Yes, You Can Learn Skills in Your First Year of College You’ll Actually Use

by Sandra Jirongo | Dec 27, 2017

During our first year at Minerva, known as Foundation Year, we students take four Cornerstone courses: Empirical Analyses, Formal Analyses, Complex Systems, and Multimodal Communications. These courses touch on a wide array of disciplines, ranging from mathematics and sociology to written and oral communication, as well as computer programming. What is truly unique about the Cornerstones, though, is that they teach more than just the content of these subject areas; they also introduce us to foundational concepts and habits of mind, commonly known here at Minerva as HCs.

“What are ‘HCs’?” you may ask.

HCs are cognitive skills that are intended to become second nature and are the foundation that enables our lifelong learning. The HCs introduce knowledge that can be built upon. We learn logic and reasoning, the ability to draw the most accurate inferences from limited information, how to devise new and applicable solutions to existing problems, and how to analyze and evaluate problems efficiently using minimal resources or in a short amount of time.

During Foundation Year, we are expected to gain an understanding of the HCs — but not (yet) expected to be masters in applying these techniques and heuristics. Through continuous practice and fine-tuning through frequent class assignments that require applying the HCs, as well as final projects conducted with Civic Partners, HCs should eventually become ingrained in our mental muscle memory, readily available to use in tackling any problems we encounter, be it in the workforce or other areas of life.

Think of this process as learning how to drive: at first, you may forget to turn your indicator light on when making a turn or to check your rearview mirror before you get moving, but as you become a more experienced driver, doing these things becomes almost automatic.

Like many other students, I had my personal favorite Cornerstone courses — Complex Systems and Formal Analyses — as well as those that I didn’t fancy too much. For me, the latter was Empirical Analyses, especially during the second semester. Despite the fact that I’d taken all the available science courses during high school, I had never been formally introduced to scientific papers. Through reading through hypotheses, methods of experimentation, and graphs, learning about confidence intervals amidst dense scientific jargon and complicated conclusions was the most challenging part of Empirical Analyses for me. Adding to my confusion, each week we had to read several such papers, search for problematic applications in the scientific process, and identify biases and misleading conclusions. If you’re anything like me, this probably sounds frustrating — and it was.

To be honest, I found the work tiresome. I already had my mind set on declaring as a Business major from the outset. There was a slight possibility that I’d also minor in Social Science and Computational Science, but I was sure that I was not going to take any courses in the Natural Sciences. For that reason, I lamented that, on top of the class, I had to put in at least 10 hours of studying and working on assignments each week, focused on a subject area I did not intend on pursuing. It felt like a total waste of time that I would rather put into pursuing something that would help me in my career.

Now, over one full year since I sat through my first Empirical Analyses class, I have been surprised but pleased to find I’m continuing to apply the HCs I learned in my life every day. This past summer, for example, I found myself digging back into my Cornerstone syllabi to re-familiarize myself with some of the HCs that I wasn’t too keen on during the first two semesters at Minerva. When reading articles, I challenged the validity of the arguments, the nature of the hypothesis, methods of information or data collection, and whether they lead to valid and reliable conclusions. I realized that I was better equipped to evaluate the world around me, thanks to the skills that I learned in Empirical Analyses. Likewise, I was more conscious of my own biases and, consequently, how I interacted with who and what surrounded me when making decisions. With this lens, I improved how I interacted with information, and gained a better understanding of the limits of memory.

How I use the information and my memory to estimate properties and patterns subsequently helps me make better decisions.

Furthermore, in today’s world, where terms like “alternative facts” and “fake news” are popping up everywhere every day, Empirical Analyses turned out to be a blessing in disguise — and not only in identifying and mitigating bias or evaluating information. I used these skills in a hackathon last summer to work under tight constraints with colleagues across the world and use the short timeline to our advantage. Many HCs came in handy during this hackathon, but most notably several heuristics — broadly accurate rules or guides that are based on experience and practice — in particular, that we used to come up with creative solutions.

Empirical Analyses were not the only Cornerstone in which I learned skills that I am still applying in my day-to-day life. In Multimodal Communications, we learned effective reading and writing, visual communication, public speaking as well as the role of art and music in communication.

For example, after I shared an article on some of the misdeeds of Mahatma Gandhi that are not widely known on Facebook, some of my Facebook friends had qualms about the truth of the article. In the past, I would have been quick to take down the post, not only because of the negative feedback it received from some of my friends but because I would not be completely confident that I could stand behind the claims with concrete evidence to back them.

Now, with the knowledge of how to evaluate the source quality of the information in various media, I am able to stand firm in my decision to share the article because I was careful to make sure each claim had a reputable reference. Despite the sensational headline, I was confident that I had not shared any misleading information — even if it was unpopular. As I scroll down my Facebook feed, I’m always cautious to evaluate all information I come across before commenting on it, whether or not I agree with the information provided.

I have come to realize the very real value of the HCs — the “perks” that come with knowing how and when to use HCs and their wide range of applicability even in everyday life. My preconceived notion that Empirical Analyses would be useful only in the natural sciences has been proven wrong — and I’m happy about that!

Throughout the next two and a half years, I look forward to cementing these concepts and finding new and exciting ways to apply the HCs learned during Foundation Year across many disciplines, and in life.

If I could go back in time and give my first-year-self some advice, I’d stress the importance of taking each Cornerstone with an open mind because the HCs really are interdisciplinary skills. Reflecting on my own Foundation Year experience, I encourage all future college students to not only seek an education where you can learn applicable skills in your first year, but to always keep an open mind when learning new concepts that may, at first, seem irrelevant to your future goals.