Academic Exchange Quarterly  Spring  2012  ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 16, Issue 1

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Mind the Gap:  Creating Mental Representations


Elizabeth Watson, Rider University, Lawrenceville NJ


Elizabeth Watson, EdD, is an Associate Professor and Program Director of Rider University’s MA in Organizational Leadership.



We know that student learning is strongly influenced by what they already know, however, some graduate students begin their studies of organizational leadership without knowledge or experience related to organizations or leadership.  In order to close this gap for these pre-novices, a Guided Field Experience has been developed and implemented.  Presumed to be a need for a new concept or mental representation, discussion of what is meant by creating mental models, generating abstractions or generalizations is provided, followed by a description of the curriculum change.


The story and the paradox

A young woman, let's call her Jane, came directly into graduate organizational leadership studies, without work experience.  She commented to me (her professor and Program Director), “I read the text and do the case studies, but I’ve never seen these things, so I don’t know what I’m really learning.”  The information in her courses in leadership, strategic planning, motivation and organizational culture and change has descriptive power, but doesn’t achieve relevance for her.  She can grasp the description of what goes on for leaders in organizations, and can excel in her academics, but quite in contrast to the more mature adult student, she has no prior experience to be explained.  She has a notion that she wants to work in organizations, and to lead, but she is not yet even a novice.  She is in a pre-novice phase.


“What students learn is a function of what they already know” (Holland, Holyoak, Nisbett, & Thagard, 1986, p. 228).  If they know at least something, they can learn on top of that or change their mind.  If they have no background or context, there is no framework to which the learning can adhere.  It appears that they need to formulate a mental representation or personal concept of organizations.


Recognizing the paradox of Jane’s learning situation led to designing a curriculum solution for students in her shoes.  It was implemented in the 2009/2010 academic year. The Rider University MA in Organizational Leadership now requires a Guided Field Experience (GFE), which is a structured, 120 hour work experience with a requirement for a reflective journal, consideration of selected characteristics of an organization, and evaluation by a faculty mentor.  Students take it in their second semester of study. Like butterflies still in their cocoon, pre-novices aren’t quasi-practitioners, prepared to venture forth semi-independently in apprenticeship or internship.  In this preliminary stage, they are not ready to try out their wings.  Instead, they are ready to close the gap between having no concept and having an emergent, new concept of organizations.


It is important to consider educational options for young adult students who come to us as a next step after college.  While it could be appealing to require several years of work experience as an admissions requirement, we believe we have created a structure such that they gain knowledge, experience and insights that will make their formal studies much more relevant to them. Our pressing question for setting budding organizational leaders on a productive track was, how can we stimulate their development of a personal concept of organizations?  Educationally, how can we create authentic experience to fill the gap between life as a fulltime undergraduate student and life as a workforce organizational member, so that graduate education fulfills its potential as a site for developing practitioners?


The rationale for designing an experiential component for organizational pre-novices such as Jane is outlined briefly below.  After review of ideas relevant to the formation of concepts, a description of the Guided Field Experience requirements is offered.


Concepts as mental representations

Designing a curriculum solution for the inexperienced Janes in our setting involves the loop between the concrete and abstract, and from experience or examples to domain knowledge.  As Brown, Collins and Duguid (1989) point out, there is a fundamental difference between what students and practitioners are expected to do.  Students learn already established concepts, while practitioners engage with ill-defined problems and negotiate meaning.  Students in formal courses learn concepts.  Practitioners use them.   Jane doesn't really have domain knowledge yet, and while she could study various theories of leadership, they are a cold abstraction, un-enlivened.  When abstractions are simply given, or learned by rote rather than active learning, "The distinction and relation between the rule and the instance is not understood by the individual" (Maclellan, 2005, p. 134), not because of inability, but because it takes intention to develop a "mindful abstraction" (p. 134).  In other words, experience doesn't transform into a new representation without conscious effort and self-monitoring.  Concepts alone don’t bring practitioner insight and experience alone doesn’t lead to concept formation. 


In Marzano and Kendall’s (2007) New Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, concepts are considered generalizations.  They are a type of information – that which organizes ideas.  They are bigger than details such as facts or vocabulary.  They are a classification that captures information.  Having such classifications is highly useful, as they are "a means for the learner to impose order and meaning on the world" (Tessmer, Wilson, & Driscoll, 1990, p. 45). We want Jane to create some classifications.  As an example, she could identify characteristics of different employees’ desks, classifying one as chaotic, and one as militaristically neat.  The idea the classification captures might be that people create different physical work environments around themselves.


Developing a concept is similar to generalizing, which is accomplished by taking what we already know and inferring something new.  It also involves induction, moving from the specific to the general.  Generalizing is, "the process of constructing new generalizations from information that is already known or observed" (Marzano & Kendall, 2007, p. 48).  Generalization is the outcome, while inference and induction are the processes.  Inference works by starting with one statement and making a connection to another.  For example, Jane might engage in predictive inference after looking through a new employee handbook and reasoning, if the organization outlines a maternity/paternity leave in its employee handbook, then the organization will give a new parent time off after the birth of a child.


Generalizing is a form of abstracting, constructing a general notion that covers several instances.  Maclellan (2005) regards this involvement in constructing meaning as "high-road learning" (p. 132), requiring high cognitive functions and reference to conceptual learning.  In Marzano and Kendall’s taxonomy (2007), generalizing, occurs as a "reasoned extension of knowledge" (p. 44) and is considered to be analysis, a higher-order cognitive system.  Far from being purely a retrieval process, the individual uses cognitive processes to shape knowledge into new formations.


Jane lacks knowledge that has representational power (Thagard, 2005). Formed into a schema during her GFE, her personal concept of organizations, based on her structured experience can be a useful mental model to which she can refer in her courses.  It can potentially be a hindrance, and provide inaccurate clues when she tries to apply her schema to understanding a very different organization or leadership style.  For example, if she does her Guided Field Experience in a university admissions department, her mental representation may not be much help in grasping what occurs in a pharmaceutical research laboratory.  "To someone whose only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" (Thagard, 2005, p. 65).  As her graduate studies progress, she will be exposed to an array of challenges to her personal mental model, and she may discover it shifting or dividing.  Indeed, because of the paradox that students learn on the basis of what they already know, the pre-novice representation of organizations will be a prototype, built for alterations.


Concepts are mental models, abstractions and generalizations.  Having them enables us to organize ideas, generate meanings and reason about relationships.  They are a short cut, letting us draw up a sense-making representation from memory.  They can be acquired as rather dry descriptions, or self-generated by engaging in active high-road learning.  Having a personal concept appears to be useful for pre-novices who are embarking on the road to being an organizational practitioner. 


Curriculum Solution

Students find their own 120 hour Guided Field Experience and negotiate its suitability with their faculty mentor.  It, as well as all other courses operate within the context of the school’s conceptual framework:  Professionalism, Commitment, Knowledge, Reflection and Fostering.  There is also a strong emphasis on discovery and inquiry.  GFE’s have ranged from doing projects with non-profits whose mission is children’s health, and community-based disability services, to township recreation programs and university administration special projects. 


Each student recruits an internal mentor, who agrees to supervise and evaluate the student’s performance.


In their first semester, students take Introduction to Organizational Leadership and Organizational Communication, so their formal knowledge base includes leadership theory, including style and approach, structure of organizations and patterns of communication.  The GFE occurs in the second semester.


There are two major written components students fulfill to satisfy the course requirements.  The first is a paper that describes the project as a discrete effort, with the expectation that students take a reflective stance and consider facts and impressions.  Background of the organization is included, with summaries of history, organization chart, mission, financial size and staffing.  Actual responsibilities carried out by the student are discussed.  There is a section on success or failure of the project, with a discussion of what indicators reveal degree of success or failure.  Finally, for the paper, students write about their learning experience.


The second major written effort is a leadership log, which collects and reflects on artifacts of organizational culture (Schein, 2004).  Twelve entries are required, and are collected a third of the way through, two-thirds of the way and at the end.  There are three areas students write about:  Physical Environment, Personnel Interaction and Organizational Systems.   Physical environment includes evidence of facility maintenance, accessibility, use of technology and visibility of safety equipment.  Personnel interaction includes stated procedures for employee evaluation, published organization chart, stories of supervision styles, conflict handling and relationship of physical environment to human interaction though placement of offices.  Organizational systems include formal policies and handbooks, prevalence of training, use of website for internal information or communication purposes, focus on quality assurance and risk management.


How is it working?

The GFE requirement replaced the original program design, which called for an internship after all courses were taken.  The program itself began in the 2006/07 academic year.  By the end of the 07/08 year, it was evident that there was a distinct gap for the wholly inexperienced that made their courses an academic exercise, important for knowledge acquisition, but not necessarily meaningful in terms of providing useful insight for future practice.  Following approval of redesign, internships were eliminated and replaced by GFEs for the 09/10 year.  Between a quarter and a third of incoming students are required to complete a Guided Field Experience, which adds 3 credit hours to their degree.  The need for it is assessed at the time of admission.  Students who do not have one full year of fulltime employment prior to starting courses must do the GFE.  Some students offer resistance, arguing that their time as a campus tour guide for prospective students, for example, was the same as taking on the demands and rewards of a fulltime position.


Two faculty serve as mentors, each of whom enjoy the role of encouraging and challenging students in the pre-novice stage of work and growth.  They hold the students to deadlines, critique written assignments and close the loop with students’ organizational supervisors.  Without their commitment to student growth, the experience would have much less meaning, because part of the faculty role is to guide interpretation of the experience.


It is early days in this curriculum change, so we have not been able to assess its impact, yet.  What we do know is that finding a location to perform their field experience can stretch the resourcefulness of the student to its outer extremes.  Faculty usually have a solution in their back pocket, but encourage students to seek out and negotiate access on their own.  Some students have found it difficult to carry out their projects, while others embrace the effort.  Some have reported it to be highly meaningful, providing a window into organizational life.  Others regard it as just another item on their checklist of program requirements.  They have to manage their time, squeeze all their hours into a semester, report to a supervisor, write about their experience and meet with their mentor.


One student commented on her GFE, “It was a great overview for the courses that I took and helped me learn how to put the theories into action.”  She also noted that she “observed excellent communication skills and also not so good communication skills that are practiced in business.”  Evidently she used her first-hand experience and embraced the GFE’s investigative approach to collect and consider examples of good and bad communication skills. She also seems to have seen how she can relate theory to practice. 


The Guided Field Experience is an experiential, independent study effort that is designed to incorporate what we know about the development of mental representations of complex ideas.  We want students to construct their own mental models, so that they can make meaning of the concepts they learn in their formal courses.  Instead of dry, distant and un-inflated, they can breathe life into their understanding of concepts, revealing their full richness, closing the gap.



Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32-42.

Holland, J. H., Holyoak, K. J., Nisbett, R. E., & Thagard, P. R. (1986). Induction:  Processes of inference, learning and discovery. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press.

Maclellan, E. (2005). Conceptual learning:  The priority for higher education. British Journal of Educational Studies, 53(2), 129-147.

Marzano, R. J., & Kendall, J. S. (2007). The new taxonomy of educational objectives (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks CA: Corwin Press.

Schein, E. H. (2004). Organizational culture and leadership (3rd ed.). San Francisco CA: Jossey-Bass.

Tessmer, M., Wilson, B., & Driscoll, M. (1990). A new model of concept learning and teaching. Educational Technology, Research and Development, 38(1), 45-53.

Thagard, P. (2005). Mind (2nd ed.). Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Watson, E. (2009). What students learn is dependent on what they already know:  Stimulating and guiding the development of mental models. Paper presented at the International Society for Exploring Teaching and Learning, Philadelphia, PA.