eCoaching Tip 77 Concepts – A Focus at Course Endings and Course Beginnings

April 20 2010

eCoaching Tip 77  Concepts – A Focus at Course Endings and Course Beginnings

How would you like to hear the following from your learners at the end of your course?  “Wow, I really learned a lot and I feel confident about using these principles of leadership and using the strategies for thinking through complex scenarios and problems”.

As your course rapidly comes to a close, don’t forget to check in with your students and ask them what they think.  Ask them to reflect and share three or four key principles, core concepts, best readings, best experiences they had during your course. You might also ask them to describe how their thinking may have changed.  With this type of feedback, you can review how you want to design and plan for your summer courses that are just around the corner.

So take time now to review what you may have identified as the four or five most important core concepts of the particular domain of knowledge of your course.  Reflect on the definition of those concepts, such as just what exactly do you mean when you say variance, leadership, coaching.  See if you can answer a question about what your particular top concepts “do” and the role that those concepts play in the common problems, methods, procedures and schemas of your discipline.  Consider how you would describe how your learners will apply and use those concepts in their next set of life or learning experiences.

Overview of Tip

Identifying core concepts and designing experiences for learners to grow in their knowledge of them is a complex process.  And it is difficult to touch on very much in a short tip. So this tip focuses on just what a concept is and what a concept is not.  You can use these characteristics to help zero in, even test, that you have effectively identified core concepts for your course knowledge domain. The second part of the tip briefly describes a three step sequence of experiences and deliberate practice that learners need to experience to develop a conceptual understanding of the core concepts and principles. More about the sequence of building concepts is in Tip 67 –Developing Rigor in Our Questioning: Eight Intellectual Standards.

What Is a Concept?  How Are Words and Concepts Related?

While words are the language of concepts, concepts are more than just words.  Concepts are organized and interconnected knowledge clusters.  Concept understanding often begins with isolated bits of knowledge and vocabulary, but before concepts are useful the individual elements must be knit together into a complex interconnected frame or schema of knowledge.

The cluster of knowledge bits that make up a concept is often described as a mental representation that encodes a set of attributes.  Or more simply, concepts are also described as  “the glue that holds our mental world together” (Murphy, 2002). So while words are powerful tools for thinking and communicating, the actual building blocks of thought are concepts. Concepts guide how we apply knowledge. Concepts guide our actions and our behaviors.  Concepts are the physical structures (mental representations) that are the bases for modifying, expanding and growing additional and more sophisticated concepts. An aphorism that captures this characteristic of concepts is that “The more you know, the more you can know.”

As a Domain Expert, what is your Task regarding Concepts?

So your task as a domain expert is to identify the concepts of your domain and also identify the categories, models, theories, behaviors and procedures that use those concepts.

Concept Definition

The best definition of what a concept is and what a concept is not that I have found is in a book summarizing the research on the concepts in memory (Roediger, Dudai, and Fitzpatrick, 2007 p. 2).  The researchers who contributed to this volume agreed that memory, representation, learning, transfer, and retrieval are some of the core concepts of memory while conditioning (a method or process) and hippocampus (a physical object) and false memory (a research finding) are not concepts.

Now it is a good time to see if the concepts that you have identified in your course correspond to these characteristics.

Concepts are:

  • Mental representations that encode sets of attributes that describe real or imaginary classes of items, processes or relationships
  • Always linked to other concepts
  • Essential elements of models and theories
  • Products of mental models and theories
  • Ultimately expressed in language

Concepts are not:

  • Entities with spatial coordinates
  • The terms in language used to express them
  • Items that can be unveiled in experiments
  • Methods or procedures

This set of concept characteristics will likely evolve with future analysis, and if you feel that it doesn’t quite fit the concepts in your knowledge domain, it is probably useful as a starting point.  I think that the characteristic that concepts are always linked to other concepts emphasizes the need for regularly designing learning experiences that integrate relationships, patterns and connections.

Hands-on experiences such as case studies and problem-solving scenarios that require students to make decisions are the types of learning experiences that require knowledge of relationships and patterns.

Students learn even more from these problem-solving scenarios when they can compare and discuss their decisions with others and to compare their decision-making with that of experts.  Those discussions can then identify the type of conceptual understanding and relationships that they used as part of their decision-making and analysis.

Concept Learning – Do We Have to Reach Conceptual Understanding?

Do learners learn anything lasting from a course if they don’t learn the course concepts?  They may learn vocabulary and they may even develop skill at associating discipline vocabulary with appropriate objects and events. However, without developing accurate concepts, and often correcting possible misconceptions and faulty reasoning along the way, learners do not develop the mental representations and relationships for lasting and useful understanding.  Words without the underlying representational concepts are like the biblical seeds, some of which fall on stone that spring up quickly with the little earth that is available, but quickly are scorched by the sun and wither away without sufficient earth to establish lasting roots. Similarly, learning just the words or a superficial understanding is insufficient for building the connections and relationships for integrating new information with existing or revised knowledge structures.

We may pick up and temporarily store isolated bits and pieces of content, but these are insufficiently integrated in our knowledge structures and are soon lost.

Stages in Concept Development

What are the stages in concept development that research has identified? What types of knowledge are required for conceptual understanding?  The research on conceptual learning in physics has tentatively identified these three types of knowledge that are components of conceptual knowledge.  Just how these stages might apply to other domains has not been researched, but this might provide some insights into working with problems.  What we do know is that conceptual learning based in cases and problems help engage learners and help them apply principles and concepts across multiple domains.

See how these types of knowledge map to the types of experiences you are designing for your learners.  Of course, reaching expertise levels takes many years and many types of experiences.

  • Description phase knowledge
    • Answers questions, such as what do I know about the problem and just what am I trying to achieve…
    • Applicability conditions
    • What templates or schemas might apply to this problem? What principles or rules might apply? What are the critical features of the problem?
    • Qualitative confluences
    • In physics, this is the stage of thinking in terms of the mathematical models or equations that would apply. In other domains, it might be the point at which testing of whether or not specific variations of models or schemas might apply.

These stages of conceptual understanding are similar to the general stages of problem solving, but with more emphasis on models, schemas and categories.


Reminder note. The design of your course is your plan for the ”systematic manipulation of the learners’ experiences in order to foster [desired] knowledge”  (Mayer, 2003).  Taking the time to identify and analyze the core concepts and sets of categories, methods and procedures, relationships and patterns related to those concepts can help make that happen.

Selected References

Boettcher, J. V. (2009) E-Coaching Tip 67 Developing Rigor in Our Questioning: Eight Intellectual Standards.  Retrieved April 10, 2010 from

Ericsson, A. K. P., Michael J.; Cokely, Edward T. (2007). The Making of an Expert Harvard Business Review, 114 – 121. Retrieved April 10, 2010 from

Mayer, R. E. (2003) Learning and instruction.  Upper saddle River, NJ: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall.

Roediger, H. L., Dudai, Y. and Fitzpatrick, S. M.  (Ed.). (2007). Science of memory: Concepts.Oxford University Press.

Ross, P. E. (2006). The Expert Mind. Scientific American. August 2006, Pp. 64 – 71.

VanLehn, Kurt & Van de Sande, B. (2009). Acquiring conceptual expertise from modeling: The case of elementary physics In K. A. Ericsson (Ed.), Development of Professional Expertise. Toward Measurement of Expert Performance and Design of Optimal Learning Environments. pp. 356 to 378. New York Cambridge University Press.

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