“Why Is It So Hard for Students to Understand Abstract Ideas?”: this was both a chapter title and discussion question in our new faculty seminar this past week. A related question might be how much we distinguish the abstract from the concrete in our teaching and assessment.
Willingham’s principle states that “We understand new things in the context of things we already know, and most of what we know is concrete.” This seems simple enough: Willingham argues that knowledge is sticky, and without stickiness, memory and thinking aren’t measurably effective. However, how do we know that our knowledge is mostly concrete? Are we walking repositories of things rather than ideas?
In our seminar, we approached this principle through revisiting our activities related to the previous chapters and principles. We began by sketching a logic model on the whiteboard and filling in our goals, resources, activities, and assessments for a specific class each of us is teaching this term. As we constructed our models, examples of the principles of creating effective cognitive conditions, establishing factual bases of knowledge, and paying attention to getting and keeping attention (keeping in mind that “memory is the residue of thought”) appeared.
Long-term goals included the students experiencing “awe at what they had learned” over the course of the semester and the desire to continue to improve their skills. Short-term goals had been nearly achieved of having students familiar with course expectations and turning work in complete and on time. We expanded resource sections as we discussed the tools and experiences ready to hand/mind both in and out of the classroom. Some great teaching strategies emerged in this conversation as our biostatistics expert described planning field trips for undergraduate students next fall and our Spanish languages and literature specialist explained her approach to mid-term student evaluations that help her better understand her students’ perceptions of the class and what they are learning.
Each of these activities brings together concrete experience and abstract thought for the students as well as for the faculty member. We spent some time discussing the faculty members’ goals for themselves at early, intermediate, and long-term phases of teaching a course; this inversion of focus offered a chance for self-reflection and immediate peer feedback (and validation).
Because several faculty members are balancing time commitments that take them away from regular seminar attendance, we spend time each week reviewing prior activities (and thus moving into Willingham’s fifth principle regarding the importance of practice). This week we read and talked about the weekly blogs in connection with the earlier principles and then moved into a summary of Willingham’s thoughts on learning abstract ideas. This also helps us to apply the principles when we discuss teaching challenges.
Abstract thought, we agreed, does come more easily when we have applications and context for connection. The “shallow knowledge” Willingham describes is what I refer to as “surface and basement knowledge”: facts and networks of tangible information that frame the “deep knowledge” that is generalizable and applicable through transfer to a variety of situations that may seem dissimilar when first encountered. We teach abstract concepts in order to promote the transfer of knowledge (both content and skills) from one problem/context to another: knowing that we need to be more transparent about the transfer we expect to take place is an important part of teaching the depth and texture as well as the shape and color, so to speak, of our disciplines. Sticky thoughts and practices need help if they are to become adhesive.
Next week, we’ll be thinking about the importance of repetitive practice in learning and retaining new material. A lively debate and a few memory tests are on the agenda!
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