How Learning Works, Ch. 2: How Does the Way Students Organize Knowledge Affect Their Learning?

This chapter extends the principles discussed in the earlier chapter on prior knowledge, to alert teachers to the ways that students learn and process the material as it is presented to them.

This chapter focuses on the notion of student organization of material, and demonstrates that students’ organization of the material will differ from their teachers’ habitual organization of the material, or the way it is presented to them on a syllabus or in a textbook.  These writers presnet examples of teachers presenting materials according to their own disciplinary schemas, only to learn that students quickly became confused or puzzled by the unfamiliar organization or sequencing of the material.

This is a routine problem in the college classroom, because an instructor’s immersion in the material, and her long-time specialist knowledge acquired over years, can sometimes become a disadvantage for communicating it effectively to first-time learners. As experienced scholars, researchers, instructors, we often forget what aspects of our discipline are most confusing to the novice.

This problem is illuminated in the discussion of novices vs. experts’ organization of material.  The difference really lies in the complex, multidimensional organization of the material a trained expert brings to any material, even when it is new to them, while novices struggle to impose even the most minimal order on what they hear.  The authors offer the following example:

As an illustration, consider two students who are asked to identify the date when the British defeated the Spanish Armada (National Research Council, 2001). The first student tells us that the battle happened in 1588, and the second says that he cannot remember the precise date but thinks it must be around 1590. Given that 1588 is the correct answer for this historical date, the first student appears to have more accurate knowledge. Suppose, however, that we probe the students further and ask how they arrived at their answers. The first student then says that he memo- rized the correct date from a book. In contrast, the second stu- dents says that he based his answer on his knowledge that the British colonized Virginia just after 1600 and on the inference that the British would not dare organize massive overseas voyages for colonization until navigation was considered safe. Figuring that it took about 10 years for maritime traffic to be properly organized, he arrived at his answer of 1590.
These students’ follow-up answers reveal knowledge organizations of different quality. The first student has learned an isolated fact about the Spanish Armada, apparently unconnected in his mind to any related historical knowledge. In contrast, the second student seems to have organized his knowledge in a much more interconnected (and causal) way that enabled him to reason about the situation in order to answer the question. The first student’s sparse knowledge organization would likely not offer much support for future learning, whereas the second student’s knowledge organization would provide a more robust foundation for subsequent learning (44-5).

There are a lot of implications for both course design and discussion in these principles: the first is that, at the level of the syllabus and sequence of topics (if you are responsible for these), you need to devise a logic that carries your students from topic to topic, and helps them make the transitions from one to the other until they reach the end.  You will also need to monitor how they are organizing the material themselves, so that they are not simply memorizing facts but learning something of the concepts and principles that underlie the course’s content.  Isolated facts tend to be displaced by other facts over time, but learning a principle that they can refine throughout the semester and in other courses helps give them a foundation for learning.  We want them to know something about British naval power and how it operated in the seventeenth century, not an isolated fact.

The second principle is that on a day to day level, it’s a good idea to disclose the “agenda” for the day’s discussion, put it up for explicit discussion and if necessary elaboration at the beginning of class, and even close the class with a recap to make sure everyone “gets it.”  And your own outline will be improved by your efforts to explain it to others, and by your repeated discussion of the core concepts and principles that emerge from the exchanges between you and your students.



2 Comments on “How Learning Works, Ch. 2: How Does the Way Students Organize Knowledge Affect Their Learning?”

  1. Miranda Bennett says:

    I’m continuing to enjoy this book and am particularly interested in how I can apply research on learning to other areas of my professional life, such as managing a department of academic librarians or (ahem) planning a teaching conference. Just today I had an experience of having new knowledge presented to me in two very different ways: a budget organized by funding source (HEAF, SUF, etc.) and a budget organized by type of library resource or material. The latter made perfect sense to me; the former was baffling.

    As a librarian, I am, of course, preoccupied with the organization of knowledge (we fancy MLS types call it “information architecture”), and this section of the book brought home to me yet again just how devilishly difficult it is to build systems like library catalogs or websites that meet the needs of all or even most users. Connections obvious to experts can be completely opaque to novices, yet experts can be frustrated by “extraneous” information or steps that novices need to help them along.

  2. Dave Mazella says:

    Thanks, Miranda, I agree about the usefulness of this book. What you’re suggesting is that the research on learning has implications for areas like professional development, since folks whose jobs evolve over time in various ways need to be able to learn new forms of organization for their existing knowledge of a field. And I think you’ve put your finger on an important aspect of this, which is that there are times when it’s hard to ask for help, even when you need it.

    I wonder how people could be taught how to perceive the outlines of “information architecture” of a field more quickly? I find that in my grad classes, this is a big unspoken problem, and there never seems the time to “cover” it.

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