Abstract Thinking

Gary Cote gcote at radford.edu
Mon May 14 10:28:52 EST 2001

Hi all,

In the discussion on removing botany from the core, Sandra Johnson comments
that studies show the majority of incoming freshman are not capable of
abstract thinking.  My first reaction was, "boy is that true, and it's not
just the freshmen," but then I started to think myself.  I have some
questions that might be worth considering.

What exactly do we mean by abstract thinking, and how does this differ from
other kinds of thinking?  If students can't manage abstract thinking, what
kind of thinking are they doing?

Do any of our biology courses NOT require abstract thinking?  Certainly a
chemiosmotic gradient requires abstract thinking to even visualize, but can
the students conceptualize, say cells, with minimum abstract thinking?  Can
they conceptualize "Welwitschia," which few of them will ever see in the
"flesh" and fewer still in habitat?

Why can't students handle abstract thinking?  Is it because their brains
simply haven't developed far enough?  Or is it because they aren't being
taught in school?  Or, being a lot smarter than we often give them credit
for, have they figured out that in a lot of schools and even college
courses, abstract thinking will get you nowhere, and memorization, and
figuring out "what the professor wants you to say," gets you the A's and B's?

If it turns out that they potentially could do abstract thinking, but
either have not been taught, or have learned it's better not to, how do we
reach them and help them learn to do it?  

Gary Cote
Dr. Gary Coté
Assistant Professor
Department of Biology
Box 6931
Radford University
Radford, VA 24142-6931

Ph: 540-831-5630
Fax: 540-831-5129
email: gcote at radford.edu


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