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In order to understand Merrill’s conceptual knowledge component skill it helps to first be clear about the definition of a concept.

What is a concept?

The Oxford English dictionary defines a concept as “an idea or mental image which corresponds to some distinct entity or class of entities, or to its essential features.”  For Merrill “almost all words in any language, except proper nouns, are category words called concepts.” Instances within a class can be distinguished from one another by comparing their properties, which are characteristics or attributes that are shared by members of the class.

Layng (2013), states that each instance of a concept shares one or more ‘must have’ or defining properties with all other examples of the concept. ‘Must have’ properties define something as an example of a concept and do not change from example to example. Layng uses the term ‘can have’ properties for additional features which other examples of the concept may or may not have. ‘Can have’ properties describe the many ways examples of a concept can be different. These non-defining properties are variable amongst examples and cannot be used to define the example as an instance of the concept. The non-defining properties need to be systematically varied so that learners have opportunities to practice responding to the critical defining properties among a wide range of different-looking instances. For learners to securely understand a concept, they must be able to distinguish examples of the concept from very similar non-examples which lack one or more of the defining ‘must have’ properties.

Superordinate, coordinate and subordinate concepts

Merrill, Tennyson, & Posey (1992), describe how concepts can be structured according to superordinate, coordinate and subordinate relationships to one another. Conceptual content often involves a set of concept classes which are called coordinate classes, rather than a single conceptual class. Every member of a coordinate class shares one or more properties of the same superordinate concept class. However, instances within each coordinate class also have varying properties which determine class membership.

Biggs and Tang (2011), offer a useful insight into how students’ deeper understanding of a subject is dependent on understanding these conceptual relationships: “…we should help students to reconceptualize so that what are seen as differences at a subordinate level become related at a superordinate level.”

The conceptual knowledge component skill

Merrill uses the term kind-of component skill to refer to the teaching of concepts. I will use the term conceptual knowledge component skill. This component skill requires learners to identify instances of a class of objects, events, or processes that are characterised by a set of common properties. Conceptual knowledge skills are also important because they are often foundational for procedural and process skills.

The learning content may be object concepts, symbolic concepts or event concepts. Merrill, Tennyson, & Posey (1992), offer the following definitions:

  • Object concepts exist in time and space and can easily be represented by drawings, photographs, models, or the object itself (for example a chair, a dog, or a castle).
  • Symbolic concepts consist of particular kinds of words, numbers, marks and signifiers that represent or describe objects, events or their relationships (for example a verb, a fraction, or an equation).
  • Event concepts are interactions of objects or people in a particular way and in a particular period of time ) (for example acceleration, photosynthesis, or the communication skill of paraphrasing).

A conceptual knowledge component skill has three content elements:

  1. The name of the class.
  2. A definition, which is a list of discriminating properties and their associated values which determine whether an instance is a member of a class.
  3. A set of examples from the class of objects, symbols, or events being taught, including a portrayal or description showing the values of the discriminating properties.

Presentation and demonstration for conceptual knowledge

The presentation should tell learners the name of the class and define the discriminating properties which determine class membership. The class definition should only include properties which are used for discrimination. Other properties can be described but the presentation should clearly state which properties and values are required to define members of the class. The demonstration should show learners both matched examples and non-examples of the class.

A matched example is an example of an instance which is a member of a specific class shown next to a counterexample of an instance which is not a member of that class. Merrill defines a non-example as an instance from a class of objects, events, or symbols which has enough similarities to an instance in the target class to cause confusion. A well-designed demonstration learning event helps learners to discriminate whether any given instance belongs in a class or not. The examples used should clearly illustrate each of the defining properties of the class. The class definition and the demonstration of the instances should occur simultaneously, rather than sequentially to avoid the split-attention effect.

Guidance should focus learners’ attention on the discriminating properties which define whether an instance is a member of a class or not. It should also show matched examples among classes. Multimedia should follow Richard Mayer’s principles. I have written more on multimedia in my Strategies for designing effective multimedia for learning post. A divergent set of examples should be used with at least three examples from each category. The examples and non-examples should become increasingly difficult for learners to identify.

Presentation and demonstration of concepts

Practice / Application for conceptual knowledge

Learners should be given practice opportunities to classify non-examples and un-encountered examples of the class. An un-encountered example is a new example which is different from those examples used during the demonstration learning event. Using the same examples for both application and demonstration would be ineffective because learners would just be remembering demonstrated examples rather than practising the ability to apply the defining properties. The goal of this practice is to help learners to transfer their understanding to new situations or new instances.

Learners should be given the opportunity to classify a divergent set of examples. They should receive coaching on early items in order to focus their attention on discriminating properties but coaching should be faded out for later items. They should also receive corrective feedback which focuses their attention on discriminating properties which determine class membership. Learners should be asked to classify a series of three or more divergent examples. Ideally, learners should be asked to explain how they discriminated between different instances.

Practice / application for the concept component skill

Object concepts example for conceptual knowledge

Learning outcome:

To be able to classify un-encountered instances of objects as belonging to the class of chairs.

Learning events:

  • One presentation (information-centred) learning event: Present the concept definition to the learners. (1)
  • Three demonstration learning events showing examples and non-examples. (2) (3) (4)
  • One practice/application learning event where learners are required to classify three or more un-encountered examples. (5)

This example is based on an example from Layng (2013). To teach a concept successfully we need to identify:

  • The ‘must have’ or defining properties which are shared by each instance or example of the concept.
  • The ‘can have’ or variable properties which are not shared by all instances of a conceptual class.

One presentation (information-centred) learning event (1):

Learning design and development notes

Development: Technology used: H5P Course Presentation

Three demonstration learning events showing examples and non-examples (2) (3) (4):

Learning design and development notes

Development: Technology used: H5P Course Presentation

(5) One practice/application learning event (5):

  • Merrill advises providing coaching for at least one of the practice learning events.
  • Ideally, feedback should be corrective or intrinsic rather than just right/wrong.
  • If corrective feedback is used, then it should show and explain specific illustrations of each of the key properties.
  • If intrinsic feedback is used then it should clearly demonstrate the consequences of the actions taken during the practice learning event.

Learning design and development notes

Development: Technology used: H5P Find the Hotspot

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Biggs, J., & Tang, C. (2011). Teaching for quality learning at university. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Layng, T.V. (2013). Understanding Concepts: Implications for Science Teaching. Retrieved 18 April 2019, from http://news.mimio.com/understanding-concepts–implications-for-science-teaching

Malamed, C. (2010). How to Avoid Designs that Split Attention [Blog]. Retrieved 15 April 2019, from Understanding Graphics website: http://understandinggraphics.com/design/how-to-avoid-split-attention/

Mayer, R. (2016). Principles of Multimedia Learning. Retrieved 20 March 2019, from Center for Teaching and Learning | Learning House Inc. website: https://ctl.learninghouse.com/principles-of-multimedia-learning/

Merrill, M. D. (2012). First Principles of Instruction. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.

Merrill, M. D. (2015). Lesson 8  ‘Matched Example’  Instructional Template. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0kUx1WormJ4

Merrill, M. D., Tennyson, R. D., & Posey, L. O. (1992). Teaching Concepts: An Instructional Design Guide. Educational Technology. Retrieved from: https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Teaching_Concepts.html?id=MEg_EEHjoOYC&redir_esc=y

Posted by Thomas H

Learning technologist at the University of London. Interested in Instructional Design, Learning Design, Multimedia Learning, Educational Research, and Open Education. Follow @myBRAIN_isOPEN

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