Reading In Action

Chapter Two: How Does the Way Students Organize Knowledge Affect Their Learning?

Principle: How students organize knowledge influences how
they learn and apply what they know.



How long does it take you to solve a Rubik’s cube? What knowledge organizations allow an expert to solve a Rubik’s cube in 5.5 seconds? I cannot solve a Rubik’s cube and was amazed at the complex knowledge organizations that Rubik’s cube experts use. What really jumped out for me when reflecting on this chapter was the complex knowledge organizations we have for many tasks even beyond complex domains. 


In Chapter Two of How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching Ambrose et al, look at how experts create and maintain complex and meaningful ways of organizing knowledge. This aids them in memory retrieval and understanding the complex knowledge of their domain. In contrast, students often have “not yet developed such complex and or meaningful ways of organizing the content they encounter in the course” (Ambrose et al. 2010, p.46). The authors then focus in on research about how knowledge is formed and outline ways that experts’ and novices’ knowledge organizations differ.

So What

The authors suggest that instructors need to be aware of the different knowledge organizations between novices and experts in their discipline/domain when they design tasks. They also suggest a number of ways that instructors can “provide structures that highlight to our students how we organize disciplinary knowledge and draw on it to perform specific tasks” (Ambrose et al. 2010, p.46). Strategies that they suggest include, using concept maps with students, graphic organizers and making connections between concepts explicit.

Now What

To reflect on this chapter and prepare for the upcoming book club meeting you may wish to complete the following: 

  1. Reflect on the implications of knowledge organization to your own practice or your overall reaction to this chapter by commenting below.
  2. Use a concept mapping tool such as  or to share a map of a single concept within your discipline or an area of interest.

To encourage participation, those who share a comment/post this week will have their name entered into the Chapter Two draw for a $25 CAD gift certificate for Chapters Indigo. Read the contest guidelines here. Good luck!

The Book Club chat on Chapter Two will take place on Friday, September 21st at 10 AM PST.  Check out the schedule and how to connect with the group. We also invite you to say hello in the Comments section of our Intro post.




  1. Nazmi Kamal

    I never thought of knowledge organization, especially from a student perspective. In my selling course, The learning process is based on an evolution of a selling “relationship” between buyer and seller. There is a precise organization behind the steps discussed throughout the relationship.

    Reading this chapter made me reflect on my sales course. For some reason, I am fairly certain that the students do not see the bigger picture, to a degree because I don’t encourage such thought. Now I am feeling a bit negligent.

    The tips and strategies provided in the second half of the chapter are helpful. I find 2-3 of them as especially helpful to my case and would like to try them out in the classroom:
    – The first one is to provide students with an organizational structure of the course and the second tip is about asking the students to draw concept maps. I find both tips helpful in bringing together the larger picture into small and manageable bits of information (all spread out on one sheet).

  2. lucwriteubc

    Hi Nazmi I love the concept map strategy! I have worked with a couple instructors at UBC who have students create a concept map about the subject area at the outset of the course and then having the students do the same activity towards the end of the course. This provided the instructors a way not only see how students are organizing knowledge at the begging of the course, but also how this changes over time. After reading this chapter I also was reflecting on knowledge organizations is not something I have considered enough in either my teaching or my practicing in learning design/educational development.

  3. english060girl

    I enjoy the idea of comparing mind maps or concept maps, analogies, metaphors or other ways of representing and connecting information in order to build metacognitive strategies and to form relationships.

    I guess along the same lines of Polly’s comments last week, the idea that of instructor as “expert” and student as “novice” and an assumption that there is a clear hierarchy of rich meaningful knowledge structures that are preferable to sparse, superficial knowledge structures seems problematic to me.

    I am curious to hear others’ perspectives on this, and to see whether there are strategies used that honour multiple ways of knowing, representing and organizing and perhaps have a goal of connecting rather than correcting.

  4. bccleva

    Hi Bookclubbers!

    When thinking about knowledge organization and how it affects students learning, I think of two things: how as an instructor I might organize content for my learners to best suit the purpose and how I as a learner can improve on how I organize my own learning for the best recall and reflection.

    One strategy discussed is how instructors can help students by explicitly organizing and chunking content using outlines or frameworks that correlate with how they are expected to use that knowledge. For me, this brought to mind the analogy that successful knowledge organization is akin to organizing a kitchen for the tasks at hand: as three functional work spaces 1. Storage 2. Cooking 3. Washing. Each system is important to the function of the whole but each in itself a sub-system with a dedicated purpose. A novice cook (learner) might not be aware of how to organize these spaces for the best effect. An expert cook (instructor) can assist by providing the guiding framework and purpose for each space and how each space or chunk works with the other. Not sure if this analogy works–it’s a pragmatic one–and what came to mind.

    With regard to how I organize my own learning…I do want to do more sketch-noting, doodling and to try the mind mapping tools, as I find writing notes is too locked-in and linear. I’m pleased to see there are several of you who are sketch-noters and doodlers.

    I also agree that we need acknowledge that knowledge and our learning is something that changes over time and not forget to reflect on these changes and perspectives.

    Thanks Lucas! I enjoyed your post! Talk to you all tomorrow at 10 AM.

  5. Jennifer Kirkey

    I am a physics teacher and that means I have the luxury of teaching the three great universal laws. It is a problem solving course. I use a technique that was passed on to me decades ago. Classroom assessment techniques or CATs are short, anonymous assessments. I get them to write down “what is the principle — what is the universal law I need to use to solve this problem”. Students often get bogged down in the details, so getting them to think about which law to start with is a great help. The expert/novice divide has been shown in scholarly research. Given a pile of questions and asked to organize them by “type” prior to solving, students will tend to put all the questions involving balls in one pile, springs in other pile, cars in other pile and so on. Experts put them into three piles – law of conservation of energy, linear momentum (collisions), or angular momentum (spinning).

    I have them write on a 3 x 5 inch recipe card, or I prepare a sheet organized into quarters that I cut up an distribute. Or I use the Clicker technology to get a general idea of how must of the class is thinking of approaching a problem.

  6. Jennifer Kirkey

    I also teach elementary school teachers a course in physics and chemistry here at Douglas College. We have them make concept maps, and I confess that I have not done very much on this myself. I just spent a fun half hour making my first “real” concept map due to this book club. Thanks. The elementary school teachers do … comment …. how challenging the process is but at the end they really “see” how so many things connect. We have run the program three times now and while we have changed many things, we have kept the concept map activity which is worth about 25% of their final mark, as they find it so useful.

  7. Jennifer Kirkey

    I have been playing with CMAP last night and now. It is the software that we recommend to our students, so it seemed sensible that I use it. I remember hearing “If you can write is as a list, then do a list. A list is not a concept map”. I have been struggling to make connections – in my head and using the software. I am trying to upload the .jpeg of my concept map to this blog. Help please….

  8. bccleva

    Hi Everyone,
    I also wanted to share a tool I think is great for creating simple graphics and visuals and they have mindmapping as well. Lots of easy tools available now for us to try:

  9. Nobuko

    I have asked students to use concept mapping software (e.g. Coggle,, Cmap Cloud to expose their knowledge organizations in learning theory courses or lessons in online courses. This works well except sometimes students spend a lot of time learning the technology or spend a lot of time formatting instead of focusing on the relationships between concepts to deepen their conceptual understanding!

  10. bccleva

    Hello Everyone,

    The winner of the Chapter Two prize draw is @English060girl. We’ll be sending you your Chapters-Indigo card this week. Congrats and enjoy.

  11. isabeaui

    HI Leva, I keep hearing about Canva and would like to learn how to use it. I was not aware that it could be used for mindmapping — thanks for that tip.

  12. beckyrudd

    I’ve struggled with the application of this chapter. I’ve used concept maps for analysis and other critical thinking tasks, but when I read this chapter I wondered if it could be used effectively to help understand some of the more difficult concepts in my area: grammar. I’m a firm believer in grammar not being taught in isolation or given more weight than appropriate in the teaching of writing, but I thought maybe there is some way to use a concept map to help them visualize some of the problematic areas in writing that are grounded in missing knowledge about grammar. At first I tried to map something out focusing on sentence structure, but that resulted in something that looked like sentence diagrams or sentence trees (which I loved as a student but which most students hate. Plus, they don’t really help students learn unless you have a highly-motivated student who actually wants to understand all the whys and wherefores of grammar). Then I thought maybe I’m taking too narrow of a look and there might be a way to have students develop a concept map that started at something broader like audience awareness or clarity. That’s as far as I got. I’d love to hear if any of you have any suggestions or if you think this just won’t work for this type of concept.

  13. bccleva

    Hi Isabeau,
    It’s a tool I’m playing with and find easy to use and fun, as I explore more visual techniques to use in my work. By the way,
    there’s a nice lesson here on Canva on the Ed tech Users Group (ETUG’s) 12 Apps of Christmas event site:

  14. pdmadsen

    Thanks for your post.

    Like you, I’m grappling with some of the language used in the first two chapters (and with the assumptions about the quality of learners’ and instructors’ knowledge / organization of knowledge). It seemed too, that a lot the learning being referred to in the chapter focussed on information recall / remembering rather than on a breadth of learning domains.

    I did appreciate the discussion around the context of knowledge use as well as the suggestions of strategies to reveal knowledge organization.

    It certainly made me think of me own knowledge organization and gaps and strengths within it.

  15. bccleva

    Hi Becky,
    I am a stickler for good grammar too 😉 Since you posted this note, I’ve been pondering on how you might impress upon your students the importance of good grammar and how foundational it is to writing well: That the strength of good grammar is the structure or frame upon which the ideas (words, phrases, sentences) spring forth. Of course, the image I have if you are to depict this metaphorically is the body of a tree as your graphic/content organizer/concept map, but that’s about as far as I got.

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