7 Jun 2014

Teaching and learning: how do I know that I know something?

Guest post by Maura Flynn, Nursing & Midwifery Librarian at UCC

During the Teaching and Learning course that I have recently completed we were asked as a class to reflect on the question of how do I know that I know something? Initially I was somewhat taken aback at this question. But interestingly, reflecting on something that I felt that I knew well proved very useful in helping me to think about the complexities of learning in a new way. When we looked at this as a class many common themes emerged, such as: practice; trial and error; experience; confidence; reading; learning from others; conducting research; teaching it and asking questions.

For example if you feel that you make a wonderful chocolate cake (although this is not a claim that I can in good faith make!) how do you know that know-how-to? Some examples might include: that you watched a cooking show and sourced what looked like a wonderful recipe from that, that you have practiced it and that you have shared the cake and indeed the method/recipe with others. In addition to sharing a recipe, you may also change and adapt a recipe as required, which demonstrates a great flexibility in your learning. For example, you could experiment with the original recipe and subsequently using the ingredients, ideas or techniques to create something entirely new and different from the original chocolate cake (e.g. a raw avocado and cocoa cake versus the original baked chocolate fudge cake).

In this example, seeing a demonstration of a recipe, sourcing that same recipe and experience of hands-on practice all contribute toward learning and skill acquisition. Similarly a sharing and teaching component was mentioned and can confirm that the knowledge is well understood. Indeed I often find myself that preparing for a teaching session on a topic area is a wonderful way to ensure that you know the topic exceptionally well. In addition, in teaching the recipe to someone else and answering any questions or issues that they may have you can often see the same subject matter from a different perspective. Flexibility in using the recipe, ingredients and techniques were also alluded to in the example above, which is a central component to true and deep learning.

One common thread amongst many of these ways of knowing (i.e. having learnt) is that many are active. This particular exercise again supports an active learning approach whereby students are engaged in learning in a practical or experiential capacity and are given opportunities to practice their newly acquired knowledge and skills. Again this is linked to the performance aspect of the Teaching for Understanding framework. To me this emphasises the importance of incorporating practice and hands-on components in a significant and meaningful way within information literacy classes. Learning from others is another facet that was mentioned and I feel that we can sometimes underestimate the value of group work and peer learning. I think that when teaching information literacy we must continually emphasise that it is a lifelong skill and can be used in a number of ways.  For example, within health sciences, I emphasise to students that learning how to conduct a literature review can be useful at a later stage to support an argument to change clinical practice in line with evidence. I think emphasising the relevance of information literacy both in personal and professional lives is vital to help students to develop a well-rounded understanding.

Thinking about my own knowledge in this way also reminds me to be patient as in many instances I know things which I have: observed; repeated; read about; undergone training on; discussed; debated; researched; or even taught.  When I encounter students it may well be their first time to be exposed to the content being taught. And I must reflect upon how many of these experiences of learning do I facilitate within my classes and try to identify additional opportunities to do so where possible.

I’d be very interested in your own insights as to how you know that you know something and whether this exercise might be useful to you in planning a class.


  1. Hi Maura. Interesting post - thanks for sharing the experience. How do I personally know I know something? I use the five year old test - if I can explain it to myself in language that a child can understand - then I know it. Obviously we can extend this to us as librarians and academics. If you can explain complex thoughts concepts to new undergraduates on their first day of a college career in language that they understand and comprehend, then you truly understand it. I really believe that, no matter how gifted or brilliant you are, if you cannot pass this test then you do not truly understand whatever it is you are claiming to understand

  2. Thanks Martin, yes I agree with you, being able to simplify something which is new or complex is very useful. It allows you to build a foundation and the students can scaffold their knowledge on this as they go through their course. I think having a variety of different exposures to something is important too and I suppose this was the essence of my post, to remember how many different experiences and engagements can be involved in us learning something really well.