Partner Knowledge Awareness: A Better Way to Learn?

Just recently published this year in the Journal of Experimental Education, an article titled Partner Knowledge Awareness in Knowledge Communication: Learning by Adapting to the Partner sheds interesting new insight on educational methods.

First, Partner Knowledge Awareness (PKA) is defined to be a “phenomenon in which a person is aware of aspects of another group member’s knowledge. Awareness refers to an individual’s mental state, partner prefers to the target of the mental representation, and knowledge refers to the relevant characteristic of the target.”

This article primarily focuses on the effect of PKA on learning outcome and processes. For example, “during explanation, for instance, one collaborator can use PKA to adapt explanations toward the partner’s knowledge.”

Essentially, PKA induces a cognitive process when dealing with information, which is known as knowledge transforming. The authors explain, “adapting explanations to a partner is thought to foster one’s own understanding and learning to the extent that the explainer will clarify and reorganize the material in new ways to make it more understandable to others.” Although not the most complicated concept, it brings up the question how much of a beneficial educational impact this cognitive process can have.

Performed in Germany, the experiment involved about 49 native students. Each were given about 25 minutes to study extensive hypertexts about blood constituents and the immune system. Afterward, the subjects were randomly assigned into groups of three. One member, the explainer, of each group was given the responsibility to explain the material to the other two, the recipients.

The explainer was given a visualization tool before he or she had to begin:

You may be wondering, what exactly is this image? It is PKA! On paper!

After learning the material, every participant filled out a sheet of paper, like the one above, marking what he or she didn’t know. The explainer is now aware of the parameters of both of the recipients’ knowledge on the material; consequently, the visualization tool fosters and creates PKA for the explainer to adapt, improve, and specialize their explanations.

Afterwards, all the participants were tested on the material by taking a 36 multiple-choice exam. The results for the recipients, the subjects who had the material explained to them, were not surprising: they scored higher than those who had taken the exam without receiving explanations. However, the surprising result was that the explainers, who were given the PKA visualization tool, significantly scored much higher than the control group, explainers who did not receive the PKA. The explainers with PKA not only had the greatest improvement in scores but the highest scores overall. The authors explain, “Not only can other group members potentially benefit from these adaptations, but one of the major arguments here is that explainers using PKA information themselves are supported in their learning. The one adapting is the one benefiting.”

What this article suggests is neither groundbreaking nor very modern. The idea that “teaching is the best way to learn” has been around for ages. However, what this study does suggest is a simple method, which can be as simple as a piece of paper, that fosters huge learning benefits for everyone. In fact, the idea is so simple that it is rather striking that educators don’t implement this sort of knowledge communication more often.

So as I try to pay attention to the complicated jargon my professor is simultaneously mumbling and drawing on a dirty chalkboard, I can’t help myself asking the very questions this article brings up. Wouldn’t my professor explain the material more effectively if they were aware of what I do and do not know? Wouldn’t my understanding be taken to new heights if I were forced to try explaining the material in my own words rather than sitting in class writing and memorizing everything someone else says verbatim? Wouldn’t knowledge communication be more beneficial than knowledge memorization?

I shrug my shoulders, excommunicate myself in the library, and begin to cram for the next midterm, unaware of a better way to learn and understand the countless numbers, terms, and words that seem to dominate my life.



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