eCoaching Tip 106 Core Concepts of a Course — Do You Know Yours? 

March 18, 2013

eCoaching Tip 106: Core Concepts of a Course — Do You Know Yours?

Our last tip focused on strategies for supporting more substantive exchanges between students in discussion forums. This tip returns to the topic of concepts.  Have you identified the core concepts of your course? What are concepts exactly? Do your course readings and assignments help your students use core concepts?

It is generally assumed that faculty know what the core concepts of their course— or discipline — are. Unfortunately this is seldom the case. This is disappointing, but not surprising.

Identifying core concepts, and then designing experiences for learners to grow in their knowledge of them, is a complex process. The process requires digging deeply into the foundational thinking, beliefs and models of our various disciplines.

A common question from faculty goes something like this. “I have designed my course with the goal of helping my students achieve the learning outcomes. What is the difference between a learning outcome and a core concept?”

Cognitively speaking, a learning outcome is a skill or knowledge set that enables students to use knowledge well. A concept, on the other hand, is a building block for   learning outcomes. In most cases, developing a skill requires learning concepts and then practicing applying those concepts.

Two previous tips (#67 and #77) provided definitions of concepts and a stage process for teaching concepts. This tip provides examples of course concepts from two Duquesne faculty. Read on and see if you can find links or ideas for the concepts for your course.

Concept Definition Review

Let’s review some definitions of concepts. One of my favorite is from ecoaching tip 77 that states that “Concepts are more than words; they are organized and intricate clusters of knowledge bits.

In our own experience, it is easy to recognize when we experience “getting” a concept. It happens when we hear ourselves say, “Ah, it is all coming together.”  Or, “Now it finally all makes sense. I see how this is all connected.” Cognition experts refer to this as an “ah-ha” experience. Detectives experience a related phenomenon often, as a final piece of a puzzle falls into place, and suddenly all the disparate seemingly unrelated elements of a case make sense. Similarly, students entering a new discipline are often overwhelmed with terms, examples, and unfamiliar expressions and ideas. Only after multiple experiences with the content, does it all begin to come together into a meaningful and useful knowledge set.

Memory researchers, Roediger, Dudai and Fitzpatrick (2007) offer this definition of a concept. Concepts are “mental representations that encode sets of attributes that describe real or imaginary classes of items, processes or relationships.” (p.2) This definition is helpful in describing that a concept is a real object, neurologically speaking and then provides examples of concepts, that is, describing real or imaginary classes, categories, relationships.

The definition of a concept offered by Harvard psychologist Susan Carey (2009) is similar. She states that “Concepts are units of thoughts, the constituents (building blocks) of beliefs and theories.”  Carey also suggests a possible categorization of concepts: Concepts are either sensory/perceptualas in what things in the world look like, feel like, sound like, smell like, orconceptual, as in those representations that describe things in the world for which we have little or no sensory evidence, such as electron, galaxy and wisdom. However, identifying concepts as one of these types is still problematic as Carey goes on to explore in her work.

First Guest Faculty — Marcia Rapchak

The first of our two SLPA faculty who worked on identifying concepts is Marcia Rapchak, an instruction librarian at Gumberg Library. Marcia teaches CPRG 105 Information Literacy for Adult Learners. This coursefocuses on developing “information literacy skills for academic success and lifelong learning.”

As we talked about identifying the concepts in her course, Marcia noted that information literacy is not a discipline, but a skill. Given the absence of disciplinary content, we shifted to talking about the driving forces, the core ideas behind the coursework. This led Marcia to state that one of the most important beliefs that she works to develop in her students is that “research is an iterative process.” Any research process involves proposing a topic or a question, identifying potential big ideas, making changes based on the initial research, and refining their focus over time. She went on to say that developing research skills requires knowing how to access, interpret, and evaluate information and information resources. Part of the learning process she uses in her course is that each student meets with her to discuss and brainstorm their topic and in the process, to refine it. This discussion led to the realization that the research process requires learners to think critically about information. Yet we still were not really at a concept.

We continued our discussion, wending our way through skills such as problem-solving, evaluating, interpreting and ethical use of information. These were all thinking skills.   We challenged ourselves with the question of, “What is the core idea, big idea of the course?” We gradually arrived at considering an important chapter in the textbook, called “Lateral Thinking” and there we paused. For under the skill of thinking laterally, is a very big idea, core to everything we do in research.  That big idea is that all information is linked to everything else. We felt as if we had it.  The two core concepts that probably link all the other aspects of the course together are:

  1. Research is an iterative process, requiring time, critical evaluation and caring about the information.
  2. All information and bodies of information are linked to others. What may not appear to be relevant initially is often worth a second look.

Before moving on, Marcia wanted to share one of her assignments that focus on evaluating information. In this assignment, students select an urban legend and then search out and analyze information sources to discern the elements that may or may not be true. One of the critical questions in the evaluation model is, “How does it contribute to your project, if at all?”

Second Guest Faculty — Lynn Hertrick Leavitt

Our second SLPA faculty, Lynn Hertrick Leavitt, teaches MLLS 710 Introduction to the Graduate Study of Leadership. In contrast to Marcia’s course on information literacy, Lynn’s course has the entire field of leadership to examine for core concepts.

Starting with learning outcomes is always a good place to start, so Lynn and I talked about what knowledge, skills and abilities were important for her students to develop.

Lynn started discussing a leadership model created by Peter Koestenbaum, the Leadership Diamond. The model introduces the idea of one’s leadership capacity as defined by four leadership orientations: ethics, vision, courage, and reality.  In the book Roediger, Dudai and Fitzpatrick (2007) note that concepts are “products of mental models and theories.” This means that the idea of one’s leadership capacity might be a core concept and part of that core concept is that it depends on those four orientations.

Lynn shared that she and colleagues have struggled over the years with the task of identifying the core concepts of the field of leadership. In fact she commented that it is one of the oldest arguments in the discipline. Part of the challenge, she explained, is that leadership is so ubiquitous. This led us to posit that a working core concept for her course might be as follows: “Leadership is a highly adaptive activity that manifests itself somewhat uniquely in various human contexts.” This concept can serve as a lynchpin for examining the broad spectrum of leadership research, theories, case studies and models in disciplines as disparate as education, business, communication, engineering, and science, to mention a few.

This concept provides a framework for a broad encompassing view of leadership. At the same time, going back to Koestenbaum’s model, Lynn noted that a companion concept is as follows: Leadership, no matter how diverse, shares certain elements. The elements that Lynn focuses on are slightly different from Koestenbaum’s four — communication, vision, ethics and followership.

In addition to these content concepts and goals, Lynn shared that an important learning outcome for this introductory course is for students to become comfortable in the online learning environment, especially developing a comfort level with the many forms of communication, both synchronous and asynchronous. Developing facility and comfort with the many types of online communication is in itself, an important practical skill for leadership as well as for lifelong learning.


Time invested in identifying core concepts is time well-spent in becoming a more expert teaching and learning professional in your discipline. As demonstrated by the search for core concepts with Marcia and Lynn, it can serve you well in clarifying the goals and purposes of your own teaching and learning.


Boettcher, J. V. (2010) e-Coaching Tip 77: E-Coaching Tip 77 Concepts – A Focus at Course Endings and Course Beginnings.  Available in the SLPA Faculty webinar area.

Boettcher, J. V. (2009) eCoaching Tip 67: Developing Rigor in Our Questioning: Eight Intellectual Standards.Retrieved from

Carey, S. (2009). The origin of concepts. New York: Oxford University Press. Also, A précis of this book in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 34, 113-167is at  Other articles are at

Koestenbaum, P.  (2000). Our Leadership Model.  Philosophy-in-Business™. Retrieved from

Note: These E-coaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized and updated through 2016  in the second edition of the  book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached judith followed by

Copyright by Judith V. Boettcher