How does the way students organize knowledge affect their learining?

Principle: How students organise knowledge influences how they learn and apply what they know.

The main idea of this chapter is that “As expert in our fields, we create and maintain, often unconsciously, a complex network that connects the important facts, concepts, procedures, and other elements within our domain. […] In contrast, most of our students have not yet developed such connected or meaningful ways of organising the infromation they encounter in our courses.”

In other words, “the knowledge organisations differ between experts and novices in two key ways: the degree to which knowledge is sparsely versus richly connected, and the extent to which those connections are superficial versus meaningful.”

What I find difficult as a teacher is to remember how it was to have sparse, superficial knowledge structures. And its implications for learning.

How can I help my students if I don’t understand how much it can be difficult to learn something new when the underlying knowledge organisation is poor?

It helps me a bit to learn from time to time something completely new. A couple of times each year I decide to add something to my “knowledge protfolio” (depending on the time I have). In most of the cases it has to do with programming, because I programme less and less (my job does not require anymore I develop code) despite it is one of my favourite activities. Thus, I may decide to learn Django, Jekyll, or another programming language etc. In these occasions I pay a lot of attention to what I need in order to build new knowledge organisations. Without a clear framework, I feel I loose the ground under my feet. So, I tend to start very slowly because I need to create categories (e.g. the structure of directories in a Jekyll website). Then, I have to fill the categories (e.g. understand what type of content is expected in each directory) and learn how to interconnect them. After this I need examples and to have a go, in order to reinforce the category framework and verify whether it works once it comes into practice. After that I try to use what I’ve just learnt to build my own stuff (e.g. my own Jekyll website). I like to take notes summarising the structure of the topic and the main commands/instructions, to quickly look up things I don’t remember while I develop my stuff. In order to build a knowledge organisation, I have to write down a schema - not exactly a concept map - but a list of salient elements and needed actions. In self learning I find incredibly useful to find something already done on the Internet, providing me with a concise but all-encompassing framework (this is an example of what I mean:

Despite I know the limitations of teaching based on what fits me as a learner, I have to admit I tend to develop my teaching materials and classes following the pattern described above, namely:

  • I describe carefully how the topic knowledge can be organised/structured. Basically, I propose a number of categories in which objects can be organised (e.g. in Python: “modules”, “classes”, “functions”, “operators”, etc.)
  • Every time I introduce a new object in the course, I discuss with the students how to (and ask them to) assign it to a specific category (e.g. In which category do we have to put “math” or “os”?)
  • provide clear instructions on how to manipulate/interconnect objects (e.g. for loops, import, etc)
  • show examples (live coding)
  • push students to do it themselves (challenges)

It works for many, not for everybody. There are students who need to develop knowledge organisations using their own approach and I find difficult to figure out which approaches are at work every time.

Moreover, instructors are not only expert in their field, they are also “expert learners”, which means they are good at learning new things because they have acquired a method. [This is what in principle schools should teach (in Italy we recognise good schools by their ability to instill an effective method to study and learn in their students) ]. This may represent a further bias in understanding how novices learn. Despite I make efforts in this direction, I find hard to rememeber how it was when I was a novice. I remember it was not easy at all. I remember it took a lot of time to learn how to effectively learn. But I can’t remember how I used to build knowledge organisations.

As the book says: “no organisational structure is necessarily better or more ‘correct’ than another” and “research has found that the usefulness of knowledge organisations depends on the tasks they need to support”. This means the organisational structure is likely to differ from one individual to another depending on several factors, including knowledge prior organisation (do they already have one as for the course topic?), the nature of the topic being taught, the students’ way of identifying concepts/facts and connecting them, etc.

Things may be even more complicated in short training courses (like SW/DC ones), where time to understand what knowledge organisation learners are building is very little.

In every course there is a small number of participants I feel I start loosing at some point. I try to keep them aligned by dedicating them extra time (e.g. sitting next to them during practicals), but sometimes this may become risky because I may overlook the whole classroom to better follow 1-2 people. I can “see” these people have a “shuffled” knowledge organisation, with wrong or missing connections and I really don’t know what to do in order to “fix” their poor organisation. In some cases, I even observe that some students miss the ability to classify objects, they fail in recognising similar things and put them in the same group (this ability should be the outcome of primary and early secondary school activities….). It is very frustrating and I wonder how I could stimulate such a huge mental change in a few day course.

It helps entrust them to more expert or smarter participants, explicitly asking to the latter to take care of them. It is known that peer instruction can help in many situations, especially when the instructors are “too distant” from the time they had been novices.

A few months ago I attended a workshop on Virtual Machines and Cloud in training. It was a very technical one. Speakers were VM&Cloud experts, not trainers. It has been a very instructive experience as a learner. I had the experience of understanding very little in certain moments, and of having to catch up all the time. I was sitting next to a technical guy and he was to me the most helpful “teacher” in the whole workshop. Working with somebody more experienced but open to explain even very basic things and having the chance to ask any questions was essential to take the time to build my own knowledge framework. I could follow my own pace in learning - at least during practicals - and this made it possible to proceed slowly, which is what I need as a novice.

In course’s daily feedbacks (“one bad” and “one good thing”), one of the most frequent complaints is: “too little time”.
I think that allowing for more time is key to the construction of knowledge organisations. At least for me. I can’t say if this is universal.

It is reassuring to read in the book that there are some general rules and a number of strategies that can be integrated in the way we teach. Thus, as instructors, we have not to necessarily identify and deal with a large number of different knowledge organisations.

Here are the principles described in the book I found very helpful to know: 1) when students are provided with an organisational structure in which to fit new knowledge, they learn more and better than when they are left to deduce this conceptual structure for themselves. 2) It is important that we recognise the difference between expert and novice knowledge stuctures and provide structures highlighting to our students how we organise disciplinary knowledge and draw on it to perform particular tasks. 3) People (including novices) learn and remember more when they can connect information in meaningful ways.

I’ve been increasingly aware of these principles in the past years, but it is very good to see there is research supporting them. In particular, I’m deeply convinced we cannot remember what we don’t understand. Therefore, I put a lot of effort in makining clear every single bit of my lessons.

I will briefly comment one by one on the “strategies to reveal and enhance knowledge organisations” suggested by the research.

1) Create a concept map tp analyse your own knowledge organisation. Since I drew my first concept map in the SW/DC instructor training, I use them to prepare new lessons (btw, using concept maps in preparing lessons, made me realise I tended to teach more than one concept at once, which is not good). I then propose a knowledge organisation (or knowledge categories + connections among them) to students, but I don’t explicitly use the concept map I develped in lesson preparation. Instead, this is something I would like to try.

2) Analyse tasks to identify the most appropriate knowledge organisation. This looks very difficult to me. First, I should find out or design tasks that could reveal different kinds of knowledge organisations. Then I should analyse the tasks assigned to determine what kind of knowledge organisation would best facilitate learning and performance. Finally, I should provide students with a skeletal outline or template for organising their knowledge. This approach seems difficult per se. It is even more difficult in short training courses or in classrooms where there is a large number of students (= little time per student). I wonder whether this approach might be better applied in high school’s classrooms.

3) Provide students with the organisational structure of the course. This is very easy to implement. I think most instructors provide students with a view of the “big picture” presenting topics in their course and highlighting their interrelationships. However, I’m sure I could do it better and to a greater extent. I periodically remind students of the course organisational frameowrk; however, one thing I may definitely improve is situating particular lessons/topics within it.

4) Explicitly share the organisation of each lecture, lab, or discussion. This is another very useful - and easy to implement - strategy. Each session in my courses has a descriptive title, but I think I can make titles even more descriptive. For example, the session “Parsing”, may easily become: “Reading text files and extracting selected information from them”.

5) Use contrasting and boundary cases to highlight organising features. As specified in this section, cases are often used in teaching. However, presenting them with some compare-and-contrast analysis, may be more effective. Perhaps I do it unwittingly, but I never thought about presenting contrasting cases as a teaching strategy.

6) Explicitly highlight deep features. Here, specific examples would have been useful. I’m not able to identify examples that do share deep features but differ superficially or problems that are superficially similar but operate on different structural principles. Are there such examples in programming? I need to think more about this.

7) Make conections among concepts explicit. I do this all the time and it really works well, including asking questions that require students to make connections themselves.

8) Encourage students to work with multiple organising structures. This seems a hyper useful approach and I’ve to find a way to insert it in my teaching. Actually, I’m so happy when I see students have become able to categorise a set of items according to one organisational schema, that I don’t dare to ask them to do it according to more than one!!!

9) Ask students to draw a concept map to expose their knowledge organisations. This is another thing I would like to use more in courses. So far (as described in the comments on chapter 1), in a few courses, I asked students to draw - as a group activity - a concept map of the Python language. The way I do it is very time consuming and, as such, not completely efficient. I will try with quick, more frequent, concept maps as individual activity. I may try then (or ask the students) to group similar concept maps and use the results of the comparison in group discussions/brainstorming.

10) Use a sorting task to expose students’ knowledge organisations. The example reported in this section is not illuminating to me. It is too abstract. As it is presented, it seems too difficult to tempt me to implement it.

11) Monitor students’ work for problems in their knoeledge organisation. Again, this is something I regularly do in courses and I have to recognise it really pays back for all the energy needed to identify the pattern of mistakes they make. It is quite easy to identify patterns of mistakes from one course to another (on the same discipline), more difficult during the same course.