Reflections on a First Semester

As my first semester comes to a close, I’ve been reflecting a lot on my experiences over the past few months.

I have learned so much – though the act of trying to enumerate just what I’ve learned seems far too daunting for today. Learning is a funny thing, you know. The growth that comes from learning is far more than the accumulation of facts. It’s a subtle process that involves slowly acquiring not only facts, but ways of thinking and approaching problems.

David Williamson Shaffer of the University of Wisconsin-Madison writes about this a lot in his work on epistemic frames. Building on the concept of “communities of practices” – spaces where people within a given field share similar approaches – Shaffer describes epistemic frames as “the ways of knowing with associated with particular communities of practice. These frames have a basis in content knowledge, interest, identity, and associated practices, but epistemic frames are more than merely collections of facts, interests, affiliations, and activities…knowing where to begin looking and asking questions, knowing what constitutes appropriate evidence to consider or information to assess, knowing how to go about gathering that evidence, and knowing when to draw a conclusion and/or move on to a different issue.”

So, essentially, over this first semester, I have been learning how to see the world through a particular epistemic frame: learning what questions to ask and what tools to deploy in answering them.

There is, of course, still so much to learn, but I’m walking away from this first semester with critical thinking skills that will serve me well in the years to come.

More important than the facts I studied or the equations I learned, was the constant challenge: what does this mean?

It is not enough to know how to write a program or how to call a function that will do all the hard work for you. (Okay, I’m still learning to do that!) It is great to be able to do those things, but those skills are only valuable if you know what it means – if you understand how the calculation is done and can properly interpret the results. So, that is what I have learned this semester: I have learned to think critically, to question my own intuition as well as the equations that are put in front of me.

And, of course, I have had a ton of fun.

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