Learning at the Top of the Pyramid: How Penn Taught Me to Think

With two years remaining at the University of Pennsylvania, I have just one fear: that I'll miss out! Perhaps I'll graduate only to discover that there was a "must take" class that I hadn't enrolled in, or some genius professor I didn't meet. I wonder if there is some great club that I haven't yet heard about or some eye-opening experience left undiscovered. As I've said before, the most stressful thing about attending Penn is having so much that I want to do in four fleeting years.

This past weekend, I went to a reunion for people I used to work with. My friend Alison*, now a software engineer, was talking about her own experiences as a college graduate: "College is all about the slip of paper you get at the end," she mused. "In my five years since graduating college, I've never used anything I learned while in college. When's the last time I needed to know the integral of x times e to the x squared? Why, I took six semesters of math, and the only math I've used since is to calculate the tip on a taxi ride." College, she explained, had not provided her with value. For her, college was a bust.

As my former colleagues nodded their heads in agreement, I was entirely baffled. The truth is, I've gained something meaningful and constructive from every class I've taken at Penn -- from my hands-on lessons in managerial accounting to my enriching foray into ethnomusicology (world music). I'm not yet an upperclassmen but still my classes have helped me in virtually everything I do -- whether that's working at an internship, leading a student club, advocating for a cause, writing this blog post, or forging friendships with people from different backgrounds. I am much better at analyzing concepts, drawing meaningful comparisons, appreciating different cultural perspectives, and forming logical conclusions than when I started college, and I couldn't imagine ever seeing life as I did before.

So what makes a Penn education so uniquely worthwhile and useful? What has helped me to gain the most from my Ivy League education?

I found the answer from one of my extracurricular experiences at Penn. At the Penn Leadership Training Institute, a service-learning group that provides leadership training to underprivileged Philadelphia students, all volunteers are trained in basic pedagogy - the art of teaching and working with children. One of our training sessions is focused on Bloom's Taxonomy, a hierarchy that ranks different forms of learning by quality.

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Bloom's Taxonomy

At the bottom of Bloom's pyramid is the lowest form of learning: remembering. This is how we learn our times tables when we're very young. We all know 4 times 8 is 32 because it was drilled into our heads in elementary school. The next step up in Bloom's taxonomy is understanding. A person is said to understand a topic if she can regurgitate an explanation or description of that topic.

From what Alison told me her college classes focused on these two low-level forms of learning. Alison learned the Krebs Cycle in biology class by memorizing the number of steps it has (8) and regurgitating a textbook explanation of how it metabolizes glucose.

At Penn, however, professors engage students almost exclusively in Bloom's higher forms of learning. We analyze conflicting arguments, synthesize cross-disciplinary applications of knowledge, apply book-learning to real-life case studies, evaluate our work through continuous meta-cognition, and create new ideas and approaches to solving problems At Penn, professors don't teach so that students can ace the test - instead, they have students apply the learning to real-life scenarios, whether that's by breaking down the cultural roots of a politician's debate style or creating a health needs analysis of the West Philadelphia community. This type of hands-on, applied learning enables students to pursue the highest form of learning - advancing the discipline and creating ideas, tools, systems, and inventions that didn't exist before . My classmates have combined study in psychology with a passion for creative writing to create a mental health-based literary magazine, merged marketing and medical research to design programs that improve adherence to medication regimens, and developed culturally-competent educational interventions to reduce school drop-out rates in West Philadelphia.

Allow me to offer just a few examples where I created value by successfully applying what I learned from my classes.

Perhaps the most meaningful lesson from my first semester at Wharton concerned trade-offs and opportunity costs. In an introductory economics course taught by Prof. Gizem Saka, I learned that the total cost of an investment is not merely the dollars you pay; it's also what you give up to pursue that investment. This concept had a powerful effect on me - it means nothing is either absolutely good nor bad but a trade-off for what could have been. Losing $10 is a good thing if the only alternative is losing $1,000. These trade-offs are not only real on ECON 101 tests - they shape all of life's decisions, from the national minimum wage debate to what I had for breakfast this morning.

In an introductory marketing course, we studied several Harvard Business Review case studies to analyze how companies like Black and Decker market new products. We evaluated the marketing strategies of competing firms and found that companies that succeeded were better able to convey the value of their product to their consumers. A quote that stuck with me was one from Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt: "People don't want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!" This lesson fundamentally changed my communication style. Now, when I go out to speak with principals about why they should host the Penn Leadership Training Institute at their schools, I focus the conversation on the value of our program to the school and its students. I have much better results than when I talked only about the logistics of the program.

When I told my dad (a STEM major) I was taking an ethnomusicology course, he chuckled. He thought I was taking a "fluff" class for an easy A. He was wrong on both fronts. The course was anything but easy - it was extremely challenging and demanded that I learn a new style of writing and rhetorical method for presenting my arguments. But more important than my grade was the level of cultural understanding I gained. I learned how Muslim music from the Middle East merged with traditional Indian music to form a brand new Hindustani style and a new cultural identity for Northern Indians. I saw how changing musical genres mirrored the migration of peoples from Central America. I discovered how musical styles formed the center of cultural identities for many American minority groups. By studying the history of musical genres, I gave up only listening to Billboard Top 40 hits and learned to appreciate the cultural significance of more than a dozen music forms. Perhaps most importantly, I learned how peoples' culture affect their actions and behaviors - through music or otherwise.

The course that perhaps best exemplifies the usefulness of a Penn education for me was an academically based community service course I took called "Community-Based Environmental Health." As part of the course, I volunteered with a four-person team to teach a class of 5th graders about the dangers of lead poisoning, a serious health threat to children living in old urban centers like West Philadelphia. My team had to design a curriculum that would appeal to our audience, create a strategy for the school to mitigate the negative effects of lead exposure, and analyze Pennsylvania's and Philadelphia's lead policies. I pulled what I had learned from several of my classes to improve the impact of our project:

  • From my ethnomusicology course, I knew how important it was for our team to be culturally competent when interfacing with students. To better understand the culture of the students, my team and I pored over community data and spoke with teachers and parents before ever stepping foot in a classroom. This helped us frame our message in terms the students would accept.
  • From my marketing class, I knew we needed to convey the value of our strategy to the school's administrators. When talking with the school's administration, we focused on the outcomes of the project - that more kids would be developmentally healthy and miss fewer days of school. This approach helped convince the busy school administrators that they needed our program.
  • From my economics course, I knew the trade-offs implicit in a lead exposure prevention policy. Every dollar spent on lead education had to be taken away from another government priority. In our final report, we used a cost-benefit analysis to justify our proposed policies and discussed ways to minimize the trade-offs.

Informed by all of these lessons, my teammates created an innovative curriculum to teach elementary school students about the dangers of lead poisoning. The curriculum tied together interdisciplinary knowledge and research from economics, business, anthropology, and environmental studies to be maximally effective.

Every class I have taken at Penn has made me a wiser and better person. This morning, I went through a list of the 20 courses I have taken at Penn so far. I use lessons from every single course - from mathematical probability to differential equations to consumer anthropology -- almost every day. My professors pushed me to make a habit of applying their lessons to my real life. That habit stuck and has drastically improved my life and my competence as a citizen of my school, community and world.

And as for Alison's complaint that she never needed to know ∫(xex2) dx? It is true that complex integrals don't come up too often outside of math class. But as a Penn math major, I know this specific integral, in its current form, is unsolvable. One must substitute a new variable, u, equal to x2, which makes the integral very simple. Here, a new frame of reference makes a seemingly impossible problem simple - a lesson I apply to life every day. Penn students learn to think beyond rote memorization or basic understanding - to tie lessons from the classroom to real-life applications and innovations. We analyze the meaning behind the integral, synthesize our understanding with that of other academic subjects, and create solutions to new problems - even problems that have nothing to do with mathematics. Like Alison's integral, my frame of reference has changed.

∫(xex2) dx
u=x2
du=(2x)dx
∫(xex2)dx = (1/2) ∫(eu)du=(1/2) eu= (1/2) xex2

*Real name withheld