What is learning? (1)

A common model used by economists is the production function or process, which is the process by which inputs are transformed into outputs or products. Teaching and learning can be thought of in terms of a production function. Early in my intro courses I ask students to brainstorm about the production process for learning economics. The discussion focuses on inputs: preparing for class, studying the texts, reviewing class notes, class attendance, class participation, completing assignments, and preparing for exams. I spend little or no time talking about the outputs: learning economics, though I do point out to students that if they provide the inputs, they will learn economics.

I understand that in education courses (K-12), student teachers are taught to explicitly identify what their course goals are. I wonder how many university faculty actually do that in any operational way? One of the objectives of a liberal education is to learn how to think. That’s certainly an objective for my intro class, though I’m aware that my course is just a start at it. A common objective of economics courses is learning how to think like an economist, that is, learning how to apply economic theory to an issue or problem for understanding or prediction. Again, my course can’t achieve that alone. So one set of learning objectives appears to be fairly abstract goals that are really curricular rather than course specific. (A different, though related question asks what these objectives mean to students.) General education courses have the objective of introducing students to the humanities, social sciences, or natural sciences, which is another fairly abstract goal.

Some academics probably resist defining their course goals, arguing (when they think about it) that such an effort is reductive, that what students are to obtain from their course can’t be captured in a few words, and that any attempt to do so would necessarily fail to adequately characterize what the course is about. I am sympathetic to this view, but at the same time if we can’t articulate what we’re trying to teach how successful can we be? Are teaching and learning mysterious and mystical, so that only the chosen few inducted into the fellowship can understand them? I hope not.

Okay, so does the substance of the course consist of merely learning the lecture material? Alternatively, does it consist of learning the material in the texts? (In an earlier posting I blogged about how students seem to treat class meetings and texts as substitutes.) I think that while either the lectures or the books provide a reasonable approximation to the course, the course is bigger than both. Is the course defined by an objective reality, or is it the constructivist notion of what the instructor makes of the material? Or is it what the students make of the material? Okay, as I get way out here into the ether I suspect I’m trying your patience so I better close for now.

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