Learning Concepts

StudyGuide Lines – Instructional Design Tips for Christian Teachers and Writers

King Lear & The Fool in the Storm by William Dyce, Public Domain, accessed from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:William_Dyce_-_King_Lear_and_the_Fool_in_the_Storm.jpg
King Lear & The Fool in the Storm by William Dyce

Concept Learning

Concepts are categories that you use to sort and store packages of information (objects). Learning theorists believe concepts are formed when a group of essential characteristics (attributes) are grouped together and labeled so that members (examples) of a category (concept) can be identified.

Consider the category labeled, “person.” I’m sure you have never had a problem identifying a “person.” But how do you do this? There are two ways:

  1. discrimination
  2. generalization

If you have had lots of practice differentiating  between”person” and “non-person,” you can easily discriminate a person from a frog, a dog, a hog, a log, a bog, fog and any other non-person. This is true even though a person and a non-person might share some of the same non-essential features; a frog, dog, hog, and a person all have two eyes, a mouth, breath, eat, make sounds, etc. You discriminate when you compare essential attributes of the concept, “person,” stored in your memory with the attributes of the object in question. Based on your comparison, you determine if the object is in the “person” category or in the “non-person” category.

Generalization is an easy task for the concept, “person,” if you have been exposed to persons whose non-essential characteristics vary widely. You generalize in order to conclude a non-verbal, sleeping, bald newborn baby; a very verbal, active teenager with lots of hair; a 6 foot, one-eyed, man with hair everywhere; and an elderly amputee with sparse hair are all persons.

Three problems associated with concept learning:

     1. Overgeneralization may happen when non-examples share some of the essential characteristics of a new concept, but not all; all persons have brains, but not everything with a brain is a person. “Dog” and “fox are similar concrete concepts that share essential attributes. “Mercy” and “forgiveness” are similar abstract concepts that share essential attributes.

     2. Under-generalization occurs when a non-essential attribute is wrongly assumed to be an essential attribute. All persons are not shorter than six feet tall. If we assume they are, we would not think of basketball players as persons.

3. Both discrimination and generalization become difficult when the  essential attributes cannot be differentiated from the non-essential attributes of the concept. This problem becomes obvious when learners are asked to distinguish between examples and non-examples of closely related concepts. Think about the similar concepts of “the Wicked,” “the Scorner,” “the Simple,” and “the Fool” in the book of Proverbs who share some essential attributes (unwise) and some non-essential attributes (food consumers).

Think also about how Scripture’s essential attributes of “person” are different from the culture’s. Culture’s confusion over the essential attributes of this concept is foundational to the argument over abortion. Culture asks: “Is a fetus “person” if so when?” and then determines the answers based on it’s own understanding of essential attributes apart from Scripture.

Concept knowledge is not definition knowledge.

When teaching concepts, it is not enough just to define them. While it is important to attach a definition to a concept, memorizing a definition is declarative knowledge; it is not concept knowledge. Defining “terrorist” is one thing; recognizing a terrorist is quite another.

In order to possess knowledge of a specific concept, the learner:

  • must recognize the essential attributes of the concept.
    As an aside, I think that lack of understanding of the essential attributes of the concept, “person,” as defined in Scripture, contributes to the sin of abortion. 
  • must recognize diverse representations of the concept among a wide variety of non-examples in a variety of contexts.
  • would benefit from being able to state the definition, verbalize essential attributes, and label the concept.

Learning strategies.

1. Choose an approach:

  • Inquiry (Exploratory or Discovery) – the learner examines examples and non-examples of a concept to discover critical attributes. The learner then applies attribute knowledge to identify other examples of the concept.
    • Example: The book of Proverbs uses the discovery approach when it invites you to “consider” the ways of an ant in order to discover the attributes of the concept, “a wise person,” (Proverbs 6:6).
  • Expository – the critical attributes of the concept are presented clearly to the learner, usually at the beginning of instruction, before the learner is asked to distinguish between examples and non-examples of the concept.
    • Example: The book of Proverbs clearly states, upfront, that fear of the Lord is an essential attribute of the abstract concept, “knowledge,” (Proverbs 1:7, ESV).

2. Present examples: 

  • with obvious critical attributes that can be separated out.
    • Worthless Person/Wicked ManA worthless person, a wicked man,
      goes about with crooked speech,
      winks with his eyes, signals with his feet,
      points with his finger,
      with perverted heart devises evil,
      continually sowing discord; (Proverbs 6:12-14, ESV).
  • that match an attribute of a”best example” to the same attribute of a “best non-example.”
    • The Wise Man’s Words: All the words of my mouth are righteous;
      there is nothing twisted or crooked in them, Proverbs 8:8, ESV.
    • The non-Wise Man’s Words:A worthless person, a wicked man,
      goes about with crooked speech, Proverbs 6:12, ESV.
  • along with non-examples that share essential attributes.
    • Honey (drips, is sweet): My son, eat honey, for it is good,
      and the drippings of the honeycomb are sweet to your taste, Proverbs 24:13, ESV.
    • non-Honey (drips, is sweet): For the lips of a forbidden woman drip honey, …
      but in the end she is bitter as wormwood, … Proverbs 5:3-4, ESV.
    • Fool (silence) Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise;
      when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent, Proverbs 17:28, ESV.
    • non-Fool (silence) Whoever restrains his words has knowledge,
      and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding, Proverbs 17:27, ESV.
  • along with other examples whose non-essential attributes vary widely.
    • Senseless Person: One who lacks sense gives a pledge
      and puts up security in the presence of his neighbor, Proverbs 17:18, ESV.
    • Senseless Person: He who commits adultery lacks sense;
      he who does it destroys himself, Proverbs 6:32, ESV.
    • Senseless Person: Whoever belittles his neighbor lacks sense,
      but a man of understanding remains silent, Proverbs 11:12, ESV.
      *Notice the non-essential attributes of the concept “senseless person”: make foolish pledges, commit adultery, deride neighbors. “Senseless persons” may or may not share these non-essential attributes.
  • in quick succession or simultaneously.
    • Examples (with varied non-essential attributes): See “Senseless Person” above.
    • Examples vs. non-Examples (with matched attributes):
      Righteous/non-Righteous: Blessings are on the head of the righteous,
      but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence, Proverbs 10:6, ESV.
      Righteous/non-Righteous: The memory of the righteous is a blessing,
      but the name of the wicked will rot, Proverbs 10:7, ESV.
    • Righteous/non-RighteousThe mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life,
      but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence, Proverbs 10:11, ESV.
    • Righteous/non-Righteous: The wage of the righteous leads to life,
      the gain of the wicked to sin, Proverbs 10:16, ESV.
  • in a variety of contexts.
    • See Senseless Person above who is presented in the contexts of business, neighborhood, and adultery.

If you are using an expository approach,
use the above guidelines in the body of your lesson to clearly point out the essential attributes of the concept you are teaching. For the practice part of the lesson, present unlabeled “examples” and “non-examples” so that learners can practice identifying objects as an “example” of the concept or as a “non-example.” Provide appropriate feedback – “yes,” or “no” with explanations.

If you are using an inquiry approach,
the body of your lesson would look very similar to the practice section of an expository approach with an emphasis on discovering the essential attributes of the concept. Explanations of “why” an object is classified as an “example/non-example” should be verbalized by the learner.

3. Use other strategies as needed:

  • analogy
    • An analogy of a familiar concept can be used to help the learner understand the essential attributes of an abstract or unfamiliar one. An analogy can be presented at the beginning of a lesson or in the practice section, depending on the purpose.
    • Example: Suppose the concept, “fitting words,” is to be learned. The analogy is presented: A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver, Proverbs 25:11, ESV. The analogy could be presented:
      • at the beginning of an expository lesson to help learner understand essential attributes of the concept: The learner is told directly how “fitting words” are like gold apples in silver settings.
      • in the practice section of lesson to help the learner verbalize the essential attributes of the concept. After the learner has been introduced to the essential attributes of “fitting words,” he or she is asked to explain how “fitting words” are like gold apples in silver settings.
  • imagery
    • Imagery (verbal or pictorial) can be used to show the similarities/difference between essential attributes of similar concepts.
    • Wicked/non-Wicked: The house of the wicked will be destroyed, Proverbs 14:11, ESV.
      For the simple are killed by their turning away, and the complacency of fools destroys them, Proverbs 1:32.
      *Notice the closely-related concepts of “wicked,” “simple,” and “fool” – all carefully developed in Proverbs.
  • Rational Set Generator
  • Concept Trees/Maps
    • Graphic organizers:
      • Maps are used for verbalizing essential attributes of a concept.
      • Trees are used for showing the hierarchal relationship of the essential attributes of a concept.
  • Frayer Model
    • Graphic organizer intended for vocabulary development, and can be used when verbalization of the concept’s definition, examples, non-examples, and essential attributes is important.


Concept knowledge is knowledge that is required to recognize an object as a member (example) or non-member (non-example) of a group (concept). Learners develop concept knowledge through the processes of generalization and discrimination as they come to recognize the essential attributes of a concept and practice classifying various objects (concrete or abstract) as examples or non-examples of the concept.

Application for Instruction

  • Strategically choose and present examples and non-examples of a concept.
  • Do not expect learners to have concept knowledge if you only ask them to memorize the concept’s definition or list its attributes.

For Further Study

  • Herbert J. Klausmeier: Concept Learning and Teaching
  • Various Researchers: The Concept Attainment Model
  • Patricia L. Smith and Tillman J. Ragan: Instructional Design, 3rd ed., (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2005), 171-187.

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