Learning in a PhD

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Learning in a PhD

Postby stevelouw » 13 Sep 2018 08:15

One would expect that having studied hundreds of hours in various courses, completed a thesis and published some papers, the end of the PhD marks your status as a doctor, that you are 'qualified', and perhaps knowledgable in some interesting way. With all the PhD graduates the university is currently churning out, that premise seems attractive. However, I was sitting in on one of Richard's DA sessions last week, and wondered whether that is really true. I have studied DA three time (or maybe four, I am not sure anymore), and it was only now (in my post-phd-student decrepitude) did I could finally understand the material with any real depth. I tell you, it's a magical moment when you can actually understand one of Richard's sessions.

An analogy springs to mind, and I hope it works for your experience: when you do your test for your driver's license and you pass, it seems that only then do you really start the process of learning to drive. So, is the awarding of a PhD the end of the learning process, or a signal for it to start?

Or is another explanation possible: that you only learn something when you actually need it for something? Perhaps there is a point when you learn something because you are 'ready' to learn it for some reason. I've always considered the concept of 'readiness to learn' relevant only to developing children. However, in his 1948 paper on this, Alvin Schindler's argues readiness applies to all learning at all levels (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10. ... ode=uced20 - although this paper was published in "Childhood Education"). Perhaps even as PhD students, we learn something only when we are ready for it, or if we realize a need for it, and not because it's in the curriculum or a lecture series. If this is the case, then might we only really be learning when we are engaging in active research involving new topics, new methods and new approaches that stretch us?
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Re: Learning in a PhD

Postby Sachiko » 18 Sep 2018 20:42

Thank you for sharing your experience and thought-provoking questions, Steve!
Although I haven’t had that miraculous moment in Richard’s class YET, I would like to say that I understand what you wrote. Regardless of the significance or complexity of topics, I have had many moments of ‘ah-huh! Now I understand!’ It is a truly amazing experience, isn’t it? 60 % or more of the time for me though, it is followed by some sort of negative affective states, thinking, ‘Oh god, why hadn’t I realized/understood that?’ …
Based on those, I agree (to some extent) with the concept of ‘readiness to learn’ Together, as you mentioned, there are other variables (almost as a prerequisite?) for learning to take place, such as engagement and motivation. At the same time, something new that we are not yet ready to learn may go through our head at first, but some of it stays in us in a unique way and comes back to us later, often having some effects on learning that new topic. I thought of an example to illustrate this for the whole day today (!), but my brain has been so occupied with my research/teaching stuff that I couldn’t think of anything… oh! This could another state of ‘unreadiness to learn’!
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Re: Learning in a PhD

Postby sgtowns » 19 Sep 2018 18:02

I think that learning can be a long process that goes from receptively understanding a idea, to re-producing the idea in your own way, to applying the idea to a new area, to mastering the idea. So as a PhD student who is sitting in a classroom, the steps of academic learning might be something like:

1. Understanding the topics that are being covered in class.
2. Being able to find your own ways to explain the ideas to other people (say on a final exam essay or explaining it to your classmates).
3. Using the knowledge to produce insightful independent research on the topic.
4. Becoming a well-known expert on the topic.

I think your question about always looking for new topics to learn is a good one, but it doesn't mean that you stop learning about the old topics. Maybe Step 3 above is your PhD. You can continue in the same field, learning more and more until Step 4. But maybe at Step 3 you branch out and try something new, which starts you at Step 1 or 2 for that particular topic.

There are always new things to learn. Perhaps the important factor is a "willingness to learn". We don't have to work hard to seek out new topics, new methods, and new approaches. They are all around us all the time, we just have to be open to the opportunities. They can come from a classroom lecture, a research cluster, a special seminar, a chat over lunch, the morning newspaper, a random TV show that you catch as you're mindlessly flipping channels, a discussion forum...
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Re: Learning in a PhD

Postby Richard » 20 Sep 2018 07:32

Stuart appears to have created a new theory of long-term learning. Most learning theories (perhaps for practical reasons) focus on short-term learning of specific objectives, not long-term learning of a field. Existing theories that might be relevant include automatisation theory (does knowledge become automatised?), teacher development theories (such as Pennington's 3-stage model), and the 4 stages of researcher development (https://euraxess.ec.europa.eu/europe/ca ... escriptors), but, off the top of my head, I can't think of anything similar to Stuart's model. So, 3 questions:

1. Does anyone know of any theories of long-term learning similar to Stuart's model?

2. Are there existing research findings that support Stuart's model?

3. What would a research programme (a series of research studies) aiming to validate Stuart's model look like?
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