Many students like to recite the ‘definition’ of a
term. They would like to be taught definitions and prefer to memorise
them. However, I do not think there is much value to learn by definitions
at the tertiary level, because ‘understanding’ by concept
construction is not the same as knowing a term through memorising
a definition. In order to make it simple, a definition is usually
constructed through a short statement without connections to other
definitions or verification with examples. Very often, it is worded
in a way that it is self-contained. To students, there is one apparent
advantage of learning by definition—they can memorise it easily.
Hence, many students unfortunately stop short of constructing concepts
that are essential to their understanding of the subject matter.
Do you think you can define a ‘table’? I do not think
I can, but I do have a concept of ‘table’ in my mind.
How is a concept formed? I surely did not construct the concept
of ‘table’ through acquiring a definition. I think I
must have acquired my first impression of a table when my parents
pointed to an object and said ‘table’ during my childhood.
With time, I gained more and more information through sensory input,
and acquired my information about tables with different colours,
sizes, functions, etc. Slowly, in my mind, I began to process the
information (reflective thinking). At some point, through generalisation,
an abstract (abstraction) picture (concept) of a ‘table’
was constructed in my mind. To date, that concept of a ‘table’
in my mind is still continuously being reconfigured, refined, and
modified whenever I am challenged through a sensory input of a table
of unique design, or with the need to create/construct a table for
a unique function.
If you wish to construct a concept, you must gain vast experiences,
know many examples, and have a strong desire to make sense of these
experiences and examples through reflective thinking. You must try
to connect individual facts and process them through attributing,
comparing and contrasting, classifying, sequencing, prioritising,
determining cause and effect, evaluating and drawing conclusions.
In essence, critical thinking skills are required for abstraction
and formation of concepts. After a concept is formed, it becomes
the theoretical base for the construction of new knowledge and the
application of existing knowledge to new situations. What you need
to do is to process any new information with the existing concept
in your mind through associating relationships, visualising, personifying,
inventing, inferring, generalising, predicting, hypothesising and
problem solving. Through these mental activities, you will be able
to create ideas and solve problems in new situations.
So, would you prefer to learn by definitions, or by constructing
concepts in your mind? If you prefer the latter, then you should
appreciate the teacher’s effort to ‘explain’ to
you the meaning of certain terminology with supplementary examples.
It is imperative for you to get the meaning out of the examples,
not a definition. Only then your brain will get the exercise needed
for it to develop as a ‘thinking organ’. Acquiring definition
may increase your memory power; but through constructing concepts,
you will acquire the critical and creative thinking skills that
are essential to you as a truly knowledgeable person.