Saturday, 18 February 2017

learning is impacted by how we mentally organize our knowledge

Last week our SoTL Teaching Circle met to discuss the 2nd chapter of How Learning Works. This chapter discusses the impact of how the way students organize their knowledge impacts their learning. Basically, this chapter considers the differences between how experts organize their knowledge vs how novices organize their knowledge. The bottom line is that expertise is accompanied by a greater network of mental connections among their nodes of knowledge. In contrast novices at best will have a linear connection that links their different points of knowing. Most students, however, will have islands of knowledge for which there are no connections between their different courses even when those courses are within the same major.

A few years ago Kimberly Tanner was the keynote speaker for a series of workshops at the UofA for the AIBA annual conference. The title of the conference was Mind the Gap which was meant to highlight the difference between thinking like an expert versus a novice. She explained that one of the issues that make it difficult for experts to teach novices is that much of our expertise is unarticulated to ourselves. Experts (e.g. holders of PhDs) are unaware of how they organize their knowledge that makes them an expert. Thus, it makes it difficult to help novices to transition to expert thinking because the experts do not know what the novice needs to change in order to become an expert. I know I have this difficulty when teaching many of my courses. Something that is obvious to me and thus not worth mentioning to my students ends up being critical for students to be made aware of in order to progress in the discipline. This is particularly true for those of us who suffer from academic fraud syndrome - that thinking that really, I am not that smart and someone is going to realize their mistake and revoke my PhD. Thus, university and college instructors may tend to keep some aspects of their expert thinking to themselves because to articulate that may reveal that what the expert thinks is worth teaching is actually common knowledge and inappropriate for discussion in the classrooms of higher education.

But like we tell many of our students, if you have a question, it is likely that many in the classroom have the same question. This is what makes teaching difficult - being courageous to be intellectually humble in the midst of both our peers and students.

On the other hand, the work that is being done to identify threshold concepts in different disciplines, I think is a good step toward understanding those key points that we ourselves grasped on our way to developing expertise. As instructors in higher education, we need to understand what those stumbling blocks were for us and our colleagues when developing our expertise. Once identified, we can then ensure that our own students know where to concentrate their attention in order to understand the depth and breadth of the discipline. And I think this can be readily facilitated by helping students make links within their own knowledge structure so that their mental models of our world becomes robust.

This is one of the reasons why I advocate for students to develop an e-portfolio that provides a platform for them to reflect on their education that cuts across disciplinary boundaries and even the boundaries between the courses within their major. Students need to understand that knowledge is a whole rather than a series of separate islands. We want our students to understand the world not just what is currently in front of their nose.


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How does the way students organize knowledge affect their learning? In How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (pp. 40–65). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Haave, N. (2016). E-portfolios rescue biology students from a poorer final exam result: Promoting student metacognition. Bioscene: J College Biol Teaching, 42(1), 8–15.

Krieter, F. E., Julius, R. W., Tanner, K. D., Bush, S. D., & Scott, G. E. (2016). Thinking like a chemist: Development of a chemistry card-sorting task to probe conceptual expertise. J Chem Ed, 93(5), 811–820.

Loertscher, J., Green, D., Lewis, J. E., Lin, S., & Minderhout, V. (2014). Identification of threshold concepts for biochemistry. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 13(3), 516–528.

Smith, J. I., Combs, E. D., Nagami, P. H., Alto, V. M., Goh, H. G., Gourdet, M. A. A., … Tanner, K. D. (2013). Development of the biology card sorting task to measure conceptual expertise in biology. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 12(4), 628–644.