On Comprehensive Education

A comprehensive higher education comprises: 

Declarative knowledge—those facts that can be stated as well as the concepts that organizes them. English students will be able to identify important works and also to place them in the context of time and place to demonstrate declarative knowledge of their importance. 

Procedural knowledge—those skills that students know how to do. In higher education this can include both common practices in our fields, for example we expect business students to be able to write business plans and we expect science students to be able to design experiments. 

Relational knowledge—which includes tacit knowledge developed from context and experience. The habits that comprise this knowledge indicate emerging expertise and are characterized by learners approaching problems as generalized situations rather than following examples.  

While effective faculty provide students to develop and refine all three of these types of knowledge, at some point, students’ education comes to and end and students can quite reasonably expert their experiences in higher education have prepared them to use all of these types of knowledge when they leave school. The quality of our programs can also be reasonably judge by our students’ abilities to apply their knowledge outside of the limits of our classrooms and campuses.  For these reasons, faculty have a responsibility to design lessons and activities in a manner that promotes the transfer of knowledge to other settings. 

Ostensibly, students who perform well on the tests and other assignments we give have mastered the material they were taught and will be prepared to apply it elsewhere. Reflecting on his students, Eric Muzer, a physics professor at Harvard University, observed, “After a semester of physics, they still held the same misconceptions as they had at the beginning of the term” (quoted in Lamber, 2012, para. 2). While students could solve problems in which they could follow a recipe, Muzer noted, “They floundered on the simple word problems, which demanded a real understanding of the concepts behind the formulas” quoted in Lamber, 2012, para. 4). 

It is reasonable to conclude from Muzer’s observations that performance on tests does not predict one’s ability to use the knowledge. Soderstrom and Bjork (2015) were explicit in concluding there is a difference between students’ performance on typical classroom assessments and their ability to use knowledge (which they labeled “learning”). “The distinction between learning and performance is crucial because there now exist overwhelming empirical evidence showing that considerable learning can occur in the absence of any performance gains and conversely, that substantial changes in performance often fail to translate into corresponding changes in learning” (p. 176). 


Lambert, C. (March-April, 2012).  Twilight of the Lecture. https://harvardmagazine.com/2012/03/twilight-of-the-lecture 

Soderstrom, N. C., & Bjork, R. A. (2015). Learning versus performance: An integrative review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 176-199.