Category Archives: conceptual understanding

Teaching for Conceptual Understanding

Concepts! They’re everywhere! Textbooks are full of them. Our lectures strive to explain them. We organize entire courses around them. We write tests designed to measure students’ understandings of them. Moreover, we often ask students to write papers critically assessing them. But, what is a concept? Are all concepts of equal merit? In our courses, are there any fundamental and powerful concepts students need to know in order to understand other, related concepts? Without downplaying the role of memory, how can we teach concepts in a way that goes beyond memorization? In short, how can we teach for a conceptual understanding of concepts themselves?

Herein, I suggest a few ways one might teach for a conceptual understanding of concepts. It is pedagogical in nature with a practical focus. Hence, it refers to research in the area but focuses on a few teaching activities designed to help students deepen their understanding of concepts. It is the first in a three-part series dedicated to teaching for conceptual understanding. Because the literature on this topic is broad and deep, my brief discussion here simply wants to share a few, useful strategies for your critical consideration. As well, I hope to build on the many good things instructors are already doing to promote conceptual understanding in their classrooms.

To begin, many see concepts as tools that help us make sense of the world. They are considered to be lenses through which we perceive the world. As such, theories of concepts are diverse, numerous and heavily debated. A concept can be thought of as “a mental construct or category represented by a word or phrase” (Wiggins and McTighe 2005, 340 quoted in Case and Clark). Concepts are considered to be mental representations, abstractions that help us understand concrete objects. Some see concepts as abilities peculiar to cognitive agents, and the very constituents of thought itself (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1). For example, as an abstraction, the concept, island helps us understand concrete, specific islands. As an ability, the concept democracy helps us identify democratic and non-democratic nations while drawing inferences about other democracies.

According to some, whenever we reason through a problem to its solution, we use concepts. (Nosich 2012, 56). For example, if we are reasoning about the justice system in Canada, operative concepts such as justice and fairness are at work in our thinking. As well, if I want to know whether or not my students understand a concept, a specific notion of understanding itself will inform that inquiry. Consequently, such an understanding also informs my choices about what assessment rools I’ll use to decide whether or not my students understand a specific concept.

So, if concepts are deeply relevant to, and always present in our thinking, how can we teach for a deeper understanding of them? What might be some challenges in teaching for a conceptual understanding of concepts? And, how can we cultivate a culture of conceptual understanding in our classrooms? I’ll only be addressing the first of these questions in this short article. I’ll leave the others for parts two and three in the series.

An important question to ask before going any further is, what does the expression conceptual understanding mean? Without pretending to be exhaustive, there are a few, widely accepted indicators of conceptual understanding. They involve the ability to:

  • identify essential and non-essential attributes of concepts,
  • pose problems with the usefulness of existing concepts,
  • identify examples and non-examples of concepts,
  • clarify and apply concepts to new situations and contexts,
  • trace the historical development of concepts,
  • deconstruct and reconstruct assumptions underpinning concepts.

As well, it’s generally believed there are many different ways one can teach for conceptual understanding. Given that, people have organized them into three distinct categories: concept recognition, concept attainment and concept formation (Case, R. and Clark, P., 2008, 58). This brief discussion focuses only on concept recognition strategies. In short, they are designed to help students identify essential/non-essential attributes and examples/non-examples of concepts.Briefly, an essential attribute of a concept is one that is typically associated with that concept. For example, an essential attribute of pencil is that it contains graphite. A non-essential attribute could be, has an eraser (Case and Clark, 2008, 58). Usually, such strategies are instructor-centered, quite popular, and considered to be the most straightforward way of teaching concepts.

For example, students needing to understand the concept economy would be given a set of instructor-selected set of essential and non-essential attributes and a set of examples and non-examples of the concept economy. Usually, four of each category is sufficient for a total of 16 items. Students then take those items, and categorize them accordingly, identifying which ones might be essential/non-essential attributes and examples/non-examples of the concept economy.

Often, the instructor prepares a chart that lists all the items, organizing the pre-selected ones on the left hand side of the page, and four columns on the top of the page (essential attribute, non-essential attribute, example and non-example). Students then simply check off where the item belongs on the chart. Interestingly, this teaching strategy can be done as an introductory or culminating activity. As well, it can be used as a valuable means of formative assessment.

I’d like to share one more concept recognition teaching strategy that I have found useful. It is called SEE-I.It is a teaching strategy designed to help students recognize and clarify the meanings of concepts (Nosich, 2013, 30). It’s been used as both an introductory and culminating activity. As well, it could be used as a follow-up to the strategy outlined above.

SEE-I is an acronym that stands for:

  • State: state your meaning of the concept in a clear, short sentence.
  • Elaborate: elaborate and expand upon your meaning of the concept in 2-3 clear sentences.

o   Here the student explains in more detail what their short sentence actually means

  • Example: give a good example and counter-example of the concept.
  • Illustrate: illustrate your meaning of the concept with an image, metaphor, diagram or analogy.

For example, say I wanted my students to understand the concept, ideology. I would begin by having them do a SEE-I on the concept. This would give me a snapshot of their prior understanding of the concept itself, and offer me a reasonably sound place to begin. As mentioned earlier, I could also use SEE-I as a culminating activity to see if my students’ understanding of the concept has broadened and deepened.

The benefit of having students briefly state their meaning of ideology in a short sentence is that it forces them to be clear, accurate and precise. In turn, it also focuses their subsequent elaboration and explanation of the concept, often preventing them from getting off track. Next, by having students give a good example and counter-example of ideology, the instructor can see if they understand the deeper subtleties of the concept. Lastly, by asking students to illustrate their understanding of the concept, they can further clarify their meaning through a visual. This helps refine and deepen their conceptual understanding of ideology.

In one of my classes, a student illustrated ideology with two images: a mirror and a pair of glasses. He saw ideology as something that reflects both who we are, and how we see the world. I also recall doing this activity with the concept critical thinking. In her SEE-I, one student came up with a very clever illustration of critical thinking: a scuba diver. I asked her to explain it, and she simply added, critical thinking allows you to see more because it takes you deeper. Again, pretty insightful illustration. I hope you’ve found this discussion relatively helpful. Please feel free to contact me with any questions, concerns or conundrums.

Written by
Dr. Lance Grigg – Faculty of Education


Case, R. and Clark, O., 2008. The Anthology of Social Studies. Vancouver, Canada: Pacific Educational Press.

Nosich, G. 2012. Learning to think things through: critical thinking across the curriculum. Boston, MA: Pearson Education Inc.

Wiggins, G. and J. McTighe. 2005. Understanding by design, expanded 2nd ed. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.