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Areas of learning: disciplines, domains, and tasks

In educational psychology, the work of the researcher is highly influenced by the general area of learning that is under investigation. For example, research about mathematical education would likely utilize completely different participants, measures, methods, and even theoretical frameworks than research on musical education. For this reason, the careful definition of the area of learning being studied is of critical importance in the literature, especially when questions of the generality or specifically of knowledge are being asked. Here, I review three ways to define an area of learning— by discipline, domain, or task—and highlight the ways in which those definitions may influence the way strategies and skills are understood in the research literature. While these terms are often used synonymously, I will attempt to show how a muddling of these definitions can result in incorrect inferences about the domain-generality of strategic processes.

Based on the root-word disciple, a discipline is an intellectual lineage or group of people who work in the same area, communicate knowledge to one another, and practice many of the same procedural skills in their work (e.g., Stoecker, 1993). In this way, not only are the forms of procedural knowledge (e.g., strategies and skills) held by a group part-and-parcel of their disciplinary definition, the conceptualization of a discipline as being fundamentally composed of people explains how all those individuals developed the same knowledge and practices in the first place: they learned them from their intellectual mentors or shared them with one another. So, a given individual can have an interdisciplinary background if they were trained in multiple disciplinary communities, or a given team can be interdisciplinary if members of that team are drawn from differing disciplinary communities.

Given this definition, I would contend that a focus within educational research on differing disciplinary practices lends itself most readily to a more socio-cultural theoretical understanding of learning, in which the communities that work together hold procedural knowledge and the teaching of students constitutes a socialization into a disciplinary community. For example, some researchers who use social network models to study scientists (e.g., Bozdogan & Akbilgic, 2013) take a disciplinary focus in that person-to-person collaborative connections define the borders of the disciplines, and those individuals who learned from the same mentor are assumed to have many attributes in common, especially procedural knowledge. In this way, it is possible for a strategy or skill to be discipline-specific not because it is only theoretically useful to a single group of people, but because it has not been communicated effectively or adopted across disciplinary lines for socio-cultural reasons. For example, the procedural strategy of using machine-learning models to understand open-ended textual data is commonly used within the discipline of the information sciences (Fan, Wallace, Rich, & Zhang, 2006), while it is almost never used in educational psychology. This is not because educational psychologists have no need to understand open-ended textbased data sources, but because machine-learning models have not historically been a part of our disciplinary training. As this example implies, a research focus on disciplinary differences or similarities can be difficult in educational psychology because the school-aged students who are often the focus of our research cannot really be described as members of a particular discipline in the way that those further along the path to expertise can be.

In contrast to a discipline, a domain is an area of knowledge that can be studied or taught and therefore developed or constructed through the learning process within an individual (e.g., Greene et al., 2015). So, while a discipline is a unit of intellectual community members, a domain is a unit used to designate the knowledge itself that was created within that discipline, or that is commonly utilized within that discipline, and that individuals operating within that discipline may be likely to hold. What this implies is that, while disciplines and domains are similar enough to potentially have the exact same name (e.g., terms like psychology or mathematics may be simultaneously disciplines or domains), the boundaries of each are based on different criteria. For example, within the discipline of educational psychology—which is defined by our shared intellectual heritage, our communication outlets, and inter-personal collaborations—many of our community members hold and utilize the same declarative and procedural knowledge that supports us as we do our work (i.e., knowledge within the domain of educational psychology). However, many educational psychologists also possess knowledge that is rooted and commonly utilized within a different domain (e.g., statistics). Therefore, we may say that the declarative and procedural knowledge that constitutes the domain of educational psychology overlaps in important ways with other domains of learning. This overlapping knowledge that is useful across multiple domains of learning can be identified as domain-general. If that knowledge that we draw upon is procedural and effortfully evoked, then that knowledge can be defined as strategic, and if a particular strategy is useful for the creation or dissemination of knowledge across multiple domains, it may be described as a domain-general strategy. So, a particular strategy (e.g., using a correlation matrix to understand the relations among variables) may be used to develop or transmit knowledge across a variety of domains (e.g., psychology, sociology, economics), marking it as a domain-general strategy. In this way, it can be seen that experts in a given domain evoke domaingeneral strategies in their day-to-day work.

One other important note concerning the distinction between disciplines and domains is that, when teaching occurs in schools, especially to younger or less expert students, the knowledge being taught is often separated from the disciplinary community in which it arose. Therefore, the development of domain knowledge, rather than disciplinary acculturation, is often more relevant to educational psychology research with school-aged students (e.g., Bong, 2005). For example, a middle-school student learning about photosynthesis cannot be described as truly joining the discipline of botanists, but instead can be described as learning domain-knowledge in botany. So, if a given cognitive procedure (e.g., note-taking) is effective at improving that student’s learning about photosynthesis and is also effective at improving their learning in another domain (e.g., history), then that strategy is effective across domains, and is therefore domain-general. For this reason, that domains of knowledge are often more pertinent to educational psychology research questions than are disciplines of practice, the main focus of most extant research on learning strategies (Alexander, Murphy, Woods, Duhon, & Parker, 1997), as well as the focus of this chapter, is on domains, not disciplines.

Another, more fine-grained way to define an area of learning is through the specific task being accomplished by a student, rather than the discipline being participated in or the domain being learned. For example, an elementary-school student may be studying within the domain of geography, but the specific task on which they are working may be labeling a map of the United States with the names of the states and their capitals. Another task that this same student may work on within the same domain of geography may be identifying and defining different types of landforms (e.g., volcano, mesa, peninsula, etc.). Clearly, there would be some strategies that can be effectively used to improve this students performance on both of these tasks. For example, connecting the new geographic information to their prior knowledge about North America may aid this student in learning related to both tasks, and self-testing may help them evaluate their learning across both tasks. In this way, both of these strategies are clearly generalizable across tasks within the domain of geography. If these strategies were to be helpful in the completion of tasks that arise in a different domain (which they hypothetically would be), they would be domain-general.

In contrast, some well-known strategies are highly specific to a single type of task within a particular domain of learning. For example, the commonly taught First-Outer-Inner-Last (FOIL) strategy for multiplying binomials is a task-specific, and therefore also domain-specific, strategy. Another mnemonic, the Every-Good-Boy-Does-Fine strategy for remembering the notes on a music staff is specific to a single type of task within the domain of music. Such strategies are examples of a more general type (i.e., the mnemonic), but their specific formulation makes them highly taskspecific in their usefulness. Despite the very specific nature of these strategies, they are still commonly taught because they allow even novice students to quickly accomplish core tasks within a particular domain, and the successful automatization of such a strategy (i.e., becoming skillful) allows for more advanced learning in the domain. For example, although the Every-Good-Boy-Does-Fine strategy is a time-consuming and task-specific procedure, it may lead to the development of a skillful ability to read a music staff automatically, which in turn allows for further learning of music theory.

Because a strategy is defined as a form of procedural knowledge effortfully evoked for the accomplishment of a particular goal, I would contend that, in their actual realtime enactment, all strategic instances are necessarily task-specific. Students employ strategies to improve their performance on the task at hand, and therefore the specific procedural knowledge evoked must be effective and useful for a particular task in order to be considered strategic. Then, if that task bears enough similarity to other tasks across the domain of the learning, a particular strategy becomes task-general, but may remain domain-specific. Only if the tasks required across domains have enough structural features in common will a particular strategy be effective across those domains and rise to the level of domain-generality. For example, because both the domains of biology and history feature large amounts of novel information that students are expected to memorize and integrate, the tasks students must accomplish across these two domains of learning within schools are at times highly similar. For this reason, the strategy of outlining is useful when learning across the domains of biology and history, marking it as a domain-general learning strategy.

Going forward, these definitions of discipline, domain, and task will be used to carefully delineate findings related to the generality and specificity of particular cognitive procedures used for learning and problem solving. In the following section, I turn to a further question: what evidence do researchers use to determine whether a particular strategy is domain-general or domain-specific, and how do those methodological differences influence the conclusions drawn about the generality of particular strategies?

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