How do my students practise things they “just need to know”?

There are many different ways to describe knowledge, with two popular tags being “procedural” and “declarative.”*

Procedural knowledge is knowledge of procedures and processes. In a science context that might be rearranging formulae or balancing equations. Once you have taught these, they tend to be relatively straightforward to practise: you can always give more formula drill work or more equations to balance. Granted, as per our CPD module on practice, there is still more thought than that required, the basic principle is there.

Declarative knowledge is more about things and ideas, for example the structure and function of a nerve cell or why a giant ionic lattice will only conduct electricity when molten or in solution. This tends to be trickier to practice, and we often hear that teachers are not quite sure how to teach this content and end up with students wandering round the classroom looking at posters or researching material for themselves. Needless to say we aren’t so fond of this approach, but we understand where it comes from: once you’ve told students that sperm cells have tails to help them swim to an egg, how many different ways are there really to practise that knowledge?

Fortunately, there are a number of blogs out there which may be able to help:

First up is Ruth’s canonical work on science knowledge and how it is best practised. She includes a detailed discussion of what types of content are easy to practise, which ones aren’t, and how you can use a few simple activities to enable your students to practise declarative knowledge. Read here.

The Writing in Science Symposium also addressed these issues, and though all the blogs have extremely useful ideas, Ben Rogers’ one here may give you the quickest wins.

Tom Chillimamp, Pritesh Raichura and Matt Perks delivered a brilliant talk at last year’s CogSciSci conference and Tom has written it up here. It’s definitely worth a read for the discussion of because/but/so alone – a simple activity that can generate some brilliant thought in your students.

Adam Boxer wrote a blog a couple of years back which also deals with this and gives three simple techniques for use in class.

As ever, if you end up using any of these techniques in the classroom (and you should) please do let us know either via email to cogscisci@gmail.com or over on Twitter. Happy practising!


*It should be noted that it’s a little more complicated than the presentation here. Interested readers are directed to Reif (2010).

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