Gaining A Basic Understanding of the Subject

Authors: Michael Theall, Youngstown State University; Walt Wager, Florida State University; Marilla Svinicki, University of Texas at Austin

​​​​The foundations of any discipline are its definition, knowledge base, terminology, structure, methodology, and epistemology. As we move from basic knowledge to the complex organization and hierarchies of information in the disciplines, we parallel the levels of Bloom’s cognitive taxonomy (1): knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

This objective, “Gaining a basic understanding of the subject…,” deals with acquisition of basic information upon which more complex learning relies. While traditional teaching methods, especially lecture and readings, are quite efficient at “delivering” this kind of information, the question is whether “delivery” is enough. Simply having the information at hand does not guarantee that students will understand it or know how to learn it. Are there ways to help students learn the material more effectively and also be able to use the information as they move into more complex cognitive tasks?

Research (2) has shown that there are two essential tasks to foster student achievement: help students see the relevance and importance of the information, and make it understandable. In fact, the dimensions of teaching that are the strongest correlates of student achievement are: 1) preparation and organization; 2) clarity of communication; 3) perceived outcome of the instruction; and 4) stimulating student interest in the course content. The first two concern the organization of information and its effective presentation and have traditionally been part of a teacher’s preparation. The second two deal with motivation and engaging students in their learning.

If students understand why information is important and useful, if their curiosity is piqued, if they are appropriately challenged, and if they perceive relevance of the content, they will be willing to exert more effort and will perform better as a result (3, 4). From a different, but nonetheless important perspective, these same dimensions are among the most strongly correlated with overall student ratings of teaching and courses (2, 5).

Teachers must possess a great deal of different kinds of knowledge. Lee Shulman (6) has identified three general kinds of knowledge required by teachers. The first is “content knowledge,” an obvious and necessary ingredient. The second is “pedagogical content knowledge,” or understanding of pedagogy, teaching and learning, and its application to the discipline. Finally is “curricular knowledge,” an enhanced version of the latter where the teacher has a repertoire of strategies, materials, approaches, and alternatives that are called on to help students learn. Master teachers, by Shulman’s definition, also possess the ability to take the principal concepts of the discipline and translate them into language, demonstrations, or activities that students can understand. In other words (and particularly in introductory courses where students most frequently have to learn terms, definitions, classifications, etc.), the teacher provides both the organizational structure and the appropriate level of complexity for the students. Quite simply, this makes learning easier, promotes success and enhanced efficacy (7), and creates a positive motivational cycle in which students become more and more willing to work and reap both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards as a result. However, structuring and organizing information and activities does not mean exercising complete control over all aspects of the course. Making a course “learner centered” (8) can help you to get your students more deeply engaged in the content, and it can promote the kind of “deep learning” (9) that characterizes academic success.

Teaching This Objective

Gain and direct attention. Do something to focus the learner on the learning task at hand (10, 11). In the case of principles, the instructor might start with a question to pique the curiosity about the principle to be learned, and point to its application to the real world. This foreshadows the eventual focus on principles rather than facts. IDEA research has found that several instructional methods related to “stimulating student interest” are important to engaging the learner in the principles and theories addressed in courses (see “Demonstrated the importance and significance of the subject matter,” “Stimulated students to intellectual effort beyond that required by most courses,” and “Introduced stimulating ideas about the subject”).

Incorporate motivational strategies into your teaching. The most productive motivational strategy is one that considers the entry characteristics of students, adapts instruction accordingly, demonstrates relevance of the content, provides opportunities for success, and leads to the satisfaction of positive performance (3). The intrinsic motivation that results has been related to brain function in the sense that successful execution of a task based on personal effort is a powerful emotional force. As Zull (12) points out, motivation is intensified when a student can say, “I did it myself.” Thus, using activities that allow students to find information, to organize it in meaningful ways, or to use it, all have the potential to provide opportunities for success and intrinsic motivation. This applies even to learning basic information because students can acquire some of that information/knowledge through their own efforts as well as through a teacher’s effective presentation and organization. When students passively sit and listen to 50 minutes or more of a lecture, they have little investment in learning except to do it in order to pass a test and get a grade.

Make clear how each topic fits in the course (see the Note for the Teaching Method, “Made it clear how each topic fit into the course”). In comprehension learning tasks, the student must understand the meaning of the component concepts, and the relationships among them.

Recall prerequisite learning and connect to new material. All new learning is hooked in some way into previous learning (10, 11). Comprehension involves bringing to mind previously learned knowledge related to the new learning. In this case it is likely that the student has encountered an explanation of Newton’s first and second laws. So they are familiar with the concepts of inertia, mass, force, acceleration. If during instruction these laws are tied together such that an understanding of one can be used to support understanding of the next, the chances are good that the students will learn the similarities and differences among them, and will be able to differentiate the examples that represent each of the theories or principles.

Theories of how concepts like these are learned suggest that, after reminding students of where they might have encountered this concept before (either personally or in a previous class), the instructor would give a good, clear definition of the concept followed by what is called a “paradigmatic example,” which is simply the example that most people would think of if you asked for an example of the concept. For example, in the case of Newton’s laws, the example of rolling a ball along a surface is the simplest example that would come to mind for most people. The instructor could even use bowling or soccer as a more concrete example that most students would recognize. (This example later serves as a benchmark against which to check every other example they think of, so it pays to think it through thoroughly.) Then the instructor or the students generate other examples of the principle. Seeing or even categorizing positive and negative instances (non-examples) of the concept helps the students to clarify their understanding. The instructor can illustrate different relationships or characteristics of the concept by moving on to more complex or related examples, for example, using the example of how different strengths of the bowler would cause the ball to roll faster or slower. In fact, the instructor could even invite the students to suggest other scenarios and what they might say about the concept.

Incorporate practice and feedback. One important component of learning at this level is practice and feedback. The principle just learned should become the foundation for learning future principles. Furthermore, the more the principle is used in future activities, the better and stronger the neural connections (12), and the easier it will be to recall and use. Unfortunately, research in the area of transfer has shown that many students fail to recognize that previously learned skills can be transferred to a new task situation unless they are prompted to do so (13). However, the more often this type of spaced practice occurs, the higher the probability that learners will develop an orientation for transfer (14).

The students would get practice in the elaboration activity suggested above, and the results could be used by the teacher to reinforce correct understanding and remediate misunderstanding. Practice and feedback can be accomplished in many different ways, from collaborative activity to computerized tutorials and quizzes. Especially helpful are engaging activities where the students can practice putting things into their own words, giving examples of the principles or theories, illustrating with graphics or models, and/or, given a set of conditions, setting up a demonstration. This practice allows students to get feedback on their understanding.

The importance of feedback can’t be overstated. Students value feedback, as it confirms their understanding or misunderstanding while learning is still taking place. It’s easier to learn things the right way the first time than try to unlearn and relearn it later. (See the Note on the Teaching Method, “Provided meaningful feedback on students’ academic performance”).

Be a role model for learning how to learn (meta-cognition). You can exhibit skills that help students to see structure, to relate topics, and to organize information. When you do this kind of modeling, you provide a meta-cognitive assist. Students who follow your example are not only discovering what to learn, but how to learn it. A teacher who says, “This is how we approach a problem in our discipline” or “This is how I would go about answering this question,” is showing students a process that is transferable. It isn’t necessary to provide an answer to a problem – students can work on that. Even when dealing with knowledge level objectives, a teacher can show students how topics relate to and build on each other. Combining the modeling process with carefully chosen questions that lead students from one point to another is another strategy for engaging students in meta-cognitive activity. (See the Note for the Teaching Method, “Encouraged students to reflect on and evaluate what they have learned”).

Consider using active learning or team-based methods. Content-heavy courses may not seem to be the right places for instructional methods that have been shown to enhance conceptual learning, but conceptual understanding can often help students make sense of the facts, terms, and organization of the subject. It is the disassociation of facts, the frequent error of students presuming that memorization of bits of information is learning, that can be overcome by creating engaging problems and encouraging teamwork (15). When you ask students to organize information or place it in context (and that, in itself, can be a team assignment) you help them to construct more complete knowledge. Concept maps (16) are useful at this level because they provide a structural picture of the relationships of information and concepts. Students benefit from a clear description of how concept maps are constructed and with some training, they can use the technique themselves. In teams, they can then compare their work and discuss their reasons for their organization of the information. Of course, you will have to include some review of the team decisions in order to verify that students are on the right track, but this is a beneficial activity in itself, since it provides a review of the thought process needed to arrive at the correct response.

Moving students from knowledge to comprehension. First, students can restate the principle, generalization or theory in their own words, which Bloom calls translation. When asked what is Newton’s third law of motion, the student might answer, “It’s when two things hit each other, they push each other equally in opposite directions.”

Bloom states that translation can take one of three forms: translation into the student’s own words, as we’ve just seen; translation into symbolic form (e.g., from verbal to graphical form—inserting arrows into a picture to depict the forces operating on the chair in the example above); and translation from one verbal form to another (e.g., metaphor, analogy).

A second way to demonstrate understanding is what Bloom calls interpretation. The student’s response might be – “That’s when two things push on each other in opposite directions, the forces are equal in both directions, like when you roll two pool balls at each other they hit and push on each other in opposite directions.” Another form of interpretation might involve the student’s recognition that the communication is describing the operation of a principle, like realizing that Newton’s laws explain how it is possible for car to move forward on a road.

A third way to demonstrate understanding is extrapolation, which “…includes the making of predictions based on understanding of the trends, tendencies, or conditions described in the communication” (1, p. 90). For example, the communication might ask, “Why is it easier for three people to push a car than one person?” An acceptable answer might be that the car pushes back with a force equal to the force of the person pushing it, so with more people pushing, the force is distributed among the three. While there may be any number of acceptable responses, the answer would have to include the following components: 1) a force, 2) an equal counter force, and 3) in the opposite direction.

Provide practice. Instruction should include opportunities for lots of practice spaced out across the learning. Spaced practice is periodic use of the principles in dialog and other learning activities. Knowledge that is not practiced or used to support new knowledge quickly decays, and becomes inert knowledge. Reminding students in successive class periods of what they learned before and having them do something with that information will keep it fresh and eventually more solidly stored in long term memory. This is the principle behind a spiral curriculum, in which the instruction returns to earlier principles but in more complex situations. An example would be moving from comprehension to application of a principle in a subsequent class period.

Comprehension of fundamental principles, generalizations, and theories is generally taught as a prerequisite for application level learning, where students are expected to demonstrate understanding by applying the knowledge they just learned to new situations they haven’t encountered before. Instruction that teaches comprehension level learning should be followed as soon as possible with application level activities. Application level learning strengthens the students’ ability to recall the previously learned knowledge. Applications are potentially more meaningful and motivating to students, especially if they have a manipulative and or emotional component, because they reinforce the conceptual understanding associated with comprehension. Comprehension of fundamental principles, generalizations and theories can be an exciting and motivating part of learning, and it facilitates the students’ future application of knowledge. Because of this, it is worth the time and effort to teach it.

Assessing This Objective

Assessment of comprehension tasks follows the same pattern as the behaviors practiced in instruction. The student can be asked to identify relevant theories or principles when given a scenario, or be asked to translate, interpret or extrapolate a particular principle within a range of conditions. However, assessment of comprehension should stay within the parameters described in the statement of instructional outcomes. That is, if learning is at the comprehension level, assessment should not test application or evaluation of the principles or concepts.

Collect formative evaluation data. Courses that most often require students to learn basic information are frequently offered in the first year and in large-enrollment settings and thus, they pose particular challenges. Your students probably have little experience with the content and they may not have sophisticated learning skills, so it is important to keep track of their progress and problems. You cannot wait until mid-semester or later to assess learning and, keeping in mind the motivational notes above, it is often the case that non-graded assessments will be most effective in promoting learning without the threat of failure or possible discouragement that comes with errors.

One effective technique for following progress is the use of knowledge surveys (17). These assessments ask students to estimate their knowledge and/or their confidence in their ability to respond correctly to questions. When their estimates are contrasted to actual responses, students become more aware of what they do and do not know, and the areas that need attention. When you and your students know what needs attention, both teaching and learning become more efficient.

Another approach that has been successful is to use new technologies, such as student response systems. These require remote devices sometimes called “clickers” that students use to answer in-class questions. These systems can then display the responses with two beneficial results – you can immediately see the level of student understanding and you can follow-up with other questions or involve students in a discussion about correct answers and students’ reasons for their choices (see the IDEA Paper, “The Technology Literate Professoriate: Are We There Yet?,” for more ideas).

Complete the feedback cycle. As noted above, assessment with feedback is most beneficial for student learning. No matter what technique is chosen, the objective is not simply to determine right or wrong, but rather to focus on why a given answer is correct and on the process used to arrive at that answer. There are various ways to provide feedback. Some, like the response systems described above, provide feedback immediately. Some, like team review if individual work, provide feedback as part of their process. Face-to-face feedback is always useful, but there are other ways to keep students apprised of their progress. You can use technology (e.g., course management systems) to respond to student work in on-line or hybrid courses. In some of these courses, direct contact by telephone can be very effective. Whatever the methods used, the most effective feedback is that which is clear, focused, supportive, and includes information about strengths as well as specific recommendations for improvement.

References and Resources

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  13. Gick, M., & Holyoak, K. (1980). Analogical problem solving. Cognitive Psychology, 12, 306-355.
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  17. Nuhfer, E., & Knipp, D. (2003). The knowledge survey: a tool for all reasons. To Improve the Academy, 21, 59-78.

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