Academic journal article Honors in Practice

Sea Lions and Honors Students: More in Common Than You May Think

Academic journal article Honors in Practice

Sea Lions and Honors Students: More in Common Than You May Think

Article excerpt

The ability to transfer knowledge across contexts, as from course to course or from school to the "real-world," is important to both students and educators. Without this transfer, students cannot apply information learned in the classroom. Even though we all know the importance of transfer of knowledge, we can do more to ensure that it takes place. While transfer of information between contexts is a requirement in animal training, we do not always hold ourselves and our students to this same standard. We tend to assume that students, especially honors students, come into our classroom with the metacognitive skills that are critical for transfer, but research does not support this assumption. We must teach our students the skills of metacognition and self-regulation to ensure that they receive a well-rounded education, not only learning the course material but also learning how to learn.

Although historical arguments have posited only a modest intellectual connection between "man and beast" (Kant; Muller), more recently the field of comparative cognition has explored the similarities and differences among the various species of our planet ranging from the simple sea slug to the highly complex human. Researchers within the field have continually demonstrated a common thread binding animal species and linking together both our biological and psychological components. Despite many differences in the cognitive abilities among animal species, Darwin put it best when he stated, "There can be no doubt that the difference between the mind of the lowest man and that of the highest animal is immense. Nevertheless the difference, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind" (445).

That being said, one can easily find a link between the general principles of learning in relation to both nonhuman and human animals. What may be a more difficult but equally important parallel is how these learning principles are applied to the training of animals and the teaching of honors students. I am not suggesting that honors students should simply be trained; however, in comparison to the process by which an animal such as a sea lion is trained for aquarium and/or behavioral research purposes, we do not always hold ourselves, an arguably more complex and intelligent species, to the same quality of learning. When one is teaching a sea lion a new behavior, such as vocalizing on cue, the animal first works with one specific trainer in one specific area of the habitat in order to keep the environmental context consistent. This procedure has been shown to facilitate learning of novel behaviors (Pryor; Ramirez). Once the sea lions consistently perform this behavior correctly, the training does not stop whereas for many students the training does stop--after an experience in the same classroom with the same professor--on the day of the final exam. We teach our students information in the context of a course and a classroom, and then we typically ask them to demonstrate their grasp of that knowledge in exactly the same context.

For the sea lion, knowing to perform a specific behavior in a specific location with a specific person is not very useful. The same can be said for our students. Being able to discuss the material that a professor teaches in the context of the classroom is an important accomplishment, one that should not be discounted, but the teaching and learning process should not be considered complete at this stage; it is often just the beginning. The sea lion is not considered to have completed learning a behavior until it can be performed in any context, e.g., required by any trainer, in any location, with a verbal or gestural cue, alone or with other animals. Then, even when the behavior has been solidly established, the trainer understands that the animal must continue to work on the skill, at least occasionally, in order to maintain its ability to perform at a high level. If sea lions are held to this high standard of learning, we should consider ways of consistently using the same rigor in an academic setting with our students. …

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