How We Learn Concepts in Science

In my last flurry of blogs (here, here and here), I wrote about the limits of definitions for learning . Learning the definition does incredibly little to develop understanding. For example: Electrical current is the rate of flow of charge.

Even if you know what rate means and you have a clear understanding of charge, you still don’t really know what current is. You don’t know how to use it in calculations or how to use it in writing or discussion. You don’t have a proper ‘feel’ for current.


Thomas Kuhn, the philosopher of science, argues that we learn scientific concepts by ‘acquiring an arsenal of exemplars‘ – often the bank of questions at the end of each chapter in textbooks (Kuhn, second thoughts on paradigms, 1977).

So spending learning time to memorising  the definition is not a great use of time. Spend that time on learning exemplars instead. One effective way of doing this is by using worked examples. Hattie (in Visible Learning, 2009, p172/3) describes the worked example cycle as typically:

  1. exposure to the example question
  2. a training phase
  3. a testing phase.

Variations include: matching text to diagrams; fading (gradually removing steps in the example) and self-explanation of the stages.

In addition to learning to solve the exemplar questions, I would add: talk about models and practical work and reading and writing sentences containing the target concepts.

This leades to a far richer undrestanding of a concept – I know my definitions now, though I didn’t when I was using them as part of my degree. I didn’t need to know them – I understood them instead.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s