Building Students’ Overall Content Framework and Understanding

Expert colleagues!

As subject experts, we know instinctively how the content of our course is organized, including a clear framework for connecting critical concepts.  We also know multiple approaches for solving problems, including how those approaches link and relate – experience gained over numerous years of writing challenging problems.  And as experts, we can readily integrate new material into our framework, building new strategies to address novel problems.  Unfortunately, at times we forget those years of practice and expect students will be able to develop these same skills by osmosis from our brilliant lectures and discussions.  But, as novices, students see information much more as individual facts and procedures to learn, memorize, and maybe practice.  Our strongest learners (top students), devote the time and effort to piece together the information and develop the mental connections for their own framework.  But, for most students, we need to provide them with that framework explicitly, as a complement to the content, skills, and guided practice that are a part of every course.

This point in the semester is an opportune time to help students develop that robust and integrated mental model of your course.  Consider using part of a lecture to review the content to date at the 30,000 ft level, focusing specifically on how everything fits together.  Your students have likely mastered details, and should be ready to step back to see this bigger picture and the connections.  You can also look ahead to what will be covered and how it builds on and within this framework.  During the last week of class, you might then consider revisiting the framework and adding a few finishing touches.

Now, or in those last lectures, is also an opportunity to explicitly discuss where and how concepts can be applied in the real world, and especially how to recognize those situations (if you haven’t already).  The combination of helping students build a robust framework and understand the application space will help them retain key concepts long term and to apply them in new situations. Cornell students have the intellectual capacity to learn at this level, and developing such deep understanding is a critical skill that we can share with them.

As a final note, this may also be an opportunity to address any lingering organizational issues (before that pesky end-of-semester evaluation).  Many times the difference between a good course and a great course is little more than a clearly articulated organization structure.