Robert D. Sutherland


March 1969

(Published as a broadside on the Illinois State University campus)

    Factual learning and conceptual learning may be distinguished as follows: factual learning emphasizes the acquisition and storage of information to be retrievable on demand; conceptual learning emphasizes the kinds of things one is able to do with the information one has acquired.

    A subject matter area has both a body of factual information to be mastered and a conceptual framework or structure in which the factual matter is contained and to which it contributes. What is learned in a given course is usually a function of what the teacher feels to be important. The teacher’s bias may be factual, in which case the imparting and acquisition of information, or factual knowledge, is paramount; or it may be conceptual, in which case the factual material is subordinate to, and serves, a general understanding of the larger patterns and relationships which define the subject area.
    A conceptual emphasis entails a further dimension which is of crucial importance: it causes factual information to contribute to an end beyond itself—namely, the students’ learning to advance from the particular to the general, enabling them to synthesize relationships, to extrapolate from the known into the unknown, to hypothesize, and to discover further knowledge on their own. In my opinion, it is these abilities that we should be striving to foster in our learning experiences, at all levels.

    I subscribe to John Dewey’s notion that the aim of all educational processes is “informed and intelligent action,” and to Alfred North Whitehead’s view—actually a particular focusing of this general principle—that knowledge has value only insofar as it is put to effective use. This is not to say that I feel we should approach learning in a narrow utilitarian spirit, acquiring knowledge simply in order to apply it to some predetermined—perhaps vocational—end. Rather, it is to suggest that the knowledge we acquire is to be sought and prized for its enlarging our sense of what is possible to us. Knowledge pursued for its own sake and, once acquired, allowed to lie fallow—as is often the case in courses which stress factual learning—constitutes at best a form of sterile self-gratification. At worst, it represents a complete waste of time and energy, and can be debilitating to the student’s powers of mind. It is what we do with our knowledge that justifies our learning; and it is not the factual knowledge we have acquired, but our capacity to use our learning that makes us educated people.

    Whitehead calls this fallow knowledge “inert ideas . . . that are merely received into the mind without being utilized, or tested, or thrown into fresh combinations,” and he says further that “education with inert ideas is not only useless; it is, above all things, harmful” in that it produces “mental dryrot.”
I submit that much of the learning a student encounters in college is of this type. We don’t have to look far for examples. How frequently does it happen that students find themselves memorizing facts—names and dates, statistics, the five “major points” of a theoretical position—for instant recall while taking an exam that probes their diligence? How often do they engorge information without having to discern relationships and broader implications of the data to see how it all fits together—simply storing away in mechanical fashion the facts as so many separate items? And why shouldn’t they, when the examination they are cramming for will ask for their knowledge in bits and particles, perhaps in the short-answer “objective” format which requires them to identify, fill in the blanks, and guess the right answer from a multiplicity of wrong ones? How often does it happen, that once the exam and the course are finished, students close their books, forget what they have memorized, and move on to the next course without a backward glance? Too often. One wonders what kind of competence the diploma truly symbolizes.

    Factual knowledge is important to conceptual thinking; a person can’t generalize without a wealth of valid concrete data. An emphasis on conceptual learning in the classroom will assume that a student will have a thorough grasp of the factual knowledge entailed by the subject matter of the course. But factual information will be seen as a necessary means to a higher end, and not as an end in itself.
Unfortunately, in those courses where factual learning is stressed, the amassing of information frequently is an end in itself. Students’ success in the course, their “competence” in the teacher’s eyes, is determined by how well they are able to take in information and retrieve it when called upon to do so. Little concern is given to what students are able to do with their factual knowledge: how effective they are, for example, at solving problems or asking suggestive and original questions; at formulating new conceptual models, reasoning a complex matter through to a logical conclusion, hypothesizing, or making intelligent inductive leaps. A course which stresses conceptual learning would encourage students in developing these abilities.

    The reasons for the frequently-encountered emphasis on factual learning are fairly obvious. Many teachers who are oriented to information retrieval as an index of intellectual competence do not or cannot think conceptually themselves, and thus cannot design a course with a conceptual orientation. Many teachers have a narrow, or specialized, or vocational view of their subject and conceive their role simply as that of training people to do specific jobs, supplying the professional manpower needs of the society. A factual emphasis is often the result of herding students into large classes—such as the monstrous lecture sections of certain general-education courses—where, because of numbers and anonymity, meaningful conceptual feedback is virtually impossible to attain. In these large classes the teacher cannot know the individual capabilities of the students, but must “level” the presentation to a mass audience, usually through the mode of the fact-filled lecture. Finally, the ritual of grading is responsible for an emphasis on factual learning. Since at the present time it is commonly felt to be necessary to assign letter-grades to students on the basis of their relative degree of “success,” or the quality of their “performance,” in academic coursework, dipsticks for measuring this must be devised.

     Examinations suggest themselves as the most efficient—as well as “objective”—means for evaluating students as learners. Exams which test for factual knowledge are easier both to construct and evaluate than exams which allow students to demonstrate their capacities for conceptual learning—their effective utilization of acquired information in problem solving, their powers of logical analysis, synthesis, and generalization.

     A fact-oriented teacher will say: “A competent student in this course should know X, Y, and Z.”, and will construct an exam to test whether the students know X, Y, and Z. In a sense, the exam structures the course, and determines what will be taught. Students who are “successful” are those who have acquired and retained the factual information that the exam requires. They have, quite literally, studied “for the exams”; but then the exams come to be an end in themselves: once they are passed, the information can be forgotten. It is easier for teachers to “evaluate” a student when they have something concrete in mind to look for, a checklist to follow—when they can look for the presence of “the right answer” instead of involving themselves in the more time-consuming and intellectually demanding challenge of having to identify “a good answer.” In such a situation, where information retrieval is emphasized, what have students learned? If “successful,” they have learned “the right answer”—but not necessarily “good answers,” and much less the ability to use their factual knowledge to formulate good questions of their own.

    Learning should enable people to frame good questions and develop good answers to them. Factual knowledge should be a means to this end, which is best conceived as conceptual learning. To justify its acquisition, knowledge must be put to intelligent and effective use; an emphasis on conceptual learning, for which factual learning provides the foundation, will increase our potential for enriching the quality of our lives: it will help us to become creative citizens, teachers, entrepreneurs, explorers, thinkers, parents, etc., etc. When factual learning is emphasized, students can close their books at the end of the course, rest easy in the satisfaction (and relief) of having “had” economics, psychology, and art appreciation, and, with a clear mind, “go on” to “have” political science, American public education, business administration, and philosophy.



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