By Tania Melnyczuk
In an earlier article, I explained a key question in concept-based learning, the question of why. In the present article, I explain six steps you can take to understand concepts well in the Project Management Concepts Course and other study situations.
The steps are:
- Identify a key term.
- Come up with a relevant explanation (definition) for the term.
- Juxtapose the term to other related terms.
- Ask, “What is this about, and why is it important?”
- Write a sample sentence using the term in context.
- Explain the term to a 13-year-old.
After step 1, you can do the other steps in any sequence, and you can repeat steps if you like. At the end of the exercise, you will record your final explanation (step 2) and sample sentence (step 5) in your List of Terms.
Learning involves exploration. Like walking through a dense jungle, you may sometimes have to go back to a previous spot along your way, till you have a better idea of where you are and where to go.
Later on in this article, I explain each step in detail.
Background to the steps
Using a List of Terms as part of concept-based learning
Our online Project Management Concepts course employs concept-based learning. Participants create a List of Terms (a document similar to a glossary), in which they explain various terms which come up in the course, and create sample sentences to test their understanding of the concepts.
Here is an extract from my List of Terms, provided as an example to participants:
I was going through one participant’s List of Terms recently, and it became clear that he didn’t understand the purpose of the sample sentences. His sentences appeared to merely elaborate further on his explanations of the terms (see below).
I checked the video which I had provided to the participants, and saw that although I had given examples of sample sentences, I hadn’t explicitly said that a sample sentence must contain the listed term. The lesson for me? Explain why you’re asking for sample sentences, and explain exactly what you expect people to do!
What is this about, and why is it important?
The rationale for creating a List of Terms is explained in detail in the supporting materials of the Project Management Concepts course. The question is now, why ask participants to provide explanations and for sample sentences? Here’s part of the reasoning:
- If you can’t use the term in a sentence, you don’t understand the term well enough.
- Even if you can use the term correctly in a sentence, it doesn’t necesarily mean that you know what you’re talking about.
So, explaining the term and using that term in a sentence that makes the meaning clear, are together a reasonable indication that you’ve internalised the concept to some degree, and that you will be able to share some of your understanding with others.
Using stories and pictures to help us understand things better
In our Intensive Workshop in Project Management, we often tell true stories to illustrate principles. We also use cartoons to tell a story to make a point, as in the example below.
Stories and pictures help people to understand context, and in Project Management, context is king. Keep this in mind as you work through the six steps.
The six steps
1. Identify a key term.
Let’s say that in reading about the management of risk in projects, I have come across the word consequences, and I want to better understand what a consequence is.
2. Come up with a relevant explanation (definition) for the term.
When I look up the term consequence in an online dictionary, I find that it can have several meanings. Some of them look like they may not be relevant to my context, namely Project Risk Management. For example, the definition marked 3b below looks particularly off, and so does definition 4. However, I am not yet sure about the other definitions, so I continue with the rest of the steps for now. I can also try other dictionaries and lexicons.
3. Juxtapose the term to other related terms.
Based on a Google search for consequence in the context of project risk management, my further reading provides me with terms such as likelihood, impact and mitigation, which are apparently related to the concept of consequences.
4. Ask, “What is this about, and why is it important?”
My reading leads me to conclude that in Project Risk Management is crucial in Project Management: if I don’t assess risks and do something about them, I’m not managing the project properly! Assessing consequences (or impact, a word which seems to come up more often) is an important part of managing risk. Thinking about consequences helps me to plan responsibly from a “what if…?” perspective, instead of just hoping that nothing goes wrong.
At this point, I am ready to go back to step 2, to type a provisional explanation of consequences, drawing from the dictionary, and based on my understanding so far: “In Project Management, consequences are roughly synonymous with the impact of a risk. A consequence is something produced by a cause or following from a set of conditions.”
5. Write a sample sentence using the term in context.
Remember what we said about pictures and stories?
I now illustrate what I mean by providing a sample sentence. To do this, I picture a scenario where the term could come up.
One way to do this is by drawing the scene and including a caption or some speech bubbles. My example shown here is a bit nerdy, because it’s more likely that the dude on the left would have said, “Watch out, that thing could fall on you!” But at least it makes its point. In my example, I’ve also incorporated the words mitigate and risk in a way that illustrates their meaning.
I deliberately used simple figures to demonstrate that you don’t have to be very good at drawing to use this technique!
6. Explain it to a 13-year-old
This step is included to ensure that you double-check your understanding.
Many 13-year-olds are not yet very sophisticated in their use of abstract terms, so the Merriam-Webster definition may be a bit hard for them. It may actually be hard for you too! What does consequence really mean? What’s the simple version of the fancy words, “something produced by a cause or… following from a set of conditions”?
You may find yourself explaining the term to a 13-year-old something like this: “A consequence is a thing that happens because of something else that happened, sort of like a knock-on effect. It’s like, when you’re standing below a big iron ball on a chain, and the chain breaks, and you get squashed, then you getting squashed is a consequence of having been below the ball when the chain broke.”
See how naturally the sample sentence flows when you’re talking to someone?
Once you’ve worked through the six steps, you will be ready to type your explanation and sample sentence into your List of Terms. And if consequence was the term you were exploring, then the next time you’re planning a course of action in a project, you will hopefully also be more prepared to plan for the consequences of your decisions!