Knowledge and Understanding in Sports Research Paper

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Investigating Student Understanding:

Year 3 Students’ Understanding of the Step-Over Skill in a Football (Soccer) Focused PE Lesson in an International School



Within the PE curriculum, basic skills to practice in a variety of sports (passing, throwing, catching, stepping and so on) are often isolated from context and actual performance in a game (Pill, 2013). Because knowledge of a skill and understanding of a skill are two different things (Perkins, 1993), it is important for a PE instructor to be able to measure how effectively knowledge via instruction is translated into understanding demonstrated in practice. The assumption, for example, is that a chest pass or bounce pass in basketball is only effective knowledge if it can be demonstrated appropriately in a game. For this particular study, the sport of football (soccer) is used to study one skill in particular (the step-over) and the extent to which the gap between knowledge and understanding is bridged. The way in which is this is achieved is by looking at how often students use the skill in a match and whether or not the students understand the benefits of one skill over another in certain situations.

For the purposes of this study, it was important to define terms. Knowledge was thus defined as being able to perform a skill in isolation after being taught it by way of demonstration. Understanding was defined as knowing when and why to use the skill in a match and being able to use it effectively. Knowledge is something one acquires in the classroom; understanding is something one acquires in the field. Knowledge is “information on tap” (Perkins, 1993, p. 40). Understanding involves both identifying problems and solving them effectively (Perkins, 2010).

The main aim of this project was to analyze the difference between knowledge and understanding in sport. The skill used to examine this difference was the step-over skill in football. The skill was taught by the researcher serving as the students’ PE instructor.


Learning can be represented through the acquisition of knowledge of facts and data. Understanding must necessarily go deeper than the knowledge of facts and data. It must penetrate into the realm of applicability—how certain information can be applied in the real world. By studying learners’ understanding of how and when to perform a specific football skill, this study attempts to test the theory of Pill (2013) that non-linear learning in sports via a constraints-led process is most effective in students’ acquisition of understanding. Rather than controlling the constraints, however, authenticity is achieved by allowing students to demonstrate understanding in real game play. This study has relevance for all PE instructors as it can show where knowledge and understanding may diverge in real play and provide more opportunities for developing pedagogy.

Research Question

In a year 3 PE football lessons, do students understand why they are learning a skill and how to apply the skill in a match?

What This Paper Covers

This study focuses on teaching a football skill which year 3 students can perform. In the following section a literature review is conducted, with a discussion of the methodology employed in this study provided after that. A description of the findings of the study follows along with a discussion. The overall point this study aims to cover is whether by using game play as an opportunity to evaluate knowledge and understanding, the researcher can assess where students are able to perform a basic skill.

Literature Review

The most relevant model of understanding for this investigation was Perkins’ (1993) performance view model of understanding. In PE it is quite easy to assess a student’s knowledge and skill level by using timing tools and measures and by testing accuracy, all of which are afforded by quantitative data collection instruments, such as a simple tally sheet on which data can be recorded by way of direct observation. However, it can be difficult to assess a student’s understanding because of the highly subjective nature of this quality and how it is demonstrated based on awareness of context and when and under what circumstances a skill should be implemented.

The relationship between understanding and knowledge is closely linked but still each concept is quite distinct. Nedha (2015) regards knowledge as information achieved through experiences or education. In other words, knowledge typically consists of information such as non-debatable facts that can be empirically verified.

Understanding has a much subtler definition: it refers to knowing or realizing the intended meaning or cause of something (Nedha, 2015).

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Through understanding one is able to think more deeply about why something is happening. In football, knowledge would be recognizing a skill and being able to perform it, whereas understanding would be being able to use that skill effectively and at the right time in a match.

As Burrows, Macdonald and Wright (2013) note, “rather than follow a predetermined linear trajectory, young people are now called on to balance their multiple involvements in study, employment, relationships and leisure; they are active in constructing their own lives” (p. 1). In other words, learners have to do more than demonstrate knowledge which is comparable to mere memorization; they must be able to demonstrate understanding. Measuring understanding requires evaluating “performance over time” (Carling, Reilly & Williams, 2009, p. 25). It is expected, however, that with time performance should improve—therefore where a student ends at the end of an agreed upon time will likely be different from where the student began. This is why taking a baseline measure is important and why median scores are less important. The big indicator of understanding is the distance between the baseline and the score at the end of the time span.

Cushion, Harvey, Muir and Nelson (2012) show that it is important to measure coaching techniques to ensure validity and reliability when measuring student performance. This allows for a fuller sense of the manner in which knowledge was presented. Quantitative measures are best (Fallowfield, 2004), but qualitative measures can also be used to assess subjective understanding (Gratton & Jones, 2003; Gratton & Jones, 2004). For quantitative measurements, Hughes and Franks (2004) recommend notational analysis, while Pill (2013) advocates taking note of students’ understanding using contextual measures which require a qualitative approach.

To assess understanding, one must be able to see whether the learner is able to find problems to solve not just solve problems that are already identified (Perkins, 2010). Students must be able to apply the knowledge they learn from instruction and apply it appropriately in the field—and this is easily seen through sports instruction. In sports, a learner is instructed on how to perform a skill and when it should be applied. Not all skills are appropriate for every situation—so a degree of understanding is required of the learner. The learner has to assess a situation as it appears organically and quickly identify any obstacles; if the skill the learner is applicable to overcoming a particular obstacle, then the student’s understanding will predicate performance of the skill at the right time and in the right way.

When it comes to cognitive development, learners learn more deeply through active participation (Wegerif & Kauffman, 2015), and sports provide exactly such a venue. And when it comes to teaching for understanding, instruction must give way to exploration and application in order for understanding to develop (Wiske, 1998). For this reason, sport makes a perfect way for learners to demonstrate differences in knowledge and understanding so long as the tasks are not too dependent on athletic talent alone (Perkins, 2010).

Research Design

The Approach and How it Relates to the Research Question


The research technique that was used was participant observation. This was accomplished by coupling qualitative data collection with quantitative data collection. The former was accomplished by filming the sport sessions and then showing the students what they had done during the sessions and giving feedback on it. There was also an element of classroom discussion between the teacher and the students to see if the students had grasped the objectives and understood the basics of the skill. For quantitative data collection, the researcher took field notes during the classes to see which students were understanding the concepts and which were not. These notes were taken in the form of a tally sheet.

Data Collection

Data was collected over the course of 3 weeks during the students’ weekly PE instruction. Each weekly PE instruction lasted 45 minutes. The first lesson was used to collect initial baseline data: the students played small matches and the researcher used a tally chart to record how many times the selected skill was used.

The second lesson was used to learn and practice the skill. The PE instructor demonstrated how the skill can be used effectively and in what situations in the game it would be most appropriate.

The third lesson was used to compare….....

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Burrows, L., Macdonald, D. and Wright, J., 2013. Critical Inquiry and Problem Solving in Physical Education. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.

Carling, C., T. Reilly, and A. Williams., 2009. Performance assessment for field sports. London: Routledge.

Cushion, C., S. Harvey, B. Muir and L. Nelson, 2012. Developing the Coaching Analysis and Intervention System (CAIS):establishing validity and reliability of a computerised systematic observation instrument. Journal of sports science, 30: 201-16.

Fallowfield, J., 2005. Statistics in sport and exercise science. Chichester: Lotus Publishing.

Gratton, C. and I. Jones, 2004. Research methods for sport methods. Abingdon, Oxon; Routledge.

Gratton, C. and I. Jones, 2003. Research methods for sport studies. New York; Routledge.

Hughes, M. and M. Franks, 2004. Notational analysis of sport: systems for better coaching and performance in sport. 2nd ed. Abingdon, Oxon; Routledge.

Nedha, 2015. Difference between knowledge and understanding. Retrieved from

Perkins, D., 1993. Teaching for understanding, American Educator: The Professional Journal of the American Federation of Teachers; v17 n3, pp. 8, 28-35, Fall 1993.

Perkins, D., 2010. Making learning whole: How seven principles of teaching can transform education. Josey-Bass: New York.

Pill, S., 2013. Teaching Australian football in physical education: Constraints theory in practice. Strategies, 26(1), 39-44.

Wegerif, R., L. Li and J. Kauffman, 2015. The Routledge international handbook of research on teaching thinking. 1st ed. Routledge: New York

Wiske, M.S., 1998. Teaching for understanding guide: linking research with practice, San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass

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