. In other words, how can we design college contexts to promote or facilitate the development of student thinking?
The recent book by Janet Donald, Learning to Think: Disciplinary Perspectives, represents a very important and comprehensive perspective on these two central questions in postsecondary education. The book is the culmination of over 25 years of research into postsecondary teaching and learning carried out by Professor Donald and her colleagues. The book integrates research findings from a large number of their various studies that have addressed questions of how student thinking develops in college classrooms, how students and faculty members perceive and think about learning and teaching, and how faculty members actually teach in their disciplines and classrooms. The studies have used both quantitative and qualitative data sources from both students and faculty members and have sampled different types of institutions in Canada, the United States, and Australia. Although the samples have mainly been drawn from four-year institutions and not two-year community colleges, the inclusion and focus on different disciplines in the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities makes the data and inferences drawn from the studies applicable to all college settings. In my opinion, the high ecological validity and careful and thoughtful analysis of the data from these studies makes this program of research the absolute best source of information and evidence we have on student thinking in postsecondary education today.
Given the importance and quality of the research, what does it indicate about the two central questions regarding the development of student thinking? First, in terms of what develops, there are many different models and theoretical perspectives on this issue. At a meta-theoretical level, however, there are two very general perspectives or worldviews, a cognitive perspective and a social cultural perspective. The cognitive perspective focuses on the individual learner and there have been a myriad of models developed that help us understand the internal representations that individuals construct as they engage in different contexts. In other words, what develops in these cognitive models is some form of internal knowledge structures, beliefs, theories, epistemologies, strategies, cognitive processes, ways of thinking, etc. In contrast, social cultural models stress the importance of the context and how thinking and learning is situated in the local context or culture. In these social cultural models, what develops is the capability to use the language or engage in the discourse and activities of the local community or culture.
These two general perspectives may be incommensurable in terms of some philosophical issues, but at a more empirical and psychological level, there are ways to integrate both a focus on internal cognitions as well as the contextual dimensions of learning contexts. Donald adopts an integrated approach that stresses the internal cognitive processes of the learner, but she does situate these cognitions within different disciplinary contexts. This is a very valid approach that goes beyond limited cognitive models that attempt to describe all thinking with one model, not recognizing domain or disciplinary differences (i.e., that thinking in [End Page 477] physics is different from thinking in English literature). In this sense, her conceptual model of thinking processes and research is very much in line with current cognitive psychological research on the domain specificity of thinking.
At the same time, she avoids the pitfalls of diffuse social-cultural models that only focus on the situated nature of...