Number. 18 © CDTL 2003
To Construct Concepts or to Memorise Definitions?
Professor Y.K. Ip
Department of Biological Sciences / Associate Director, CDTL

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.

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