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Regular version of the site

‘University Education Is about Teaching Students to Think Critically, Not about the Transfer of Knowledge’

Before coming to the HSE in 1999, Olga Kuzina, PhD, who is today Professor at the Department of Economic Sociology, had no experience in teaching. But she was chosen by the students as one of the best university lecturers  and not for the first time in 2012.

— Dr. Kuzina, before 1999 you were a researcher. How did you become a teacher at the HSE?

— I came to the HSE with Vadim Radaev; I worked in his department in the Institute of Economics at the Russian Academy of Sciences after I defended my thesis. I designed a course on the ‘Sociology of financial behaviour in the general population’. It seems that the course turned out to be useful for both sociology and economics students. I taught it at ICEF and for one of the Faculty of Economics Master’s programmes. We also have some plans for cooperation with the Faculty of Psychology.

— How do economics students feel about sociology courses?

— They are very critical, but I like their scepticism. Every year some smart students come to me who believe that ‘sociology is blah-blah-ology’ and ‘there is no Nobel prize for sociologists, as they have the prize for literature’. But thanks to my course, I believe, they broaden their views; they stop thinking that formulas are the main thing in social sciences, they start thinking more openly and not purely in terms of economic models.

— What you as a teacher can give a student? How can he change upon finishing the course?

— According to my experience, in any class 15-20% of the students already know how to study independently. They need a minimum of teaching. Then there are the 20%  who are only interested in getting  a document that certifies their degree and nothing else.

My job is to help the students in the ‘middle’ – those 50-60% of every class who want to study but are not able to do it yet. They go to a library and read, but often mechanically, without fully understanding the purpose of the text, the author’s task, his choice of the solution for the problem, and the meaning of it all in the context of other approaches and studies. They try to remember the words and repeat them in class. The same happens with essay writing: some ‘waffle’ about the relevance of the topic, then a mixture of phrases related to it, and a fluffy dessert about how we managed to cover the topic, and thank you for your attention.

I help them to learn how to read effectively, how to write and speak differently, to build up arguments for and against a certain statement, to learn to substantiate their judgment.

For example, I advise them when they read an article to read the introduction first, then the conclusion, and only after that the main part.

And we have another useful exercise -- read the title of an article and try to determine its main problem. Then read the introduction, compare it with your interpretation and try to understand the problem set by the author. Try to guess the conclusions, then read them and compare them with your guess. Then read the main part in order to understand how the author carried out the research, what theories he used, how he grounded the conceptual model, what data he attracted and what methods he used to analyze it. As a result, students should get to follow how the author came to his conclusions and understand the system of his theoretical and empirical arguments. After that they can make the next step – to look critically at the text, to think about how persuasive the author’s arguments are.

I believe that the essence of university education is not the transfer of knowledge, but helping the student to elaborate and develop the ability to think critically. An important part of critical thinking is creative thinking. In Vladimir Nabokov’s novel ‘Despair’ one of the characters says that the purpose of art is to show in images how people categorise the world, where they see similarities and differences. And another character replies: no, art is necessary to show difference where people usually see similarity, and similarity where everyone sees difference. I believe this is also about science, and this is what we should teach our students. This is the way to finding creativity in your own research, the way to freedom.

See also:

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