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Students often focus on superficial features instead of the underlying principles, concepts, or theories.
Students often focus on superficial features of the initial learning situations they encounter (e.g., examples, cases, and problems) without understanding or recognizing the general principle involved. So, when a new situation arises, they either lack the general concept you expected they had learned or lack the skill of identifying key ideas.
This often occurs because novices often mentally organize knowledge inappropriately, with missing or inaccurate links among ideas or by representing their knowledge as a disconnected set of facts.
For example, when physics instructors introduce Newton’s Second Law in the context of a problem that shows a block on an inclined plane, students learn from this how to solve “inclined plane problems.” While they do well on homework problems that look the same (i.e., that involve blocks on inclined planes), they fail to solve problems that look different even though the principle at work is still Newton’s Second Law.
In general, students often encode and organize new information in terms of its superficial aspects—the details of the context, story, or situation (e.g., the inclined planes in the physics problems)—such that what students learn is tied to the irrelevant features. Hence, in a new situation where they need to access this information, they do not have the appropriate cues linking to the relevant knowledge.
Give students a sorting task to help determine whether they are focusing on superficial features. Present students with several problems that have some superficial features in common and also some deep features in common. Then ask students to categorize these problems according to what they see as similar. If your students tend to group the problems that are superficially similar, this indicates that they lack an understanding of how to approach problems and recognize the deep structure in problems.
Model the steps of planning an approach and identifying deep features of a situation in class as you solve a problem so that students can see how an expert sees problems. Involve students in this process by asking them questions throughout (e.g., How would you begin? What step would you take next? What features are important?). Also, be sure to provide students with opportunities to practice the skills of identifying important features and planning their approach because learning only occurs for the processes that students are exercising.
Provide several examples that differ superficially and explain how all of them share the same underlying principle, explicitly teaching students that they need to seek the underlying principle. Then you could provide another set of examples and ask students to discuss why the examples are all instances of the same principle.
Include some problems on homework assignments and quizzes where students are only asked to identify the appropriate approach. This highlights that planning is a critical skill and gives students opportunities to practice it in isolation. Then, when students are ready, ask them to identify the principle that underlies the problem as part of their solution.
Work to identify students’ misconceptions so that you know whether focusing on superficial features is, in fact, a problem for them. For example, when students visit your office hours with a question, ask them to talk aloud when working through a problem, issue, or concept because this is often when they share their thought processes with you.
National Research Council. (2000). Chapter 2: How experts differ from novices. How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. 19-38.
National Research Council. (2000). Chapter 3: Learning and transfer. How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. 39-66. http://newton.nap.edu/html/
Chi, M. T. H., Feltovich, P., & Glaser, R. (1981). Categorization and representation of physics problems by experts and novices. Cognitive Science, 6, 121-152.
Glaser, Robert, & Chi, Michelene T. H. (1988). Overview. The nature of expertise. Eds. M. T. H. Chi, R. Glaser, & M. J. Farr. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc. xv-xxviii.
Reif, F. (1995). Millikan lecture 1994: Understanding and teaching important scientific thought processes. American Journal of Physics, 63(1), 17-32.
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