Initial Publication Date: October 6, 2011

Procedural Knowledge

What is procedural knowledge and how does it affect learning?

This theme measures what students do in the classroom to enhance their learning. Lessons that engage students and varied opportunities for making predictions, estimations, or hypotheses and designing ways to test them, help students to understand the nature of scientific inquiry. Through practice and reflection, students are able to apply these skills in new contexts and recognize their own critical thinking abilities. The Cutting Edge Metacognition module gives strategies for fostering metacognitive habits of mind in students. The Pedagogy in Action module on the Process of Science provides guidance and examples for incorporating the process of science into the classroom.

Characteristics/examples of classes with low and high procedural knowledge

Several aspects of procedural knowledge can be related to actions instructors take within the Lesson Design and Propositional Knowledge themes. For example, in a class exhibiting high Propositional Knowledge, the teacher may include elements of abstraction in the lesson, whereas in Procedural Knowledge, the teacher thinks about how the students will represent phenomena, which could be illustrated with a variety of abstractions (e.g., drawing graphs, making sketches, generating diagrams).

Many classes that feature active learning can still fail to fully realize Procedural Knowledge opportunities to enhance learning. For instance, few instructors ask students to reflect on their learning; that is, they don't ask students to assess their understanding of critical concepts or to determine which of the concepts were the most important. Classes that exhibit a focus on Procedural Knowledge include opportunities for students to participate in thought-provoking activities (e.g., predictions, estimations, hypotheses) rather than assignments that only require simple yes/no answers. For example, an instructor could discuss an equation for determining exponential decay and then have students work together to use the equation to determine the age of the oldest rock on Earth. Procedural knowledge could be further activated in such an assignment by asking students if their answer is a reasonable age for the planet. Classes that discuss weather phenomena can introduce multiple representations of data in forms such as maps, graphs, diagrams, photographs, physical gestures, and short videos and incorporate some of these into exercises requiring the interpretation of data. For example, an instructor teaching an atmospheric science course asked students to plot sun angle vs. azimuth for a given location at different seasons.

Consider structuring your class so that it:

  • Gives students use a variety of means to represent phenomena under discussion (e.g., graphs, maps, rock samples) AND interpret different types of information.
  • Incorporates opportunities for students to make predictions or estimations or to generate hypotheses (although it may not include means of testing these conjectures).
  • Includes at least one thought-provoking activity followed by an opportunity to assess the procedure.
  • Features a brief end-of-lesson reflection to allow students to assess their level of understanding.
  • Encourages students to participate in a class discussion, guided by the instructor, to determine the reasoning behind an explanation or to provide an alternative explanation for a phenomenon.

Tips and examples for improving procedural knowledge

  • I want my students to both represent and interpret geologic phenomena.
    • Incorporate opportunities for teaching with data and including representations of geologic phenomena through development or use of models.
    • As a part of classroom learning, have students draw, analyze graphs, manipulate data, fold papers, bend toothpicks, describe photographs, scratch minerals, interpret maps, plot data...
    • Consider using assignments from the Teaching with Data, Simulations, and Models module
  • I want my students to make predictions, estimations, or hypotheses and design ways to test them.
    • In the simplest cases, this might simply mean changing the way that you ask questions that prompt student responses. Examples:
      • "What direction does the Pacific Plate move over the Hawaiian plume?" Instead of confirming or rejecting student shout-outs of East or West, have students figure out a way to test this using a pen and paper.
      • "What would happen if ..." questions can be generated by changing one variable in a system. For example, what would happen to the seasons if Earth's axis was vertical?"
    • Consider implementing ideas from the Pedagogy in Action modules for inventing and testing models, making and testing conjectures, or even the more engaging and formalized approach of Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL).
  • I want my students to engage in thought-provoking activities that include opportunities to consider the procedures used during these activities
    • Activities that provide the problem, the procedures the students should follow, and the type of analysis to be conducted will leave little room for the students to contribute original thoughts. Consider adapting open-ended questions where the problem is presented but some combination of procedures, method of analysis, and/or communication of results are left for the students to design.
    • Students are encouraged to question the assumptions behind an activity or to consider the next steps in a procedure. For example, inserting a "what assumptions did you make" in lecture tutorials or other worksheet or problem-solving exercises forces students to think more deeply about the conceptual underpinnings of their work.
    • Students evaluate if the response they generated makes sense in the context of the underlying concepts. For example, why did a class coin toss exercise not turn out to be a perfect analog for radioactive decay?
    • Socratic questioning strategies can be used to generate discussion after completion of an in-class, active-learning opportunity.
  • I want my students to reflect on their learning.
    • Use minute papers to describe the main idea from the lesson or the muddiest point.
    • Students score their level of understanding of key learning objectives pre/post lesson using a Likert scale (1 = I don't know this; 7 = I can explain this to others) or a knowledge survey.
    • Students write free responses to attitudinal prompts ("How confident are you in your understanding of ____ ?")
    • Instructor asks "how do you know?" when students provide responses (in an encouraging, not argumentative, way).
  • I want students to evaluate evidence for concepts and offer alternative ideas.
    • Students are instructed to work in small groups using maps of current plate locations with geologic data and are asked to assess evidence that continents were once together.
    • Explain why scientists can't use the salt content of the ocean to determine the age of Earth.
    • Analyze a "student answer" to a question that contains errors or rank a number of different concept maps that all seek to illustrate the same phenomenon.