The Dan Petrescu Speaker Series presents: Rethinking Learning with MIT’s Dr. Sanjay Sarma 

Published: 8 December 2022

By Hilary Sweatman

“The big mistake is this: we assume that the professor has a pen and the student's brain is a sheet of paper and all the professor has to do is write on the sheet of paper and declare victory.” – Dr. Sanjay Sarma.

On October 28th, SciLearn of the Office of Science Education welcomed Dr. Sanjay Sarma to present a talk on rethinking learning. Dr. Sarma is the former Vice-President for Open Learning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and author of Grasp a book on the science of transforming how we learn. His work has served as great inspiration for the SciLearn program. Burning the midnight oil, Sarma enthusiastically Zoomed in from India to speak to over 60 eager faculty, staff, and students. His talk marked the second edition of the Dan Petrescu Speaker Series, recently renamed in honour of our late friend and colleague. We invite you to learn more about Dan and his legacy on the OSE website.  

Sarma captivated attendees with his witty, fact-driven lecture that began by touching on the discouraging history of university education and ended with actionable steps we can take to change the educational system. How did we get here? Sarma suggested that the current system is broken because the goals of the historical university system, an elitist guild of scholars, were initially wrong. He argued that the historical and the traditional systems we use today both aim to create “interchangeable people” trained for predetermined tasks void of creativity and diversity. Truthfully, “we shouldn't complain too much if robots replace us because we're just trying to be robots” ourselves, Sarma said. 

How do we move past this? We need to shift the focus from the product to the process of learning. In the research phase for his book, Grasp, Sarma found that “the lessons from the science of learning are amazingly intuitive.” The power of curiosity stands out as a valuable tool not only to engage students in the content, but also to promote learning at the cellular level in the brain. Curiosity and novelty promote the release of the neurotransmitters that promote learning, such as dopamine, which supports the formation of long-lasting connections in the brain. Additionally, mind-wandering is both a normal and powerful occurrence that promotes curious and creative states in the brain, a phenomenon often referred to as the diffused state of thinking. Flipped classrooms and video lectures are well-situated to account for and promote mind-wandering, as long as they are carefully designed to do so, suggested Sarma. Recordings should be kept shorter than the average attention span of 15 to 20 minutes, allowing students to take breaks between lessons, during which reflection and mind-wandering can take place, and then return to the content at their own pace. 

Incoming university students are often not equipped with scientifically-supported study strategies. Worse, as Sarma pointed out, current university programs reward cramming through poorly designed courses and an emphasis on grades. Universities should assume the responsibility of equipping students with effective and transferrable strategies for lifelong learning. One such method, as described in Grasp and emphasized in our very own SciLearn program, is deliberate practice. This effortful, skills-focused approach can not only be used as a study tool outside of class, but as a method of teaching in place of the traditional lecture. The potential impacts of deliberate practice are clear in Sarma’s example: “Michelangelo never attended a lecture, yet St. Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel [are] stunning because he did deliberate practice.”  

Now that we know how we got here, and we know what the science says we should be doing instead, how do we enact these changes in our own teaching practices? Sarma shared his actionable recommendations to make the classroom count in the table pictured above. For example, in-person classrooms offer a great opportunity for coaching and mentoring students as well as sparking their curiosity, whereas initial delivery of course content can be done asynchronously. Finally, he shared a message of inspiration moving forward: “I think the opportunity and the need of the hour is to bring back the humanity into education.”

You can watch Dr. Sanjay Sarma’s full presentation here and follow SciLearn’s Instagram and Facebook to learn about future events.

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