Wisdom in the News

Learning the habits of the “Mind”

by Andy Brown, UChicago News

Core curriculum course stretches UChicago undergraduates’ brains in new ways

For more than 90 years, the Core curriculum at the University of Chicago has formed the basis for undergraduate students’ academic journey through the College. Yet the Core’s transformative impact goes far beyond what students learn in the classrooms; rather, it teaches them and reinforces new learning habits.

To complete the Core, students take classes across seven academic disciplines, including a “sequence” of three courses in the social sciences. One such sequence, known as “Mind,” explores, in essence, how the human mind works.

“Everybody thinks they know their own mind,” said Anne Henly, a senior instructional professor who has taught the Mind for more than 20 years. “They have ideas about things that motivate other people, or why other people act the way they do. ‘Mind’ is a course that systematically explores how minds work, why our minds work the way they do, how we can investigate how minds work, and how we can understand our own mind and other people's minds.”

As director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Psychology and chair of the course, Henly is passionate about the sequence’s material, which explores the mind through multiple lenses including biological mechanisms and social context. She’s also seen the impact it’s had on her students.

“I love watching the growth of the students—in their skills, interests and understanding of how minds work, over an entire year,” she said. “Many of them begin the sequence grounded in their own beliefs, but over time they learn to develop an understanding of how to challenge and question those beliefs, and to write about them impartially.”

Students said they are grateful for not only what they learned about the complexities of the human mind, but also for how the course helped them expand their own minds’ capacities for analytical and creative thought. 

Maddie Yoo, a third-year student studying math and economics, said she came into the course feeling self-conscious about her ability to study the social sciences. 

“A big thing I learned was how not only to read between the lines of these studies and take away the main idea, but also how to extend upon them and ask questions about how these studies could have implications towards other phenomena,” she said.

The assigned readings in Mind are not particularly long, but they are highly technical, challenging students to understand the arguments the authors are making—and in the process learn a new set of skills apart from the course.

“There’s a set of writing and thinking skills that students develop, as well as the ability to separate one’s ideas from those of others, and synthesize them,” Henly said. “How do you put a diverse set of ideas into dialogue with one another, integrate them to realize an important underlying generalization, and then support your argument with evidence?”

Third-year student Emily Kang, a biological sciences major on a pre-med track, said Henly pushed her to think deeper about the topics she was studying. She recalls learning how hormones called glucocorticoids, involved in the regulation of stress, had both psychological and physiological phenomena. 

Kang said the course has helped her see the human body, medicine and the world around her in a more comprehensive way. 

“The course is really about laying out how minds are not only products of social circumstances and cultures that we're in, but also that they are embedded in us as biological material beings,” Henly said. “Our mental states and processes are implemented by the biological wetware of which we are made.”

Both Yoo and Kang credit the course for helping improve their academic writing. 

“I can see the way I read papers and articles differently and assess arguments now [compared to last school year],” Yoo said. “I’m able to ask really deep questions that I otherwise probably wouldn’t have been able to, having not taken the Mind sequence.”

Click on the citation to read the article and watch the video interview:

Brown, A, (2024, February 26). Learning the habits of the "Mind". UChicago News. Retrieved from https://news.uchicago.edu/story/learning-habits-mind