Aligning Strategies to Types of Knowledge

The challenge:

Cross-country skiers use one type of wax for all conditions.  After all, snow is snow.

That statement is obviously absurd.  Snow varies in age and moisture.  Waxes behave differently given the temperature.  Skiers have different objectives; they may want their skis to grip or glide or both.

Similarly, instruction is instruction.  Course content dictates what must be taught and how.  Again, obviously absurd – but perhaps not so ‘obvious’.  Instructional strategies should vary based on the students, the situational factors as well as the level of learning and type of knowledge represented by the learning outcome.  Instructors need different waxes and techniques based on the conditions.

Successful online course design requires a fundamental shift from instructors being content-centric to being aware of the snow, the temperature and the outcomes.

When I attended university, there was little attention to the pedagogy of instruction.  Snow was snow. It was up to the student to work out the strategies for success.  The professors were knowledgeable and inspiring.  The best of them provided coherent and sometimes fascinating lectures.  History teachers could conjure up the 1905 Winter Palace revolution; biology teachers got animated over the hermaphroditic activity of earthworms; and so-on.  The stage was set but it was up to us to make sense of the lectures, strategize on how to understand, remember, and recall the pertinent information; and perform well on the assignments and exams.  It was college. It was expected.

Given that more than one-quarter of the students drop out of college after their freshman year, clearly something isn’t working.  The reasons might be primarily social and financial, but they certainly include the academic.  Students who don’t have the strategies to learn in a university environment get academically disconnected very quickly.

Online learning doesn’t inherently help the situation.  In fact, it might accelerate a student’s problems.  Online faculty find it more challenging than traditional on-campus instructors to facilitate true and genuine discourse between students and to facilitate engagement of students with the subject matter.

Online faculty also find it more challenging to gauge how their students are doing.  Faculty don’t get that immediate feedback from students online as they do in the classroom.  Is this content reaching students?  Is it going over their heads.  What questions are they having?  That immediacy doesn’t inherently exist in an asynchronous online environment.

It is therefore more critical than ever to take a teaching and learning approach to online instruction.  By ‘teaching and learning’, I mean that we need to understand the component skills (Ambrose, Bridges, Lovett, DiPietro and Norman) that we are trying to develop in our students.  We need to understand what type of knowledge those skills require and what strategies are best matched to the types of knowledge (Smith, Ragan).  What level of learning are we hoping our students will achieve?  Are they to remember key facts, understand important concepts, apply their learning to new situations?  Are we trying to promote retention of information or application of knowledge in novel situations?  What precisely are we trying to do?

Online environments, because of their remoteness, require that students practice and perform.  They require that students receive periodic feedback – feedback that they can apply to future assignments.  So, rather than one high stakes test, an online course might include multiple assignments that help the students develop in stages.

Instructors may need to be analytical about the course content.  What levels of learning: remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, creating?  What types of knowledge: declarative, conceptual, procedural, attitudinal, and/or strategical?  What strategies will promote that knowledge?

This post provides a simple example based on photography.  The art and science of taking good photographs involves many types of knowledge and thereby invites different instructional strategies to help students acquire that knowledge.  Hopefully, you’ve taken pictures and enjoy looking at photographs.  Some simple technical elements are introduced in this example.  Many people will recognize them.  But for those who don’t, I’ll provide a short explanation along the way.


Declarative knowledge

The camera diagram above presents two labels:  aperture and shutter.   Both of these things feature prominently in the making of photographs.  At a declarative knowledge level, students should be able to identify an aperture and shutter, given an illustration.  This alone, however, is unlikely to be the end goal of instruction.  Labeling parts of an engine doesn’t mean you can fix an engine.  Labeling parts of a camera doesn’t mean that you take creative photographs.  The ability to label is a ‘stepping stone’ type of objective – but a necessary stepping stone to understanding the concepts of exposure and depth of field and the use of those concepts in the composition of a photograph.

As a result of our design, we might choose to focus first on labels and definitions and then on concepts.  Or we might choose to deal with concepts and definitions, concurrently, in a more integrated manner.   In the former, we might choose to reduce cognitive load on students to not overwhelm them.  In the latter, we might want to show the immediate relevancy of these things toward a conceptual understanding.  It obviously depends on the students and the context. Those are decisions that an instructor is in the best position to make.

Whether or not we tackle declarative and conceptual knowledge as discrete instructional steps, we must recognize that they are separate.

A student demonstrates declarative knowledge when s/he can point to the opening in a camera lens and identify it as an aperture or see an illustration of a shutter and identify it as such.  When a student can define an aperture as a controllable variable opening in a lens, or a shutter as a device that lets light pass through for a precise length of time, then the student is demonstrating declarative knowledge.  In fact, the student can include these terms in organized discourse that makes the student appear very knowledgeable.  Use focal plane shutter in a sentence.  Sounds quite technical.

In fact, organized discourse might be quite misleading.  A student may have no knowledge of the underlying concept of exposure or how to use aperture and shutter strategically to solve a composition or exposure problem.   An assessment that requires students to label and define things or use the terms in an essay might only be assessing declarative knowledge. Again, probably not the end goal.


Conceptual knowledge

As mentioned, both aperture and shutter relate to the concept of exposure.  Exposure, in photography, is the amount of light that reaches a digital camera sensor or the light sensitive crystals on film.  Controlling exposure with aperture and a shutter is a balancing act.  The larger the lens opening (aperture) the shorter the time the shutter should open (shutter speed) to achieve proper exposure.  The smaller the lens opening, the longer the time the shutter should open.    If the shutter were opened for too long without a balancing small aperture or if the shutter were opened for too short a time without a balancing large aperture then the picture would be over or under exposed.   That is the concept of exposure and its related measure: exposure value.  It can be understood mathematically as EV = log2 N2/t or metaphorically as a balancing seesaw.  In either case the understanding is a conceptual understanding.

The strategies for declarative and conceptual knowledge will be different.  For declarative, we might help students relate to what they already know: the pupil of an eye for aperture; a window shutter for a camera shutter. We’ll also come up with strategies for retention and retrieval.  For conceptual, we might use the analogy of seesaw or have students craft an equation that requires an increase in one variable to offset the decrease in another.

In addition to exposure, aperture and shutter speed have significant impact on the composition of a photograph.  The larger the aperture, the less the depth of field, which means that objects in the foreground and background will be blurrier.  The shorter the shutter speed, the blurrier moving objects will be.  If you want to focus on a goldenrod and blur out the plants in the fore and background (left), you choose a large aperture.  If you want to focus on a single branch and blur the background (top right), you choose a large aperture. If you want to sweep across pines against the sunset and essentially paint with light, you set the shutter to a very slow speed (bottom left) and prevent over exposure with a very small aperture.


Compositions with aperture and ahutter Speed.  Left image and top right images show small depth of field. Bottom right image shows slow shutter speed.

Students can be presented with photographs that show these concepts in play.  They can be asked to guess at the aperture and shutter speed setting.  They will look for exposure and blurriness in the foreground, background and subject.  This is analysis.  The types of knowledge (declarative and conceptual) now interrelate with remembering terms, understanding concepts, applying concepts and analyzing.  We remember the definition of aperture; we understand that exposure value is a relationship of aperture to shutter speed; we apply our knowledge of aperture to blur a background; and we analyze a photograph for evidence of camera settings. In short, levels of learning (Bloom’s taxonomy) intersect with types of knowledge. Richard Mayer wrote about this in Applying the Science of Learning.  Patricia Smith and Tillman Reagan wrote about this in Instructional Design, as did many after them.

Strategic knowledge

Declarative knowledge supports conceptual knowledge, which supports strategic knowledge.  We might present the students with a composition problem that can only be solved by using aperture and shutter speed strategically.  Perhaps it is unsolvable problem that requires yet another element:  film speed or film sensitivity.

Some instructors might choose to begin with a composition problem – requiring students to work backwards to the underlying concepts and underlying declarative knowledge.  Some instructors will combine types of knowledge and reveal the interrelationships of things sooner rather than later.  Whatever the overall strategy, a clear awareness of types of knowledge will help in the instructional design.


When instructors think about the component skills, levels of learning and types of knowledge and all of the factors that will impact students acquiring, assimilating and applying new knowledge, instructors are practicing instructional design.  Instructional design places the learner rather than the content at the center of focus.  Intentional, instructional design promotes better courses and increases the probability that students will be successfully engaged in achieving the course outcomes.



Smith, P. L., & Ragan, T. J. (2005). Instructional design. Hoboken, NJ: J. Wiley & Sons.

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (n.d.). How Learning Works. Josey-Bass

Mayer, R. E. (2011). Applying the science of learning. Boston, MA: Pearson/Allyn & Bacon.