by Cory Budischak
Energy Management Department
Delaware Technical Community College
Stanton Campus

A few weeks ago, I examined the first “principle of learning” proposed in the book How Learning Works by Susan Ambrose et al. If you haven’t already, check out that post here. Today, I’ll take a look at the second principle: How students organize knowledge influences how they learn and apply what they know. I’ll start by summarizing the authors’ analysis of this principle based on three questions. After that, I’ll address a fourth question of my own: How do I plan to incorporate this into my own instruction?

1. What are examples of learning issues that this principle can address?

These are the two examples from the book:

“For the past 12 years, I’ve taught the introductory Art History course. I present the material using a standard approach. That is, I begin with an introductory description of key terms and concepts, including a discussion of the basic visual elements (line, color, light, form, composition, space). Then, for each of the remaining class sessions, I show slides of important works, progressing chronologically from prehistoric Europe to rather recent pieces. As I go, I identify important features that characterize each piece and point out associations among various movements, schools, and periods. I give a midterm and a final exam during which I present slides and ask students to identify the title of the work, the artist, the school, and the period in which it was produced. While the students seem to enjoy the class sessions, they complain about the amount of material they must memorize for the exams. I know there are a lot of individual pieces, but they naturally cluster by period, school and technique. Once you categorize a work according to those groupings, it should be fairly easy to remember. Nevertheless, the students seem to be having a lot of difficulty in my exams, identifying even some of the most important pieces.”

“Anatomy and Physiology is one of the core courses required for our nursing, pre-med, and pharmacy students. The course is organized around the major systems of the body and requires students to identify and describe the location and function of the major organs, bones, muscles, and tissues in the body. On the whole, students attend the lectures and labs consistently, and most of them appear to work really hard. Indeed, I often find them in the student lounge poring over their notes or quizzing each other in order to memorize all the individual structures. With a lot of work, they learn to identify most of the parts of the human body and can describe the role of each part in its body system. However, when asked to explain the relationships among parts or higher-order principles that cut across systems, the students often fall apart. For example, on the last exam, I asked them to identify and describe all the structures involved in the regulation of blood pressure. To my surprise, most of the students were unable to answer the question correctly. I just don’t get it — they know all the parts, but when it comes to how those parts fit together, they have a really difficult time.”

2. What does research say about this principle?

Research shows that experts tend to have very complex and highly connected knowledge structures as in the first example of the Art History instructor who is able to easily access knowledge because of the sorting of artwork into categories.

Research also shows that the way a student organizes knowledge can be extremely important when they are performing tasks. We see in the second example of the anatomy class that a deep knowledge may have been gained about each system of the body, but this knowledge was organized by system and not by function and that is why the students had a difficult time with the questions.

Bottom Line: In order for students to perform many tasks, it is not just important what a student knows, but how they organize the knowledge.

3. How can instructors teach with this principle in mind?

Below is a list of suggestions to how to incorporate this principle into your classroom. Note: All suggestions are headings in the book itself.

  • Create a concept map to analyze your own knowledge organization
  • Analyze tasks to identify the most appropriate knowledge organization
  • Provide students with the organizational structure of the course
  • Explicitly share the organization of each lecture, lab, or discussion
  • Use contrasting and boundary cases to highlight organizing features
      • Contrasting case example: dolphin vs. shark
      • Boundary case example: a platypus is a egg-laying mammal
  • Explicitly highlight deep features
  • Make connections among concepts explicit
  • Encourage students to work with multiple organizing structures
  • Ask students to draw a concept map to expose their knowledge organization
  • Use a sorting task to expose students’ knowledge organizations
  • Monitor students’ work for problems in their knowledge organization

4. How do I plan to incorporate this into my instruction?

I have to say that this principle and chapter had a large effect on how I think about my my courses. I remember finding the website Hyperphysics, which organizes physics in a clickable concept map, when I was in college and it completely redefined the way I thought about physics forever. What I plan to do in the future is organize my own concept map to analyze my knowledge organization and have my students draw a concept map as well. When I am teaching my students HVAC, I will probably have my students draw a full HVAC system and identify the thermodynamic concepts/equations that are useful at each point in the system.

What about you? Do you apply this principle in your classroom already or do you plan to use one of these strategies in the future? Let me know by commenting on this post below!

Join me next time when I examine principle #3: Students’ motivation determines, directs, and sustains what they do to learn.


  1. Ernie Kulhanek5 years ago

    I would love to better incorporate this strategy into my own teaching. I liked Michael Buoni’s line at the Instructional Innovation Conference about English teachers teaching everything. Sometimes I feel quite restricted by the content of the subject matter (reading/writing strategies) but other times I feel overwhelmed that seemingly every content area could be discussed in an English classroom. I guess I am trying to ask a question here – how could I help students organize concepts that range from “everything” to a narrow collection of “reading/writing strategies”? I suppose categorizing the reading/writing strategies would be easier but far less interesting…particularly as they relate to prior knowledge. I would love to chat more about this. Maybe Ish can help as well.

  2. Cory Budischak5 years ago

    What I am thinking of doing is writing a list of the important topics that I cover in a course and then spending 30 minutes with just a white board and a pen and trying to map out how they are related. I can have my students do the same thing. I think this will help me see where the gaps in my students’ overall understanding is. I know in many of my courses this will help me but not in all. This may work with reading/writing strategies but this may not. We definitely should discuss this more.

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