Are We Not Trying Hard Enough? – Sharing Cognitive Frameworks in the University Classroom – by Yi Luo

When I met with Neil Baldwin in the Creative Research Center office recently, we started comparing teaching experiences. As a new faculty member at MSU, I admitted, with a little hesitation, “I try very hard to convey my subject-matter, but sometimes students still don’t ‘get it.’ Am I not trying hard enough?”

To my relief, Dr. Baldwin had had similar experiences. I have heard other faculty members express such frustrations across the disciplines at MSU, as well as at other universities. One colleague at another state university lamented that trying to be both educator and entertainer still failed at connecting with her students. It almost seems as if students are somehow battling against us.

What has happened? Are we, as dedicated teachers, not trying hard enough?

I would like to suggest that we bring a process-oriented approach to address the problem. Instead of questioning whether we as educators have run out of ways to stimulate students, we should try asking whether students and educators possess overlapping cognitive frameworks to begin with.

The term “cognitive framework” refers to the interpretive system through which individuals process information and make sense of their experiences (Weick, 2001). Mutual understanding depends upon this shared interpretive system (Chia, 2000; Taylor & Roichaud, 2004). Our frameworks may be quite different from those of our students. Indeed, if students and educators bring different cognitive lenses to bear on classroom experience, it is little wonder that we fail to communicate!

At issue is not so much our students’ intellectual ability, or the teaching competence of educators, but rather the lack of a shared cognitive framework with which to investigate, question, and integrate concepts.

After recognizing these discrepant frameworks, the next challenge lies in bridging the gaps. The process of acquiring and retaining knowledge parallels that of ‘sensemaking.’ Research on sensemaking (Mills, 2003; Schwantdt, 2005) has demonstrated that individuals resist processing information that contradicts their interpretative systems — unless new information allows them to revise or reconstruct those systems. Viewing classroom instruction as an on-going process of building, revising, or re-shaping students’ interpretive systems promises several insights in addressing the cognitive gaps between educators and students. This process is essentially interactive, because learning is seldom — if ever — unidirectional.

There are several key ways for teachers to construct shared cognitive frameworks together with students. At the beginning of a course, it is crucial to understand how students interpret phenomena of interest (or the underlying phenomena of the course).

Exploratory class exercises can provide a preliminary picture. Such “diagnoses” or knowledge-base inventories allow instructors to assess the extent to which the students can accommodate the new subject at hand. The stronger the connection between the course materials and students’ pre-existing framework, the more likely they will be motivated to absorb and integrate new knowledge.

Building this cognitive connection is likewise a creative process for instructors. If the prospect of changing or reconstructing students’ existing interpretive systems becomes necessary, instructors will then need to justify or “legitimize” that revised system.

Many studies on sensemaking in organizational settings have found the effectiveness of such explanations to help make meaning of and clarify organizational changes. In an educational setting, this revision requires illuminating the links between existing and new cognitive frameworks, as well as motivating students to explore the utility of this revised framework in interpreting, understanding, and applying new concepts or theories.

In so doing, students become active learners in constructing and experimenting with their interpretive systems, as opposed to feeling forced to receive the new concept. As a result of this alignment between their cognitive frameworks and new information, students are less likely to resist learning.

During the course of learning, misunderstanding or errors in applying certain concepts may indicate a misalignment between these concepts and interpretive systems. This happens when students use inappropriate cognitive frameworks to make sense of the new concepts requiring a shift in assumptions. Instead of reiterating the new concepts, it may be productive for us as teachers to guide students to recognize this mismatch through a series of questions.

Assuming the role of an investigator, students will then learn how to challenge their own assumptions. Through this process, students have the opportunity to hone their skills in detecting, diagnosing, and resolving problems. A student’s initial resistance can then lead to a collaborative process, in which instructors encourage students to question their customary perceptual lens and strengthen their abilities as active, independent, and critical learners.

At the stage of knowledge retention, the results found in organizational settings could also serve as a useful barometer. Studies show that organizational members are more likely to retain meanings consistent with their existing cognitive frameworks. (Gioia & Mehra, 1996; Kreps, 2009; Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 2005). In an educational setting, by extension, students are likely to preserve their recent learning as memory, intelligence, or knowledge when the connections between their learning and interpretive systems are consistently and systematically made clear to them by the teacher.

Assignments or projects encouraging students to explore and reinforce this linkage between their cognitive frameworks and learning will help reach this goal.

When we as professors question whether we have “tried hard enough” to facilitate students’ learning, it may be helpful to shift our attention to the way students interpret and ultimately internalize a concept or theory. This process-centered approach will reveal why students learn the way they do, and also help tell us what pedagogical changes are necessary for them to view certain concepts differently.

An appropriate question for educators then becomes:  “What lens are our students using to see the world?”


Chia, R. (2000). Discourse analysis as organizational analysis. Organization, 7, 513-518.

Gioia, D. A., & Mehra, A. (1996). Review of sensemaking in organizations. Academy of
Review, 21, 1226-1230.

Kreps, G. L. (2009). Applying Weick’s model of organizing to health care and health promotion: Highlighting the central role of health communication. Patient Education and Counseling,  74, 347-355.

Mills, J. H. (2003). Making sense of organizational change. London: Routledge.

Schwantdt, D. R. (2005). When managers become philosophers: Integrating learning with
sensemaking. Academy of Management Journal, 4, 176-192.

Taylor, J. R., & Robichaud, D. (2004). Finding the organization in the communication: Discourse as action and sensemaking. Organization, 11, 395-413.

Weick, K. E. (2001). Making sense of the organization. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Weick, K. E., Sutcliffe, K. M., & Obstfeld, D. (2005). Organizing and the process of
sensemaking. Organization Science, 16, 409-421.

—  Yi Luo, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies in the College of the Arts at Montclair State University. Her primary research interests are organizational communication and organizational justice; change management and public relations management; and social cognition.

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