Understanding vs knowing

Final exams vs. projects – nope, false dichotomy: a practical start to the blog year (by Grant Wiggins)

Students who know can:

  • Recall facts
  • Repeat what they’ve been told
  • Perform skills as practiced
  • Plug in missing information
  • Recognize or identify something that they’ve been shown before

Whereas students who understand can:

  • Justify a claim
  • Connect discrete facts on their own
  • Apply their learning in new contexts
  • Adapt to new circumstances, purposes or audiences
  • Criticize arguments made by others
  • Explain how and why something is the case

IF understanding is our aim, THEN the majority of the assessments (or the weighting of questions in one big assessment) must reflect one or more of the phrases above.

In the Applied Physiotherapy module that we teach using a case-based learning approach, we’re trying to structure our feedback to students in terms that help them to construct their work in ways that explicitly address the items listed above. We use Google Drive to give feedback to students as they develop their own notes, and try to ensure that the students are expressing their understanding by creating relationships between concepts.

One of the major challenges has been to shift mindsets (both students’ and facilitators’) away from the idea that knowing facts is the same as understanding. As much as we try to emphasise that one can know many facts and still not understand, it’s still clear that this distinction does not come easily to everyone. Both students and some colleagues believe that knowing as many facts as possible is the key to being a strong practitioner, even though the evidence shows that decontextualised knowledge is not helpful in practice situations.

The list above, describing what students understanding “looks like”, is helpful in getting our facilitators and students who struggle with the shift in thinking, to better grasp what we’re aiming for.

Making mistakes can be a Good Thing

One of the changes we made in our curriculum this year has been to work on creating spaces where students are willing to “have a go” at figuring out a clinical problem that we give them. We realised that students were reluctant to try because they were worried about failing the challenge. They didn’t want to stand out as “not knowing” because they believed that everyone else did know. There was a culture of fear around making mistakes.

We’re now trying to get students to see that making mistakes is actually a great way of learning, if you pay attention to what went wrong, and then try to understand how you can prevent the same mistake from happening again. It emphasises the process of learning (i.e. figuring out a problem through iterative attempts at finding a solution), rather than the product (i.e. coming up with the “right” answer).

In the beginning it was difficult for students to feel safe enough to have a go at figuring out the problem, but we’ve come to a point now where it’s just normal. We normalise not knowing the answer as part of a developmental process of coming to know it. And, it’s really working well. Which is why I was excited to read this article about how making mistakes can help with learning.

It turns out there are two responses to making mistakes:

  1. Focus on the negative outcome as a problem that needs to be solved. What happened, and why did it happen?
  2. Focus on the negative outcome as a threat. Escape feeling bad by not thinking about the mistake.

And, there are two good predictors of how certain people will respond to making a mistake:

  1. If you believe that your intelligence can change with practice and effort, you will pay more attention to mistakes and benefit from having made them. If you believe that intelligence is fixed, you are more likely to ignore mistakes and therefore not improve your performance as a result.
  2. If you are more experienced at a task, you are less likely to pay attention to mistakes and more likely to show a confirmation bias (e.g. you believe you know what you’re doing, and so ignore indicators that contradict that view).
I really do believe that in low stakes environments, which most higher education contexts are, students should be encouraged to at least make an attempt at solving a problem, so that errors in reasoning and performance can be identified and then clarified. Obviously there are high stakes educational contexts where mistakes, no matter how beneficial for the learner, are always bad. Surgery is a simple example that springs to mind. The key is in ensuring that the student feels safe to fail. Without this sense of safety, they will continue hiding their ignorance in the belief that they are supposed to know what the answer is, rather than believing that they are part of a process of coming to know.

Here are the original studies:

  • Moser JS, Schroder HS, Heeter C, Moran TP, Lee YH (2011). Mind your errors: Evidence for a neural mechanism linking growth mindset to adaptive post-error adjustments. Psychological Science, 2011
  • Downar J, Bhatt M, Montague PR (2011). Neural correlates of effective learning in experienced medical decision-makers. PLoS ONE, 6 (11): e27768