What's The Meaning Of That Idea? Analyzing and Teaching Concepts

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Darryl L. Sink and Associates, Inc. (DSA) helps organizations design and develop learning and performance solutions that get results. DSA works cooperatively with organizations to:

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Say, have you ever been in a meeting and all of a sudden someone says "What are we really talking about? Could you give me an example or more clearly define that idea so we all have a common meaning?" If so, the idea was probably a concept.

One of the more powerful tools an instructional designer or communication specialist can have is a good working knowledge of how to analyze and teach concepts.

This tip will be the first of two on concepts. This first one will define this content type and illustrate how to do concept analysis to come up with the raw material necessary for teaching a concept lesson. The second will discus how to go beyond the scientific way to teach a concept to using creative instructional strategies for teaching concepts.

The science for analyzing and teaching concepts is very well researched and documented. This is primarily because so much of school learning has to do with concepts and therefore much of educational research has concentrated on this content type.

So what are concepts and how do you analyze them to have the raw material needed for teaching them?


Concepts are nouns that represent a specific idea, thing, or event. They may be concrete or abstract. Concrete concepts include things like a car, a dog, a cat, and a computer. If you can usually see and touch it, it is a concrete concept.

Abstract concepts or defined concepts include such ideas as trust, empowerment, loyalty, user requirements, and workplace harassment. Abstract concepts are usually defined by criteria that together make up the concept. These criteria are called critical attributes.


So how do you come up with the attributes of a concept especially a defined abstract one? Here is the basic procedure for performing a concept analysis:

  1. Select a concept
  2. Write a tentative definition of the concept
  3. List critical and variable attributes of the concept
  4. Prepare examples
    • Clear examples
    • Divergent examples
    • Close-in non-examples

An Example

Here is an example of a concept (physical aggression) used with pre-service school teachers to help them assist children with various disorders to be in the main stream with other school children as much as possible. If the teacher observed physical aggression, however, they were to remove the student from the situation to avoid someone getting hurt.

Concept: Physical Aggression

Tentative definition: A behavior of a student directed against another person. The behavior is physical in nature and intentionally unfriendly.

Critical Attributes

All four critical attributes must be present.

  1. It is the behavior of a student.
  2. It is directed against another person.
  3. It must involve physical interaction.
  4. It must be intentionally unfriendly.

Variable attributes

Other characteristics may include:


I hope you will try out this concept analysis procedure, perhaps with some of your colleagues, before the next tip where I will share some ideas for teaching concepts creatively.

See you next time,