Teach the Earth > Classroom Observation Project > Creating a Student-Centered Classroom > Propositional Knowledge

Propositional Knowledge

What is propositional knowledge and how does it affect learning?

The Propositional Knowledge theme measures what the instructor knows in addition to how well it is organized and presented in a learner-oriented setting. By providing students with a coherent framework where fundamental concepts are introduced and promoted in a connected manner, students' learning can progress from the concrete to the abstract. Scaffolding this learning process and explicitly connecting this new knowledge to real world phenomena builds stronger ties on which the student can relate new understanding of what they already know. (Pilburn, Sawada, n.d.) Large bodies of topical information and teaching ideas have been developed by participants in On the Cutting Edge workshops over the past several years. This is a great place to start your search for scientifically and pedagogically sound teaching materials.

Characteristics/examples of classes with low and high propositional knowledge scores

This theme is the strongest of the five RTOP categories for most teachers regardless of their instructional style. This reflects the fact that most instructors have a solid grasp of the content and can put together a coherent lesson that presents fundamental concepts in a logical order. Where weakness creeps in is when instructors present information using text-heavy slides or scripted notes on the board and rarely incorporate images and representations of abstract phenomena (e.g., diagrams, equations). These classrooms may also feature content that is divorced from real-world phenomena or connections to other disciplines.

When a course incorporates propositional knowledge more thoroughly, it is likely to involve real world phenomena to illustrate concepts. These courses also have effective scaffolding to help students incorporate their new learning into a useful conceptual framework. High scoring classes often connect content to other disciplines with which the students may be familiar. Such efforts help generalize the new information and provide students with linkages that facilitate their conceptual understanding. Instructors of these courses may provide students with a framework in which to view new material that may help them rapidly recall terms and ideas rather than consigning them to a sea of separate facts. Construction of flow charts, concept maps, labeled sketches, and diagrams can help students organize new information into more straightforward representations.

Consider structuring your class so that it:

  • Emphasizes fundamental concepts in a clear framework with no digressions.
  • Follows a logical sequence from start to finish, and where the content is clearly related to the concepts under discussion.
  • Doesn't include any mistakes or inaccuracies.
  • Incorporates several diagrams, charts, sketches, and graphs to represent abstract phenomena.
  • Situates content in real-world context and connects it to other disciplines.

Tips and examples for improving propositional knowledge:

  • I want to create a lesson that emphasizes relationships among fundamental concepts in the topic
    • Students can often be overwhelmed by the amount of information in a lesson or chapter. Providing a simple guide in the form of a list of learning objectives at the outset of the class allows them to recognize the most important information and provides the elements of a composite study guide for exams. Typically 3-6 learning objectives is sufficient for a typical lecture. These learning objectives can be used to encourage reflection at the end of a lesson.
    • Minimize the use of jargon and definitions. If the term won't be used again after your lecture, why introduce it at all if a simpler term will do in its place. Think about whether you are focusing on the forest or the trees.
    • Significant student learning is more likely to occur when an instructor focuses on concepts over facts. Students may get sidetracked by a novel fact that is meant to support a larger concept.
    • The importance of a conceptual framework can be illustrated using flow charts, concepts maps or labelled diagrams that link together the ideas discussed in lecture. Helping students learn to create their own figures can promote the synthesis of concepts, an important higher order thinking skill. These types of charts provide an excellent study tool for students.
    • Especially when we teach a new course, we may not be as familiar with the material. Take the time to make sure that all the information presented is accurate. Inevitably students will ask questions you can't answer, don't guess if you don't know the answer, better to go look it up and report back during the next class.
  • I want students to be able to interpret and represent this information in multiple ways
    • One way to measure understanding is to ask students to transfer a concept from one format to another. For example, drawing a labelled sketch of different types of volcanoes after seeing several photos of different volcanoes. Instructors can provide students with information using diagrams, demonstrations, field photos, videos, maps, graphs, classification tables, labeled sketches, text or verbal descriptions and later assess learning by asking students to summarize the information in a different format.
    • These formats often provide students opportunities to represent multiple concepts on a single figure, "chunking" the information, rather than memorizing each item separately.
    • Hands-on activities (e.g. compressing pieces of paper to show folds in association with a textbook diagram and a field photo and depiction of same type of folds on a map) or simple physical gestures can often be used to illustrate relatively abstract concepts.
  • I want to show students how relevant this content information is to other majors and the world around them
    • When appropriate, incorporate recent news articles that could be used as Lesson Design and Implementation exploration activities.
    • Use data from local data collection sites such as seismic stations, stream gauges, weather stations, or rock outcrops to illustrate points during lecture.
    • Discuss the necessary collaboration between scientists and economists, developers, politicians, and others in making decisions about topics such as mitigating natural hazards, siting critical facilities, assigning resources or funding to specific tasks.
    • Ask students why it is important for them to know about a concept or what they already know (potential to identify misconceptions).
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