August 21, 2012

Back to School

Back to schoolMost of the K-12 schools where I live have been back in session for at least a week or two, and classes at the university where I work resume this week. I'm already missing the free time I'm about to lose. But that isn't what I want to talk about here. Instead, I want to address one of the things I always love about the start of a new academic year: eager new students who haven't yet burned out.

The wide-eyed undergrads finding their way around campus are always fun to see (except for how they inevitably remind me that I'm not getting any younger). But I particularly look forward to meeting the new graduate students who are beginning their master's or doctoral program. These are the students in whose training I will be most involved. And given how much time I will invest in them, I really want them to succeed. I want them to be the best scientists and/or professionals they can.

One would hope that most new graduate students already have fairly well-developed critical thinking skills, and this generally seems to be the case. What they may not have had, however, are opportunities to apply these skills in the scientific domain. One of the first things we'll start talking about will be appropriate topics for student research. Potential topics are framed in terms of research questions with testable hypotheses, and two questions are crucial:
  1. What does the scientific literature tell us about this question?
  2. How would we test the hypotheses?
In reviewing the literature to answer the first question, students learn to critically evaluate the previous research. Since no study is perfect, they are seeking to identify flaws, areas where the literature could be improved, and how they could make a contribution to the field. In answering the second question, students wrestle with competing research designs, methods of statistical analysis, and the like. By proposing ideas and finding that I will shoot most of them down, they become quite skilled at recognizing the strengths and limitations of various approaches. They learn that they can improve their own work by critiquing it and seeking out information that may challenge their preconceived notions.

This interface of science and education is the part of my job I most enjoy. By the time a doctoral student graduates, he or she is going to know more than I do about his or her topic of study. I get to see the student surpass me in this regard, and that is the moment when I realize that all the time and energy I have invested in them pays off. It also reminds me that my role is not about teaching them what to think but teaching them how to think.

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