Bullet-Point Organization

April 23, 2016

Students forget facts, they remember understanding–Eric Masur, Harvard University, Department of Physics.

In their book, How Learning Works, the authors specify that the ways in which instructors organize their courses has a significant impact on how student learn. Why is this important? Because instructors in higher education are content experts who have organized what we teach in multiple flexible ways and these patterns of organization enable us, as experts, to retrieve and use the content in multiple ways because we’ve established multiple connections and pattern for the content. Cognitive psychologists also tell us that context in which we learn new content is key of retrieving it and understanding it.

An illustration of this is comes from when we’ve asked our students in mid-semester formative assessments, “What does your instructor do that helps you to learn?” In looking as students’ responses across courses and semesters, the most frequent response involves ways in which instructors connect the content to life experiences, e.g., telling a personal example or some form of narrative that explains a concept. Carmen Eilertson in Biology has nursing students learn body parts and systems in her Anatomy & Physiology course by situating them in an emergency room and presenting them with patient information files. The “facts” are learned in a context that aspiring nurses might face one day.

But a critical step then comes with how we (and our students) organize the content for various purposes (as experts must do).  Bullet points work for experts because we’ve already organized content into multiple patterns and relationships. But how can we assist our students to think like experts? That, I think, depends on the type of relationships they need to acquire.

For examples, making decisions in an emergency room simulation, one likely needs a decision-tree type of organization (if…then…).

If decisions are multiple comparisons across components/examples, a matrix might be helpful (type of rocks compared on hardness, how formed, where found, examples, uses, etc.).

To show how detailed characteristics of one idea/concept related, one might choose a  concept map.

To examine where there are similarity and differences on a single characteristic for several examples, Ven diagrams can help.

To analyze the differing impact of a phenomenon, concentric circles can be helpful.

Interestingly, I’ve notices more faculty giving students the option of creating a study guide for themselves and, occasionally, permitting them to use the guide when taking a test. I think it would be an interesting investigation to see if there are patterns in how students organize their understanding of the content and their performance on exams.

BUT bullet points themselves only show details (individual pixels?). So as experts, I think we need to find ways to uncover the relationships that make learning stick for our novice students.

What do you think? How have used assisted students to organize the content in your courses?


Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett & Nornan (2010) How learning works: 7 Research-based principles for smart teaching.

Bransford, Brown & Cocking (2000), How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school.