A key question in concept-based learning

By Tania Melnyczuk

I’m the lead designer of the Project Management Concepts course. In this article, I discuss:

  • A problem experienced by a typical learner in the course
  • The niggling persistance of the traditional learning paradigm
  • Context as the new currency for learning
  • A proposed method for constructing context, and making it stick

“In Product Based Planning, the deliverables are called tasks, and are typically shown on a Product Breakdown Structure. Using this approach, a Gantt chart could be the departure point for the Network Diagram, in which the sequence of tasks is laid out.”

This answer was submitted by one of the participants in his Supplementary Exam. The answer is incorrect, as were several of his other answers, and he failed. The mark needed to pass is 90%.

The problem with studying

Rote learning and cramming don’t help you develop the critical skills needed for the jobs of the future. Unfortunately, schools and many other institutions have spent years reinforcing the rote learning and cramming paradigm. So even if, as older students, we intellectually agree that these practices don’t really build knowledge, it remains very, very difficult for us to change our thinking and to align our actions towards real learning.

Encouraging real learning

At ProjectManagement.co.za, we’re constantly honing the Project Management Concepts course to ensure that participants have entrenched the concepts by the time they get to the Exam, and integrated those concepts with their thinking and actions. Throughout the description and rationale for the activities, as well as in the supporting articles, we explain the methods we use to ensure that this happens. We try our best to ensure that we tackle new concepts only once the preceding concepts have been mastered.

Your failure reveals our failure

Still, it does sometimes happen that a participant ends up failing an Exam or a Supplementary Exam, showing that our system failed to identify and fill the gaps in their mastery along the way. We then ask, “Why did that happen? What can we do to help this person now?” and, “What can we do to ensure that this doesn’t happen to the next person?”

We questioned the three most recent candidates who failed their Exams, and their responses all pointed to the same thing: in spite of all the months of learning about how learning really works, they were all still falling back on the old ways of studying. “To be honest, I didn’t really understand those diagrams, I just guessed the answers every time till I made it,” said one highly motivated student.

This is a problem. We don’t want to supply prospective employers with “graduates” who guessed their way through a course. We don’t want people to go forth still happily believing that memorising factoids equates Project Management knowledge.

This is why we don’t lower the mark required to pass.

This is why we don’t make the questions easier.

This is why we urge you to change the way you view learning.

This is why we try our best to change the course, to help you pass.

An important question

As I prepared to help this candidate get ready for a third attempt at the exam, I looked at the answers he got wrong in his previous two attempts, and found that most of them deal with scope, risk and breakdown structures. The Project Management Concepts course employs concept-based learning, so I was about to take him back to our article on working with his List of Terms. I was going to ask him to define what a PBS and a WBS are, and to do the same for Product Based Planning, scope, scope change, scope creep, issues, risks and a Risk Register. I planned to ask him to explain these concepts as though to a 13-year-old, in his mother tongue, and to send me some of his explanations as voice messages in WhatsApp, and others in writing.

Then I realised that I was missing a key step. If I skipped this step, he would most likely skip it too, and he’d remain in the state of studying which brought him to this point in the first place. He’d try his best to please me, to give me the answers I’m looking for, and in so doing, he’d once again miss the point.

What I had missed was the why.

The Project Management Book by Richard Newton

I remembered that every chapter of The Project Management Book by Richard Newton begins with the question, “What is this about, and why is it important?” This made me realise that if I don’t ask this question first, I will most likely get only the answers, and not his best possible answers either. He will still avoid asking the really deep questions, the critical-thinking questions that are such a crucial part of Project Manager competency, and he probably won’t apply what he “learned” in the real world.

So, I’ll need to start by asking him this very question.

What is this about, and why is it important?


“In Product Based Planning, the deliverables are called tasks, and are typically shown on a Product Breakdown Structure.”

This sentence isn’t true, and if we were to correctly define Product Based Planning, deliverables, tasks and Product Breakdown Structure, we could easily say why it isn’t true. But so what? What is this actually all about, and why is it important in Project Management?

Answering these questions will put Product Based Planning in context, and in Project Management, context is king.

In Project Management, context is king.

Context is about the bigger picture, from the perspective of the level above the question at hand. If we’re going to study by explaining concepts to a 13-year-old, we have to explain things in context. In this case, we may say that Product Based Planning is a kind of project planning; we could additionally say that Product Based Planning is a technique used in PRINCE2®. For now, let’s go with the first one, and say that the “level above” is project planning.

Now, back to the question.

The term we’re dealing with (for a start) is Product Based Planning. What is this about, and why is it important? The answer is that in the bigger scheme of things, it’s about project planning, and project planning is important because it allows us to get agreement from everyone about what we’re supposed to do, how much it will cost, who needs to do it, when they must do it, and so on. If we have project plans (in the form of network diagrams and Gantt charts, for example), we can check how things are going in the real world and compare it to the promises we made based on our plans. If something goes wrong, comparing the actual events to the plan will allow us to see whether we should create a new plan or not, and from there we can decide how to deal with the possibility that we’re not going to be able to keep our original promises.

Now, it stands to reason that if I didn’t know that project planning entails creating “to-do lists” with headings, and diagrams of what happens when and who should do it, then I would also have a tough time explaining Product Based Planning, which is a specific technique for coming up with those specialised “to-do lists”. Furthermore, it would be difficult to remember the definition of a Product Breakdown Stucture, or why on earth someone might want to use one in a project.

Graphical organisers (drawings that show the relationships between concepts) are useful for developing our contextual understanding of the concepts.  The picture shows three separate examples of how the concepts of project planning, Project Based Planning, PBS and Product Flow Diagram can be illustrated in relation to each another, to show “which is a part of what”.

So, before we do anything else, let’s go a level up and ask, “What is this about, and why is this important?” and then concern ourselves with questions like, “What is the difference between a PBS and a WBS?” And if the importance of that one level up still isn’t clear, then let’s go another level up, and another, and another, and ask, “What is Project Management, and why is it important?” Because if we can’t answer that question, a lot of things at the bottom may turn into mushy nonsense, and we’ll be back to cramming to get through an exam, to get a job where we don’t know what we’re doing, or why.


Tania Melnyczuk

Director of Programme Design at ProjectManagement.co.za and the Collaboration Director of the Autistic Strategies Network.


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