Monday, December 18, 2017

Helping Students Organize Their Knowledge

submitted by Peg Balachowski, Associate Dean of Teaching and Learning at EvCC
Recently, a group of faculty met to discuss a topic from the book How Learning Works by Ambrose, et al to discuss how students organize their learning. Jeff Fennell, Biology faculty at Everett Community College, led the discussion and incorporated an activity that asked the faculty in the room to organize the 32 NFL football teams in some way. Without giving any direction, just telling the participants that there would be a “quiz” in 10 minutes, participants set about organizing.

Each team name was on a small slip of paper with an image of the team helmet. So without knowing what the “teacher” really wanted, the “students” in the group began organizing. As an observer, I watched several faculty struggle with the list of names – I wondered who was a football fan and might jump to organization by conferences (AFC West, NFC West, etc.), and who might use something much simpler. Faculty organized in a variety of ways; some grouped teams by geographic location, some alphabetically, some by color of the helmet, some by birds (Falcons, Cardinals), mammals (Broncos, Colts) and some by people (Saints, Buccaneers). No one chose conference, but all had a bit of fun doing this.

This led to a discussion about how each individual organized the list, and then participants were asked to imagine how students organize knowledge in their classes. How could this idea be used in the classroom? The activity I described took about 15 minutes. What if - on the first day of the quarter - you started with this activity as a way to introduce students to organizing information during the quarter? What techniques have been successful in the past (and maybe not so successful)? Another idea would to ask students to organize the syllabus topics in some way, perhaps using a concept map, and then keep that in their course materials for later reference? What about sharing your own way of organizing with students (the novices) to help them see how you (the content expert) tie topics together?

Here are the strategies that the authors of How Learning Work suggest as possible ways to help students make sense of your discipline:

1.    Concept Map – Your own knowledge organization
2.    Analyze tasks to identify appropriate knowledge organization
3.    Provide organizational structure of course
4.    Provide organization of class/labs in outline form
5.    Contrasting and Boundary cases
6.    Highlight deep features
7.    Make connections explicit (contrasts too)
8.    Encourage multiple organizing structures
9.    Student concept map (ungraded)
10.    Sorting task to expose knowledge organizations
11.    Pay attention to patterns in mistakes

How will this lead to student success? We know that too often students memorize specific facts, and when an exam question asks them to make connections they are left out in the cold. It’s really the organization of their knowledge that influences their learning and therefore their performance on exams (and in later classes). Help students begin making those initial connections by providing tools that are easy to use, and reinforce those tools in your class sessions. You will see students perform better on exams and develop a deeper understanding of the topic.

Do you have any ideas for how you might implement this in your classes? Share those ideas with us and let us know how they worked!