Academic Stories

How the “Mind” Core sequence teaches advanced learning habits

Exploring the Core curriculum: the College’s academic foundation, Vol. I

Since 1931, all students in the College at UChicago have passed through an iteration of the Core Curriculum. 

The Core, broadly defined, is a challenging, transformative academic program that prepares UChicago students for a lifetime of enriching inquiry. 

More specifically, it is a series of class sequences (courses that span three academic quarters) separated into seven academic disciplines. Students must take and complete some combination of class sequences from each of these disciplines within their first two years of study in the College. 

However, the Core amounts to much more than boxes UChicago students check on their way to a diploma—it is the foundation of a student’s academic journey through the College. 

Over the next several months, the College will be examining the Core curriculum through a series of case studies, each of which will cover an individual course sequence and how it contributes to students’ broader intellectual journeys, beyond what they learn in their classrooms.

The question we seek to answer today is: In what ways does the Core curriculum teach and reinforce new learning habits?

“Teaching a set of skills”

Senior Instructional Professor Anne Henly has been teaching "Mind," a social sciences Core sequence, in the College for over 20 years, and continuously since 2004. 

Senior Instructional Professor Anne Henly
Senior Instructional Professor Anne Henly

As the Director of Undergraduate Studies in Psychology and Chair of the course, Henly is passionate about the sequence’s material, which explores subjective experience and behavior through the lens of mental processes, biological mechanisms and social context—in short, how the human mind works. 

“Everybody thinks they know their own mind,” Henly said. “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.”

But Henly’s passion for the material is only part of what has kept her returning to teach the sequence for decades.

“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.”

The assigned readings in "Mind" are not particularly long, but they are highly technical, challenging students to take great care to understand the arguments the authors are making. 

So while students are learning about the mind, Henly said, they are also learning a set of skills that are independent of the substantive material covered in 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?”

Students who have completed the sequence say 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
Maddie Yoo

Maddie Yoo, a third-year in the College 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. 

Third-year 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, hormones involved in the regulation of stress, which has both psychological and physiological phenomena. 

Emily Kang
Emily Kang

Learning to study the mind across each of these different levels, Kang said, has helped her see the human body, medicine and the world around her, generally, 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 Henly for helping improve their academic writing skills. These skills have already been applicable in their subsequent classes at UChicago, they said. 

“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.”