Art & Science of Learning

Why Are Concepts So Hard?

by Shawn Nordell, PhD, Associate Professor, Biology

“Conceptual understanding” is a learning objective commonly seen in primary, secondary and post-secondary courses as well as throughout the educational literature.   Indeed, there is an emphasis in many disciplines to design a curriculum that promotes students’ conceptual understanding within a discipline rather than simple procedural knowledge or rote learning.   Core concepts can be a keystone of understanding for the student and once understood can transform the students’ learning.

But what exactly is a concept? It turns out to be a term that is not easily defined.   Several dictionaries agree that concepts refer to an abstract idea but agree on little else.  A recent survey of faculty attending a workshop at a pedagogical conference also resulted in a large degree of variation in the definition of a concept.  One commonality was that concepts are different from definitions and statements in that a concept should have some sort of explanatory power.   Using an example from my own discipline, the statement that “behavioral genetics is the study of the genetic and environmental influences on behavior” is a definition of the term “behavioral genetics.”  As such it lies low on the hierarchy of critical thinking skills.  However, the phrase, “the environment influences gene expression and behavior” is a true concept that allows us to understand how variation in the environment can lead to variation in the behaviors of individuals that we observe.   Concepts allow us to synthesize our understanding of a topic and use that to explain some process.  Articulating the key concepts in our disciplines is a challenging task for instructors, so I can only imagine how challenging it might be for our students.

Not surprisingly, students have trouble recognizing concepts.  Recently, Betsy Angeli and I designed a study to determine whether students could discern between recall, conceptual, and application types of questions.  We used modifiers from Bloom’s Taxonomy to describe each type of question.  Specifically, we asked students whether a question asked them to a) identify, recognize or recall; b) classify, compare, or explain; or c) apply, analyze, or predict.  These modifiers refer to a) remembering facts, b) understanding concepts, and c) applying knowledge.  These represent a wide range of levels of cognitive complexity.  We included all three types of questions in each weekly quiz in laboratory sections in an introductory biology course.  The question types were randomly ordered each week.   We also made sure not to include the modifiers in the question itself.

We found that recall questions were correctly identified over 90% of the time, and application questions were correctly identified almost 50% of the time.  However, conceptual questions were correctly identified less than 15% of the time.   It seemed that students also may not have a clear understanding of concepts!  It is important to note that, at the beginning of the semester, students were introduced to Bloom’s Taxonomy of learning and given discipline-specific sample questions for each level as an introduction to the types of assessment they should expect in the course.

So why did we get these results?  It is possible that our questions were not clearly designed and that our modifiers perhaps were somewhat ambiguous, but given the very small number of students who correctly identified conceptual questions that does not seem to be the clear answer here.  Perhaps, it is more likely that concepts are a challenging cognitive task and one that we should address more substantially and clearly, both for ourselves and our students.  If we seek to enhance conceptual learning in our students, we need to think about how best to accomplish this.  One approach is to identify core concepts up front at the beginning of class and organize the class activities around those concepts.  Another approach would be to allow students the opportunity to develop the core concepts from their class activities.  Either way, it will be useful to come full circle and discuss how the core concept allows us to deepen our understanding of the topic.  Clearly identifying specific concepts, illustrating those with examples, and providing opportunities to apply concepts are all critical elements for students’ development of their learning.

How do you teach for “conceptual understanding”?  Share your ideas in the Comments section.


Shawn Nordell is an Associate Professor in the Biology Department and a Senior Faculty Fellow for the Reinert Center.  She is currently studying the effect of cognitive complexity on student learning.