Concept Attainment (Fall 2017)

If you cannot access this YouTube video, view PART 1 and PART 2 here on YouKu.

Learning Outcomes:

By the end of this module, you should be able to:

  • Define the term “concept” in your own words
  • Explain the difference between critical and non-critical attributes, and the role they play in concept learning
  • Identify two common types of errors in concept learning
  • Create a concept attainment lesson plan

Table of Contents:

A. What is a concept?

B. Attributes

C. Concept Attainment Overview

D. The Concept Attainment Lesson Plan Format

A. What is a concept?

The term “concept” is frequently misunderstood and misused in educational contexts. In order to most effectively teach concepts, therefore, we must first know what a concept is.

In order to learn concepts, we must first be able to make discriminations – that is, perceive how things are the same, and how they are different. Our mental processes strive for efficiency. Instead of treating every stimuli (sound, word, picture, face, idea, etc.) as a separate “perceptible thing”, which would probably overload our mental processing circuits, our brains use our discrimination skills to generalize. Generalization is the process of categorizing or grouping stimuli according to the similarities and differences of other “perceptible things” we previously have experienced or encountered.

Merrill & Tennyson define a concept as “a set of specific objects, symbols or events which are grouped together on the basis of shared characteristics and which can be referenced by a particular name or symbol” (1977).

Concepts can either be concrete – that is, discernable by their physical or sensory characteristics (for example, “red”, “pen”, “solid”) or abstract (sometimes called defined), which cannot be perceived through the five senses and therefore can only be categorized because of their definition (for example, “profit margin”, “photosynthesis”). Some concepts may be either concrete or abstract, depending on the complexity and the sophistication of the definition.

B. Attributes

Attributes are the set of particular characteristics of that, when grouped together, form a concept. Critical attributes are attributes that must be present for the concept to be formed, while non-critical attributes are attributes that may be present but are not required.

For example, at a rudimentary level the critical attributes of the concept “felis catus” (domestic cat) could include four legs, tail, two eyes, and hair or fur covering the body. Non-critical attributes – that is, attributes that may be typical but there are exceptions – may include visible fur, whiskers, and between eight and ten pounds in weight.

Over-generalization and Under-generalization

Particularly at the novice level, two general types of errors are common in concept learning – over-generalization and under-generalization.

Over-generalization is when a learner applies too few critical attributes and generalizes a concept more broadly than is correct. For example, a young child may label every four-legged animal with visible fur, two eyes, four legs and a long tail to be a “cat”, even if it is a dog or cow. More attributes are required for the learner to be able to correctly distinguish the concept “cat” from “cow” or “dog”.

Can you think of another example of over-generalization?


Under-generalization is the misapplication of too many or too specific attributes, or misattributing non-critical attributes as critical. For example, an overgeneralization would be to say that all domestic cats have a long tail and visible fur. In most cases domestic cats have visible fur and a long tail, but there are notable exceptions. The Manx is a breed of domestic cat that only has a short stub of a tail, and the Sphynx is a breed that has very fine hairs covering its skin though appears to be hairless.

Can you think of another example of under-generalization?


C. Concept Attainment Overview

Concept Attainment is a highly effective structured process of inquiry learning, which was developed by psychologist Jerome Bruner in 1977. It is not only an excellent strategy for learning concepts, students often find it highly engaging because it is similar to a guessing game.

The concept being taught is not initially communicated to the learners. The learners must use higher level and critical thinking skills to identify the concept by using examples and non-examples (something that is not an example of the concept) to figure out the common attributes and categorize them accordingly. Non-examples are also sometimes called negative examples.

In a Concept Attainment lesson, the Instructor presents both examples (“YES”) and non-examples (“NO”) of the concept in the form of pictures, physical objects, audio or video clips, passages of text, flash cards, or words. Learners must guess whether each is a “YES” (example) or a “NO” (non-example), based on the attributes of each. Learners then form tentative hypotheses about what the concept being taught is, and test each hypothesis using more examples and non-examples. In other words, the learners must identify the critical attributes of the concept in order to distinguish the “YES’s” (examples) from the “NO’s” (non-examples).

When using Concept Attainment as a teaching strategy, do not unintentionally cause your learners to over-generalize or under-generalize. Have a wide variety of both common and uncommon examples and non-examples available. For example, a “domestic cat” Concept Attainment lesson should include “YES” examples of many different breeds – including the Manx and Sphynx – in addition to non-examples such as dog, cow, lion, and tiger.

D. The Concept Attainment Lesson Plan Format

  1. Choose the concept.
  • Do not tell the learners what the concept is!
  1. Identify YES’s and NO’s.
  • Make a list of, or gather, at least ten “YES’s” (examples) and at least ten “NO’s” (non-examples). (More is always better!)
  1. “This is a YES” / “This is a NO”.
  • Present the first example to the learners and tell them “This is a YES”. Write the name of the example on the whiteboard under the word YES, and/or place the object / item on the “YES” side of a table.
  • Present the first non-example to the learners and tell them “This is a NO”. Write the name of the example on the whiteboard under the word NO, and/or place the object / item on the “NO” side of a table.
  • Repeat until there are three “YES’s” and three “NO’s”.
  1. Ask What The YES’s Have In Common
  • Ask the class to look at the YES’s and discuss what common attributes they all share.
  1. “Is This A YES or NO?”
  • Present a YES (example) to the learners and ask them to decide whether it is a YES or NO, and why.
  • Present a NO (non-example) to the learners and ask them to decide whether it is a YES or NO, and why.
  • Repeat until there is a total of six “YES’s” and six “NO’s”.
  1. Learners Create and Test Hypotheses
  • Learners create several hypotheses (guesses) about what the concept is.
  • Present YES’s and NO’s for learners to test whether each hypothesis is correct.
  • Continue until the correct concept has been identified. 
  1. Learners Identify Concept and Attributes.
  • Ask students to identify or name the concept and its attributes. 
  1. Ask Learners To List Examples
  • Ask students to list or create their own YES’s (examples) of the concept.
  1. Reflect On The Process
  • Discuss the process of formulating and rejecting hypotheses with the learners.
  • Encourage learners to reflect on their thinking processes (meta-cognition)

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