How Minerva University Teaches Habits of Mind

Minerva is a new university best known for its global campus. Students spend their first year in San Francisco, and then each class moves en masse through Seoul, Hyderabad, Buenos Aires, Berlin, London, and Taipei over the remaining six semesters. During my undergraduate years, studying abroad was an important experience for me, so I’ve been interested in Minerva since I heard about it a few years ago. Earlier this year I read their semi-official book Building the Intentional University: Minerva and the Future of Higher Education (eds. Stephen M. Kosslyn and Ben Nelson). But after reading the book, I’ve come to think the global campus is a bit of a sideshow. Minerva’s really innovative idea is actually in the considerably less flashy domain of curriculum design.

In this post, I’ll briefly explain why I think their curriculum is so interesting and what problem it is trying to solve. But up front I want to make it clear that I don’t work for Minerva or even know anyone who does. I just read their book, some other books, and teach at a university myself.

Minerva’s curriculum is designed to foster certain habits of thought. These are habits we would associate with critical reasoning, problem solving, communication, leadership, and teamwork skills. So far, so bland. What curriculum isn’t designed to foster good habits of thought? But as we will see, most universities do a fairly poor job of teaching these skills. The difference may well be that where most universities are laissez-faire about how they teach good habits of thought, Minerva is intentional.

Before turning to the Minerva approach, it’s necessary to take a minute to establish the disappointing track record of the traditional approach, and to suggest some reasons why it has disappointed. This is all laid out quite well in Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money.

What Does Education Do?

Caplan’s book is about explaining why an extra year of education is correlated with a 10% increase in wages. The traditional explanation for this fact is that education builds valuable knowledge and skills, called “human capital”, which makes graduates more productive employees. Caplan’s central argument is that education is primarily (80%) about signaling, rather than the accumulation of useful skills and knowledge. By “signaling,” Caplan means that the primary purpose of education is to certify students as smart, diligent, focused, submissive, and conforming to social conventions. This basket of characteristics is highly desirable to employers and employees with these characteristics are compensated with higher wages. The key assertion is that education merely certifies these traits; it does not build them.

While he makes several arguments that signaling rather than human capital explains the educational wage premium, the most convincing to me is simply the observation that higher education does not appear to build many skills useful to employers.

I think of myself. I did a double-major in Physics and Religious Studies for my undergraduate degree and was a very strong student. For the most part I loved the experience. But when I look back at my transcripts, I count five classes for which I would struggle to remember more than a sentence-worth of content. I count four more classes that I don’t even remember taking. As for the rest, while I often found the material interesting, I think the professional applicability of the specific facts, models, and tools I learned is quite limited. Indeed, I spent two years as an economic analyst after graduating and never used any physics (actually, the religious studies mattered more!). This is not to say nothing was useful. But Caplan’s estimate that only 20% of what we learn in school directly contributes to work productivity seems on the face plausible.

And I don’t think my experiences are that unusual. Naturally, there are majors and courses that build a lot of skills and knowledge directly relevant to certain career paths. But as Caplan points out, even here the human capital story faces challenges, because students frequently fail to get jobs in the field closest to their major. Few science majors become scientists, few psychology majors becomes psychologists, few economics majors become economists and so on. And then there are all the other majors that do not even try to build skills for specific professions. This is not to say such degrees are a bad idea (wages aren’t everything!), only that the human capital story as an explanation for the positive education-wage correlation looks weaker when we look more closely at what is studied. (Caplan also argues education does a bad job of building wisdom and other non-pecuniary forms of human capital, but I’m not going to go into that).

Deeper Knowledge?

The natural retort to this line of argument is that the specifics of curriculum do not matter because education develops deeper capacities. What is “really” taught are habits of thought: how to construct and evaluate arguments, how to weigh evidence, how to communicate effectively, etc. Whether we study English, economics, engineering, or entomology isn’t particularly relevant. They just give us the raw material for us to practice and hone critical thinking and communication skills.

For Caplan, this is wishful thinking. There are a host of studies that look for domain general forms of learning, and the results tend to disappoint. Caplan describes a study measuring the quality of arguments and reasoning given by students at different points in their education. Fourth year undergraduates did no better than first year undergraduates, and fourth year graduate students did only marginally better than first year graduate students. Another study looks at how students apply statistical reasoning to real life examples, again finding the vast majority fail to do so.

Another way to think about this issue is through the lens of knowledge transfer. It may not matter that people retain specific facts and surface details as long as they do retain the deep structure of theories and ideas. They can then apply these deep structures to contexts with different surface details. Unfortunately, a body of work by educational psychologists finds that people do not naturally transfer models and ideas from one domain to another. Most of the things we learn get “stuck” in the context in which we learn them. If we don’t use those skills frequently, they fade away within a few years. This is the fate of most of what we learn in school.

The problem is this: students tend to learn only what will be on the test and domain general thinking is not on the test. Again taking myself as an example, I grade my students on how well they do in my class; I do not follow them out into the world (or even into other classes) and adjust their grade based on how well they apply the models I teach them in novel contexts. The end result is that knowledge remains bottled up in the context of the specific domain it was learned and unless a student builds explicitly on that domain, it is lost through lack of use.

Reorganizing Undergraduate College

Caplan’s solution to this problem is to scale back the signaling arms race by cutting education subsidies and to expand curriculum that explicitly teaches skills employers want – namely, vocational training. Minerva, in contrast, thinks it can actually teach those habits of thought that we want college to develop. But to do that, it recognizes that it needs to change the way college is traditionally organized. It does this in three main ways:

  1. The curriculum explicitly teaches and assesses domain-general habits of thought
  2. It teaches these habits of thought in varied contexts
  3. It assess student mastery over all four years of education

Let’s take these in turn.

The curriculum explicitly teaches and assesses domain-general habits of thought

Today’s universities spend the majority of their time explicitly teaching and assessing students on their mastery of domain-specific content. We trust this effort will also lead to the development of domain-general critical thinking and communication skills as a useful by-product. For example, if you take an economics class, you are taught economics and assessed on your command of it. However, to the extent mastering economics requires deeper critical thinking skills, you will pick those up too.

Minerva flips this around, and explicitly teaches and assesses students on their mastery of 100 domain-general “habits of mind.” When I say “explicit” I mean it; the 100 habits of mind are enumerated and spelled out in appendix A of Building the Intentional University. Course content is selected to illustrate and practice the use of these principles.

What are these habits of mind? Examples include:

  • Evaluate whether hypotheses lead to testable predictions.
  • Identify and minimize bias that results from searching for or interpreting information to confirm preconceptions.
  • Apply effective strategies to teach yourself specific types of material.
  • Tailor oral and written work for the context and the audience.

Students are assessed on their successful use of these and the other 96 habits of thought both through coursework and during classtime. Classes are delivered online with students participating via webcam, and so there is a video record of all class discussions and activities. Classes are designed so that no more than 25% of class time is spent passively absorbing material, meaning students spend the majority of class time on activities in which they can practice or demonstrate habits of thought. Typically a few habits will be emphasized per week. After classes, professors go back through the footage and assess students’ use of habits of mind, offering feedback to students.

If you want to teach deep thinking habits, it’s probably best to explicitly teach them, rather than to trust they will be extracted from course content. In Caplan’s discussion of the literature on critical thinking skills, he describes a study where students were taught a solution concept either explicitly as an algebraic technique, or in the guise of a structurally equivalent physics technique. Students were then asked to solve a problem using the same solution technique, but in the guise opposite to what they learned (so algebra students solved a physics problem and physics students solved an algebra problem). Most of the students who studied the algebraic version of the technique used it on the physics problem, but few of the students who studied the physics technique used it on the algebra. It seems to be easier to transfer knowledge from the general to the specific than vice-versa.

It teaches habits of thought in varied contexts

While Minerva teaches and assesses domain-general “habits of mind,” some concrete context is still necessary. You can’t really teach someone how to “evaluate whether hypotheses lead to testable predictions” in some kind of abstract Platonic ideal. All these habits of thought are instead practiced in the context of more traditional course content. The problem is that anytime you introduce context, you run the risk of trapping the habit of mind in that specific context. As noted above, far transfer is hard. If you practice the “testability” habit of mind in a psychology class, it might never occur to you to use the same habit in a business context.

To address this problem, all Minerva students take the same courses in their first year. These courses give students a foundational liberal arts and sciences education. This naturally provides many different contexts for students to practice the same habits of thought, helping prevent these habits from getting trapped in the context where it was first taught. And in all of these courses, students are graded on their mastery of these 100 habits of thought.

Because of this scheme, far transfer itself becomes a skill you learn to cultivate and practice. You will learn a habit of thought in one class and be graded on your ability to use it in a different one. I can’t grade a student on her ability to apply the concepts I teach her in her other courses, but in Minerva something like this is the norm. This is only possible because the first year curriculum and assessment criteria are collaboratively developed by the Minerva faculty.

It assess student mastery over all four years of education

A final challenge to learning these habits of mind is we quickly forget what we don’t use. To avoid this fate, Minerva adopts an unusual grading system. As noted above, students are graded in their first year on their mastery of 100 habits of thought. But this grade is retroactively adjusted over the following three years, based on how well students continue to use habits of thought. Rather than learning something for a semester and then forgetting it, students must maintain (or try to improve) their first-year grades by continuing to demonstrate mastery over these habits. Again, something like this is only possible when the curriculum is collaboratively developed by the entire Minerva faculty. It only works because professors teaching later courses “buy-in” to it.

Can Existing Universities Adopt these Ideas?

To summarize, Minerva tries to teach habits of thought by explicitly teaching them, assessing them, and then forcing students to practice far transfer and retention by requiring the use of the habits across all classes for four years. I think this is all pretty cool, and if it works it’s exciting to think we have found a better way to teach domain-general thinking.

However, it works for Minerva because curriculum design has become a collective rather than an individual endeavor. It’s hard for existing institutions to completely adopt this format, since professors have so much autonomy in what and how they teach. But to close, I’ll toss out a few ideas for how a traditional university might experiment with some of the same concepts ideas.

One incremental step could be pairing up complementary classes, who then share assessment. For example, a writing class could pair up with a philosophy class where students have to write essays. Students would learn explicit habits of thought – in this case about writing – in one of the classes, and practice that knowledge in another. The essays would give students a specific context in which to practice their writing skills, and could be jointly graded by both instructors: the philosophy instructor grading for philosophy, the writing instructor for writing.

A step beyond this would be the creation of an explicit “habits of thought” class that is taught every semester. Like Minerva, it would explicitly teach and assess mastery of habits of thought. But the class could be structured so that students are assessed on how they use these habits in their other classes, which would be taught in traditional ways. For example, perhaps students write reflections at the end of each day on how they used the habit of thought in their other classes. Or perhaps students taking the habits of thought class are organized into small groups of students who are taking the same classes, and these could be a forum for discussing how the habits of thought were applicable (or not).

A further step would be the creation of a “habits of thought” minor with its own set of core classes organized much like Minerva’s first year. This minor would lock all students into a required set of classes in their first year, but these courses could be carefully honed so that students can slip into the second-year stream of traditional majors. For example, a student could become an economics student with a minor in “habits of thought” by taking a foundational year that covers a broad set of classes satisfying normal general education requirements. Ideally, these classes would also include enough of the material taught in introductory economics courses so that students could jump into an intermediate course in the following year. The minor could continue to meet throughout the next four years to keep the habits of thought in practice as well.

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