If experience brings professional wisdom to undergraduate education, what is wisdom?

December 12, 2022 at 4:23 PM
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Noor Ahmed UA’23, Nina Pluviose SFC’ 24, Brandy Eggan, and Jim Stellar

As part of the University at Albany CSTEP program over 2 years, we created a brief informal survey to assess variation in the way wisdom is perceived. This step was suggested by the students to better guide how we might apply experiences in college to best generate wise outcomes. In the opposite, according to a quote from Oscar Wilde, “A cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”  We in colleges and universities do not want to graduate cynics. We want to graduate students who at least in their chosen fields are starting to show some professional wisdom or maturity even though they are still in college.

Why is wisdom important to understand? Previous thinking has noted that wisdom is correlated with better health, possibly life, and even relationships. There are various characteristics associated with wisdom, but the the main components thought to be important from the literature were: prosocial behavior, reflection, social decision-making, and acknowledgment of uncertainty. Social decision-making/knowledge of life was associated with social reasoning, the ability to give good advice, life knowledge, and life skills; prosocial values are linked to empathy, altruism, and a sense of fairness. Reflection and self-understanding relate to introspection, insight, intuition, self-knowledge, and knowledge. Lastly, acknowledgment of uncertainty meant just accepting life as it comes and coping effectively with uncertainty. But even with the extensive background from previous researchers, centers, and thinkers, we came to question whether this is view of wisdom seen across today’s young people.

To tackle this admittedly complex question, Mr. Noor Ahmed first developed a preliminary survey first asking demographic questions of age, sex, race, and level of education as well as being asked to define their view of wisdom, and who they considered wise. At this stage, there were about 30 participants who were students from the University at Albany. Then, Dr. Eggan and Ms. Nina Pluviose (also in UAlbany’s CESTEP program the next year, but from St Francis College), looked at the 30 participants’ definitions and choices and used that to revise the analysis tool. This revision led to eight final categories: academic intelligence, moral maturity, socio-emotional intelligence, age, experiential learning, philosophic/integrative, perceived success, and other.

Academic IQ/ Intelligence was associated with book smarts, knowledge, or academia; moral maturity dealt with morality, ethics, and a person’s sense of justice; socio-emotional intelligence was associated with interpersonal skills; age meant the length of time that a person has lived was an indicator of wisdom. Experiential learning was linked with learning from direct experiences outside the classroom; philosophic/integrative was associated with being knowledgeable about most things, if not all: a jack of all trades. Perceived success dealt with what makes an individual successful i.e., money, etc. Lastly, other meant it did not fit in the above categories or the definition was unclear.

After the revision process, the survey was given again to college students at the University at Albany and also on various social media platforms (such as Reddit and Instagram). During this stage, we garnered around 100 participants and started to assign responses to categories. Eight categories were used. For example, if a participant chose age, it was given the category number 5. Or, if they chose academic intelligence, it was given the category number 1. These categories appear in the figure below. Two lab members reviewed each definition privately for internal validity and met in person to compare their results and reanalyze inconsistencies. Variance in category assignments between reviewers were ultimately less than 5%. When a difference existed, it was resolved through discussions. From there the data were analyzed using pivot tables in Excel.

Of the 110 people we asked to define wisdom, the figure below shows the number of responses associated with each category. Clearly what these respondents thought constituted wisdom varies immensely. Even so, experiential knowledge is higher than the other components. Over 35 participants picked it as a major component of wisdom, with the next highest category just below 25 responses!  We took this result as a validating our primary belief that experience with a field of study in college could be a perceived source of professional wisdom.

With that said, we wanted to see if the variation in the perception of wisdom shown in the figure above had anything to do with specific groups of individuals. For example, do younger people think that age is the primary contributor to wisdom? Here’s what the data show: 23.1% of individuals 18-29 vs 50.0% of individuals 30+ stated experience was a major component of wisdom. Interestingly, students with some college credit overwhelmingly chose experience as a key contributor to wisdom. Similarly,100% of individuals with a master’s degree or higher stated experience as an important aspect of wisdom.  So, it seems that with a greater age there is a greater appreciation for the role of experience in developing professional wisdom.

Next, we asked participants who was the first wise person who came to mind, and, how do you know of this person? With over 55 participants, family members were the chosen the most with 58.0% of individuals 18-29 stated their family member was wise while 33.3% of individuals 30+ stated a family member. Of the students with some college credit 56.8% chose family as in the figure below.

As stated, we also found that experiential knowledge was reported to be the key contributor to wisdom. Now you may be asking yourself, how one can gain experiential knowledge, particularly when one is still studying like in college. Well, it is simple. Experiential knowledge can be gained through applied learning experiences. Applied learning experiences can be an internship, studying abroad, a job, undergraduate research, community service, and so much more. Essentially, it is getting out there and doing something complementing the reading of a book or taking a class. Our lab argues that when you complete a hands-on learning experience your brain can process information at both a cognitive/conscious level and at a gut-feeling/ unconscious level. These two levels of knowledge can be merged through reflection and more experience in a process that experiential educators refer to as Kolb’s reflective cycle. If acquired what we would like to call the beginning of a professional wisdom can then be accessed as one moves to master new tasks.

For the future directions of the study, we hope to increase the sample size. As well as further investigate certain demographic data. For instance, males were two times as likely to pick academic intelligence as a contributor of wisdom. Secondly, Asian/pacific islanders were more likely to pick moral maturity as a contributor of wisdom. Through further research, we hope to understand these interesting findings with larger sample and a more refined analysis.

To us, the implication of us study provides is that we should advocate for more experiential learning opportunities for those in college. As well as educating against self-handicapping in underrepresented populations. To elaborate, I (NP) know what it is like to not apply to internships because I think I am not as intelligent or capable as other applicants. There have also been moments where I would let procrastination get the best of me, and I ended up missing out on potentially great opportunities. I say that to all to say that you should try not to hinder yourself. Keep pushing through because you never know what that experience can teach you. And, as we have just seen with the data, experiential knowledge is a major component of gaining wisdom.

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