Sep 26, 2022 • 5M

Knowledge organisation and its effects on learning

Part 1

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The Scando Review
Great Teachers Matter
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The way we organise our knowledge has an impact on our learning process. Today, we will discuss how the way students organise knowledge affects their learning.

The way students organise knowledge plays a vital role in their learning and in how learning is applied. Knowledge organisation is not about a particular piece of knowledge. It is about how different and disparate pieces of knowledge are arranged and organised within one’s mind. Knowledge can be organised in ways that do or do not facilitate learning.

The book, Knowing What Students Know: The Science and Design of Educational Assessment, published by the National Research Council of the United States in 2001, cites a suitable example to understand how knowledge organisation influences learning. Suppose we ask two students to identify the date on which the British defeated the Spanish Armada. The first student answers that it happened in 1588. The second one cannot remember an exact date and says that it must have been around 1590. The correct answer is 1588, and the first student has more accurate knowledge about the event. Then they are asked how they arrived at the answer. The first student said he had memorised it from a book. However, contrastingly, the second student said his response was based on his knowledge that the British colonised Virginia just after 1600 and on the inference that the British would not dare to organise a massive overseas voyage for colonisation before navigation was considered safe.

People naturally make associations based on patterns they see in the world.

When we analyse the follow-up answers of both students, we can find knowledge organisations of two different kinds. The first student learned an isolated fact about the Spanish Armada. He does not have any related historical knowledge of that event. However, the second student has organised his knowledge in a much more interconnected way. It enabled him to reason through to the answer. Even though the second student failed to answer the question accurately, how he organised his knowledge will likely aid his future learning. Contrastingly, the isolated piece of knowledge of the first student may not be of much help in the future.

People naturally make associations based on patterns they see in the world. We build associations between events that occur in temporal contiguity (for example, a causal relationship between flipping the switch and a light turning on and off), and between objects that have similarities (between a ball and a globe). These associations build over time, and larger and more complex structures will emerge that reflect how entire knowledge is organised in a person’s mind.

The way people organise their knowledge will vary owing to different factors. It can be influenced by their experience, their nature of knowledge, and the role that knowledge plays in our lives. Research has shown that the usefulness of different ways of organising knowledge depends on the tasks they need to support.

In 1984, Bat-Sheva Eylon, a Professor in the Science Teaching Department at the Weizman Institute of Science, and Frederick Reif, an American Physicist, conducted a study among high school students. They divided the students into two groups and gave learning material on modern physics. Half of the students were asked to learn the material according to a historical framework, and the other half according to physics principles. After that, they were asked to complete various tasks based on the lesson they learned. These tasks were divided into two categories that required assessing information according to historical periods and according to physics principles. The results were not surprising. Students performed better when their knowledge organisation matched their tasks. They performed worse when there were mismatches between the tasks and knowledge organisations.

From the above study by Eylon and Reif, we can understand that knowledge organisations develop and support the tasks performed. We could reflect on activities that students are engaging in to get an idea of what knowledge organisations they are likely to develop. Teachers could consider the tasks students are going to perform in that course to identify the knowledge organisations that would best support those tasks. This way, we can foster ways of organising knowledge that will promote students’ learning and performance.

In the next part, we can discuss in detail different types of knowledge organisations.

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