“Levels” of Understanding

When we build a curriculum, we have to carefully evaluate course objectives. In considering a specific course, we need also consider what I call the “appropriate level of understanding” we expect students to achieve within the course.

For example, I am currently working on an on-line course with its major objectives of introducing Visual Studio and understanding some fundamental programming concepts using Visual Basic. There are always more things that we want to cover but cannot because there is simply not enough time (this is where the intermediate and advanced courses take over). I like to use the terms concept understanding, working understanding, and expert understanding. Concept understanding means that someone understands a concept and sees it value. One might be able to create an example or two of the concept but probably not much more. Working understanding means that a person can use the technology and make productive use of it. Expert understanding means that a person “really” understands the concept to the point where they might want to extend it or might be able to apply it outside the context where it is typically used. For an introductory course, we need to focus on “concept understanding”. For example, consider regular expressions; they are really rather tough to understand at a “working level” but their value can certainly be perceived “conceptually”. In an introductory level course, I see my job as making the student aware of regular expressions and what they are used for; give them a chance to try them out (perhaps by using the Web Validation controls). An intermediate course would pick up on the value of the concept and provide more “working” understanding.

Often a course design does not appear to have considered these levels of understanding and thus, ends up going too deep or too shallow. Of course, a course does not live in a curriculum in isolation ““ it must be designed so that by the time the student has finished a course sequence, the appropriate level of understanding has been achieved. It is also important to define a curriculum”™s overall level of understanding. My personal opinion is that achieving a concept and working understanding is possible in a formal educational setting. On the other hand, expert understanding really requires “on-the-job training” and a lot of experience. This can be obtained within a university environment but not without the active participation of business community giving students access to “real” problems using intern opportunities or other similar programs.

The Cost of College Textbooks

I was wandering through the UW Bookstore the other day and took a look at some prices for textbooks. WOW — they are really expensive. One new textbook for an Introduction to Information Systems course was priced at $175. I have a couple of textbooks from when I was an undergraduate on my bookshelf. A book titled “A Guide to FORTRAN IV Programming” by Daniel McCracken cost $3.95. Another, “BASIC, An Introduction to Computer Programming Using the BASIC Language” by William F. Sharpe also cost $3.95.

Ok, so my texts were purchased a long time ago when the price of gasoline was $.35/gallon. But if gas prices had risen like textbook prices, we would be paying over $15/gallon. Why are the prices so high?

Having written a few textbooks, I am familiar with the economics of college textbook sales. The price of the book is set by the publisher, let’s say $100. The author gets about 15% in royalties so the author gets $15. The remainder, $85, goes to the publisher to cover development costs (editing, proofing, design layout, etc.), printing costs, advertising/sales, and finally profit. The publisher also assumes the risks associated with sales not meeting projections meaning that they may not recover all their fixed costs.

The bookstore sells the book with a 25% markup ($25 in this case) so the student pays $125 for the book. Note that the bookstore makes more per book than the author.

A typical bookstore will buy the book back from the student at the end of the quarter/semester generally paying the student 50% of the original price. In this case, the student gets back $67.50. The bookstore then marks up the price by 25% ($84.37) and sells the book again (making an additional $16.87). The publisher and the author make NO money on this resale and herein lies the problem.

In the “old days”, there was not a very viable used book market. This meant that many more new texts were purchased each quarter which contributed to the publisher’s income. Back in the old days, this additional income coming from higher new book sales meant that the original price of the book could be lower and still make a reasonable return on the book.

With the advent of better information systems that made it possible for bookstores to have better information on where the used books could be found, and the advent of fast, lower-cost shipping, the used book market started to thrive. Publishes responded by raising the initial price per book and new sales fell. Students, who were the ones paying the higher prices, starting selling back more of their textbooks to reduce the overall cost to them. Students selling back more books enhanced the used book inventory and new book prices went up even more.

We are now at a stage where the price of a new book is really unreasonable. This opens up alternatives such as self-publishing by authors as well as new media (electronic books). Of course, electronic textbooks still require an author and the price of original material will only go down when the traditional publishers step out of the loop. Watch for companies like Amazon making direct contracts with authors to make material available for Amazon’s electronic distribution.

What about the “traditional publishers”? They will likely follow the path of the dinosaurs. They failed to foresee the used book market, failed to lobby lawmakers for “perpetual rights” like the music and film industry enjoys, and because of this lack of foresight, they are likely going to price themselves out of business.



In 1982, the book titled Rethinking Systems Analysis and Design written by Gerald Weinberg was published. In this text, Weinberg challenged the “traditional” ways of thinking in a number of areas. One area he challenged was the way we condition student thinking by how we teach.

One example Weinberg presented was a problem similar to this:

Jim can chop and stack a pile of wood in 3 days. Karen can chop and stack the same pile of wood in 5 days. How long would it take Jim and Karen, working together, to chop the same pile of wood?

Weinberg argued that our “traditional” teaching encourages students to think of this as a “math” problem; that there is a “correct” answer; and that an authority (teacher or the back of the book) will validate the correctness of the answer.

What Weinberg pointed out is that we rarely take into account “real life” factors such as how well Jim and Karen work together or other factors such as the weather. In reality no one really knows with precision the real answer. In other words, Weinberg pointed out that answering the question depends on human as well as technical factors (that we ignore because they are hard to quantify).

After reading Weinberg’s book, I began thinking about my teaching and asking why I did what I did. My realization was that most of what I was doing was really being done “just because everyone else was doing it that way.”

In this set of blogs I will share some thoughts on how I have been “Rethinking how I teach”. I will argue that many things we do as teachers really does not make much sense if our goal is to truly help students understand concepts and ideas