College teachers have invested years of work and thought in their disciplines. By virtue of their disciplinary skills, training, experience, and intuitions, they are experts with deep knowledge of the details of their subjects and broad understanding of the principles, theories, and concepts that underlie their disciplines. They have a “gestalt” that allows them to think in broad strokes, but also in parsimonious and elegant ways, about the content and its implications and applications. Compare this to the knowledge and experience of students, especially new students, and the gulf is apparent.
How can the teacher’s breadth and depth of knowledge be translated into language, terms, concepts, and applications that students can grasp? One way to consider this question is to first identify the kinds of knowledge that teachers possess and to compare it to the knowledge students possess. Lee Shulman (1) has outlined three kinds of knowledge: 1) content knowledge – knowledge of one’s discipline; 2) pedagogical content knowledge – knowledge of teaching and its application to one’s field; and 3) curricular knowledge – knowledge of both kinds accompanied by a repertoire of strategies and understandings that allow the most effective teaching and learning to take place. All college teachers possess content knowledge. It is the foundation of their base (disciplinary) profession. Some have pedagogical knowledge as a result of trial and error experience, having had skilled mentors, or because their instincts and innate ability allow them to communicate effectively. But curricular knowledge is the province of the master teacher and takes years to develop. How can IDEA results connect with expertise?
IDEA item #6 addresses one of the key components in curricular knowledge: being able to organize content so that students can best understand not only the basic facts and principles, but also their relationships and the ways in which they connect to form larger ideas. Though making clear how topics fit seems obvious and simple on the surface, it is often the case that the deep expertise of the teacher leads to presumptions about students’ grasp of the material. In effect, what is crystal clear to us may be “clear as mud” to students. Indeed, as people with native ability and vast experience, we may not be able to immediately perceive what problems students are having or why they are having them because we simply never had to deal with these problems. We intuitively understood the material and its structure. Thus, one basic aspect of curricular knowledge is the ability to translate this understanding and to show students how content is structured and connected.
From another perspective, research on the dimensions of college teaching (2, 3) also provides powerful evidence of the importance of helping students to organize the content. With respect to student achievement, the most strongly correlated teaching dimensions are organization and clarity. These dimensions are also powerful predictors of student ratings, perseverance, and retention. When teachers make clear how topics fit, they help students to construct accurate schemas and they clarify the structure of the discipline. The result is better student learning and increased student satisfaction because that learning becomes more apparent.
As additional information, look at your scores on IDEA items “helping students to answer their own questions,” “demonstrating the significance of the subject,” “relating content to real-life situations,” “introducing stimulating ideas,” and “explaining material clearly.” There should be some similarities, and if your scores on this group of items are consistent and positive, then you can feel comfortable that you are doing a good job of providing students with a solid understanding of foundational issues. In terms of student achievement, this kind of organization also promotes more accurate note-taking and more effective studying.