How does the way students organize their knowledge affect their learning?

how_learning_worksStudents’ knowledge needs to be structured in a way that students can see its importance and application. This big picture is often lost to students who are just struggling to see the trees. As a content expert these connections are obvious to us, but they need to be explicitly spelled out to our students.

This can be done via a concept map. Show how today’s material fits into the grander scheme of things. Also outline the structure of the current lecture. Then as we discuss new concepts, we add new branches to the tree.


This in essence does two things. First it lets me see what they already know. I can tailor the teaching to this. Secondly, it engages the learner from the start. They are forced to activate the knowledge that they have. However, this is time intensive and I doubt any student will do this before class.

Another way to help students to organize information is to first show them the knowledge in use. This gives them context. Work through a problem for them then ask them to explain why things were done the way they were. then ask the students to do one. Have the note the differences between the two cases.

Mimicry is a great teacher, especially for novices. This is how we learn language. Seeing how the expert does it give the student context to understand material.

Here is a patient presenting with chest pain. Immediately we form a differential diagnosis which includes the following. I already have illness scripts for each of these diagnoses, and this helps guide my history and physical. This keeps it focused. I have established pretest probabilities for each of my differential diagnosis. Then select testing and interpret the tests.

Now lets do another case. Here is a patient in respiratory distress. Tell me, what would be your first step?What did you note was the same about these two cases? What was different?

In The Room

To help solidify their knowledge, students need to organize the information efficiently in their heads. This is hard to do while they are still just mastering the content. They cannot see the forest while they are still working hard to see the trees. We need to provide this organizational structure for them.

We can provide worked examples by just letting students watch how we do things. Let them shadow you. Or better yet, let them see how you approach a case they had just presented.

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