As the school years progress, the concepts which are taught become increasingly abstract. For example, students encounter many abstract concepts that have one or more other abstract concepts within them as their critical features. Democracy, for instance, includes the concepts of due process, equal rights, and representation. Thus, conceptual demands intensify as students continue through school.
Conceptual understanding is a process with varying levels, ranging from an ability to name some features of a concept to the ability to apply the concept in innovative ways. To understand is more than to "know." That is, the ability to understand depends upon a foundation of conceptual knowledge; yet it is also depends on the ability to interpret, generalize, and to apply concepts appropriately. Finally, the growth of conceptual understanding depends upon a student's higher order thinking ability to know when he/she does and does not understand, that is, metacognitive awareness.
Here are some strategies to help students enhance their ability to understand verbal concepts.
- Promote students' initial grasping of concepts. For example, introduce students to the concept to be learned at the start of each lesson, chapter, and unit. When multiple concepts are being introduced, make sure that students can manage complex chunks of incoming information, such as critical attributes. Outlines, semantic maps, tables, and visual images will help to organize information for students at this initial level of concept formation.
- Provide opportunities for students' understanding to extend beyond the information given. For example, have the students teach each other, brainstorm problems, situations and scenarios in which a concept may be applied. Guide students in evaluating each other's synthesis of the original concept. Encourage students to use their own words when working with the concept.
- Encourage students' formation of concepts through discovery. Allow students to work and play with concepts in a variety of situations that will facilitate the discovery of new applications of the concept.
- Have students create their own lists of categories that fit into bigger categories. For example, flowers, trees, and bushes into the plant category, canines, felines, apes into the mammal category, etc.
- Have students practice organizing words and concepts based on similarities and differences. Use discussion, listing, concept webs, etc. For example, have students compare dogs to lions, Christmas to Valentine's Day, etc.
- Promote students' ability to organize ideas and to generalize through instruction in specific activities that target concept building. Arrange for students' to uncover the similarities and differences among many concepts. Give examples and non-examples to help students build conceptual frameworks.
- Provide a general concept and have students list examples and non-examples under that concept, working from the abstract and general towards the more concrete and specific.
- Provide multiple, concrete examples, and connect textbook learning to daily, practical experiences. Activate prior knowledge and experience, and connect new learning to what has been learned previously.
- Discuss figurative language and technical vocabulary prior to assigning reading or giving class instruction. Be explicit (make no assumptions about a child's prior knowledge or what he/she understands).
- Introduce students to different visual note taking techniques for different types of reading sequences: narrative series of events, history time lines, procedural sequences in science, etc., to highlight the organization of information and indicate causal relationships.
- Allow students who are different types of thinkers to work on projects together. Pair up the divergent thinkers with more convergent thinkers in the class so they can learn from each other. Encourage students to articulate to each other the ways in which each "thinks."
- Build students' questioning skills. Teach students how to ask good questions in order to get the most out of their learning. For example,
- Model the technique of asking good questions. Expose students to different types of questions (descriptive, explanatory, synthesis, etc.)
- Teach students when the best time to question is in your classroom, e.g., during the lecture or during a time set aside for questions after the lecture.
- A general set of metacognitive questions may be used which can be applied to any task. For example, "What's the purpose of learning this material? Do I know anything about the topic? What strategies will help me? Am I understanding as I work? How should I correct answers? Have I accomplished my goal?" (Adapted from Bruning, Schraw & Ronning, 1995)