Designing Investigations

Designers Should Scaffold Students to Organize Their Understanding of the Problem

Younghoon Kim, Steven McGee, & Namsoo Shin
Copyright © 2003.

What is organized knowledge?

Organized knowledge refers to how a student’s memory is organized (Gobbo & Chi, 1986; Goldsmith, Johnson, & Acton, 1991; Hunt & Ellis, 1999; Shavelson, 1972, 1974). It’s also known as cognitive structure, knowledge structure, and structural knowledge. Cognitive psychologists hypothesize that relevant concepts or schemata in a specific knowledge domain are interconnected and interrelated in an expert’s long-term memory (Hunt & Ellis, 1999). Students acquire knowledge and continually organize it as they integrate it into existing knowledge structure stored in memory (Hunt & Ellis, 1999). Students use their existing knowledge structures to interpret new scientific concepts, data, or information necessary to perform more complex learning tasks like problem solving (Glynn & Duit, 1995).

Why is organized knowledge important?

  • Organized knowledge leads to better understanding of the subject.
    Students with a well-organized knowledge base in a particular domain generally understand better than those with less organized knowledge (Alexander & Judy, 1988). Well-organized knowledge means that key concepts in a content domain are closely and correctly interrelated, integrated, and cohesive. That lets students better use and access their knowledge (Gobbo & Chi, 1986). According to science learning research, inaccurate or incomplete knowledge (e.g., misconceptions) does not help comprehension and will eventually interfere with learning (Alexander & Judy, 1988).
  • Organized knowledge facilitates problem solving.
    How students organize knowledge in their own memory plays a major role in solving problems successfully, research reports. Problem solving requires students to apply their organized knowledge to a novel problem (Mayer, 1999). In Gobbo and Chi’s study (1986) expert students with well-organized knowledge used their knowledge in a more sophisticated and accessible way (e.g., inferring and reasoning) than novice students did. Thus, successful problem solving depends on how well students organize the knowledge necessary for solving problems.
  • Organized knowledge is necessary for the efficient and effective use of metacognitive strategies.
    Experts’ knowledge organization in a domain can enable them to use metacognitive strategies to successfully complete a task (Alexander & Judy, 1988). If students don’t posses a well-organized knowledge in a domain, they can’t solve problems effectively, according to Alexander and Judy.

How does a designer support students’ knowledge organization?

The following teaching strategies help students understand. The strategies grow out of a wide range of empirical research in various content domains.

  • Help students identify key concepts and represent the connections between key concepts.
    Guidance helps students identify key concepts or principles related to a problem while they are exploring given information. Guidance enables students to think about and focus on key conceptual knowledge necessary to solve a problem (Quintana, 2002; Hannafin, Land, & Oliver, 1999). The specific strategies are:

    (1) Use outlining or summarizing strategy. This strategy supports students’ cognitive processing in selecting and organizing information (Mayer, 1999). When students read, teachers ask them to outline or summarize information in the students’ own words. This strategy lets students recognize and organize key concepts from instructional materials they are studying. The key is for students to combine ideas from materials and their own understanding instead of simply copying key ideas from the materials (Wittrock, 1990).

    (2) Use questioning strategy. Questioning strategy maximizes reading comprehension. It also generally helps students identify key facts and ideas, integrate new information with their existing knowledge, and refine their conceptual understandings through conversation with their teacher (Mayer, 1999; Wittrock, 1990). Different types of questions require different levels of cognitive processing and learning (Grabowski, 1996). For instance, “what” questions (e.g., what is the solar system?) focus mainly on students’ conceptual understanding. They force students to organize and elaborate key concepts and ideas. “Why” questions (e.g., why is the balance of ecosystem important?) spur students’ higher-order thinking. They ask students to apply their understanding to a situation. In addition, activities that force students to ask and answer their own questions increase students’ participation in the learning process (Wittrock, 1990).

    (3) Use graphic representation of knowledge. Graphic representation (e.g., diagrams, illustrations, and concept maps) of knowledge shows relationships among concepts or of cause-effect relationship in a content domain (Jonassen, 2000). This helps students build their own understanding of information they study. There are two ways to use graphic representation in the classroom (Jonassen, Beissner, & Yacci, 1993): 1) A designer creates the graphic representation to help students learn. 2) Students create their own graphics as they study. According to Novak et. al. (1983) and Jonassen (2000), the latter approach helps students learn better.

  • Provide feedback about students’ knowledge representation.
    Providing feedback on students’ representations of causal relationship is important. It lets students know whether their representations are appropriate and engaging (Baumgartner & Bell, 2002; Jonassen, 2000). When students evaluate their representations, they revise and refine their representations. That indicates a meaningful thinking process (Jonassen, 2000).

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