Review of Learning to Think: Disciplinary Perspectives by Janet Donald. Jossey-Bass, 2002.
By William Peirce
Reprinted from Prince George's Community College Instructional Forum, March 2005

Learning to Think: Disciplinary Perspectives by Janet Donald is a necessary and fascinating book for anyone teaching in one of the disciplines (or a related discipline) discussed—well worth the $39 from Jossey-Bass ( even though you read only the chapter for your discipline. Chapter 1 describes the methodology used to study the aims, methods, and thinking practices of eight disciplines. Chapter 9 closes the book with strategies for helping students develop intellectually. Chapters 2 - 8 examine in nine major disciplines how professors want students to think, how students actually think, the difficulties students encounter in thinking, and the approaches likely to promote student learning. Based on 25 years of research, the book reports professors' and students' perceptions of the kind of thinking needed in the discipline (they differ), how student thinking develops in various disciplines, and what practices hinder or help that development. Donald and her associates investigated four-year undergraduate institutions in the U. S., Canada, and Australia; two-year colleges were not included. 

Eight Disciplines Selected for Study

The eight disciplines were chosen because the represent a variety of characteristics. Donald describes them as follows:
Modes of Inquiry Used by Disciplines
In general, Donald finds these methods and modes of inquiry across disciplines:
  Six Thinking Process Used Across Disciplines

What these highly different methods of inquiry have in common is six thinking processes that Donald observes in all eight disciplines:

Donald's approach to disciplinary thinking reinforces the broad definition of thinking used in the Handbook of Critical Thinking Resources for the PGCC Year of Critical Thinking: "Critical thinking is defined as good thinking needed by practitioners in the discipline: accurate, relevant, reasonable, rigorous—whether it be analyzing, synthesizing, generalizing, applying concepts, interpreting, analyzing, evaluating, supporting arguments and hypotheses, solving problems, or making decisions." Donald emphasizes that improvements in how students think will come from the specific thinking processes needed in the discipline.

Seven Chapters on Specific Disciplines

Sandwiched between the opening and closing general chapters are seven specific chapters about thinking in eight disciplines (chemistry and biology are combined in one chapter). Each chapter uses the same basic outline to examine how students learn to think in those disciplines, where students have difficulty, and what is helpful to their learning:

The disciplinary context
Students' experiences learning the discipline  (pointing out where professors' and students' perspectives differ)
The learning task in the discipline
The development of six thinking processes in the discipline
The challenge of instruction in the discipline, including the approach needed to learn successfully
The disciplinary perspective

In chapter after chapter describing thinking in the various disciplines, one sees that students tend to take a surface approach to learning, rather than using strategies that lead to deep learning. Ironically, it is often the professors' methods of teaching and assessing that promote students' use of surface learning study methods rather than strategies that promote deep learning. 

What Can Be Done to Help Students Think Better?

The concluding chapter, titled "Learning, Understanding, and Meaning," compares the thinking and validation processes across disciplines. According to Donald, "The different validation processes used in the disciplines show a trend in where authority resides—from the objective empirical to peers. In more structured disciplines [i.e. physics, engineering, chemistry, and biology], evidence is matched to theory. Psychology occupies a middle position, where empirical testing and interrater reliability are both used as proof. Further into the human sciences, proof rests in evidence that will convince an authority in law, or test results in education, or in internal consistency rendering work plausible in English literature" (p. 282).

What can be done to helping students develop intellectually in their disciplines? Donald recommends employing strategies at three levels: institution, faculty, and students themselves.

The institution can provide a supportive learning community

How faculty can promote higher-order learning
What students can do to become autonomous and deep learners in their discipline 
You can find other book reviews and helpful articles for accomplishing the strategies Donald recommends for faculty and students at the PGCC Reasoning Across the Curriculum web site. These are described in the PGCC annotated list of documents.

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