Functional Information – What do students REALLY need to know?

In a skills-based health ed program a lot of emphasis is placed on making sure that students are able to apply the skills of the National Health Education Standards (and rightly so!) but in order to do that, we also have to think about the context in which our students develop and apply the skill.

Functional information is defined as:

Information that is useable, applicable, and relevant. It is not arbitrary, traditional, or extensive. Functional information is the context in which the skills will be taught and the base for students’ developing functional knowledge. (Benes & Alperin, 2016)

In fact, making sure that students have the most appropriate information is so important that CDC included it in the Characteristics of Effective Health Education. Specifically, CDC states that health education curriculum should include “functional knowledge that is basic, accurate, and directly contributes to health-promoting decisions and behaviors”. Given this the above definition, it seems simple enough to determine functional information – right? I mean, if we teach students what they need to know and how to use that information while applying any of the skills, then it should be a fairly straight forward task of determining what is functional (or essential to know) and what is “nice to know”.

Unfortunately, things get muddled once we start thinking about what students really NEED to know in order to apply a skill in real-world situations. The reality is that the idea of “need to know” is subjective. For example, if you are a person who has been impacted by a sexually transmitted infection, has a severe food allergy, or has a loved one with diabetes you may believe that students need to know how to prevent contracting an infection, how to ensure you (or your loved one) doesn’t go into anaphylaxis, or how to eat healthy and exercise to ward off diabetes. You may be right – and the big question to ask is – What is the specific information to be taught and how will that information help my students to achieve skill proficiency?

Do students need to know all of the signs and symptoms of potential infections? How about the body’s response to anaphylaxis? What about target heart rate and portion sizes? Suddenly, the task becomes more challenging than originally thought…and these are just a few examples.

To bring this conversation into the real world, I have been talking with my undergrad students (who are mostly nutrition majors and health/PE majors) about this concept and how we need to include information as a frame and a context for learning, and at the same time be sure that it is the skill that we are keeping as our primary focus. They struggle. My students have had to work really hard to understand not only what each skill is and what is required of it in order to demonstrate proficiency, but also how to fit in enough (but not too much) information to ensure their students walk away with a good foundation.

Unfortunately, their struggle is a common struggle among educators – we all know far more than we can (or should) pass onto our students. So, what can you do about it? One thing I tell my students pre-service teachers is that there isn’t a perfect combination of information, rather it is the information that is relevant and most likely to help them their students effectively apply the skill that is most relevant that should be included. The information should be data driven and fill any gaps in knowledge that students may have. For example, when teaching students about goal-setting and specifically setting a goal to reduce their sugar intake, knowing about the sugar content in beverages or how sugars can be hidden on food labels may be important to know. Whereas if they are charged with analyzing the internal and external influences on their sugar intake they might not need to how to read a food label but will rather need to consider how their home environment impacts their food choices, how media ads play a role in our behavior, or alternatives when we are in a situation where we are feeling pressured.

I am happy to report, they are getting it. It will take some practice and we have set up a “quick check” for them to consider if the information they want to include is functional – they ask themselves:

  • Is it necessary for my students to learn?
  • Will the student be able to use this information to demonstrate skill application?
  • If I had to teach this topic in a shorter amount of time, would this information make the cut?

How about you? What strategies have you used to determine what functional information you include in your curriculum? Also, in a changing world, how often do you review the information you are teaching to ensure it remains current?

We would love to hear from you – feel free to post below!



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