Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Become an OU student

Download this course

Share this free course

Extending and developing your thinking skills
Extending and developing your thinking skills

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

7.1 Hierarchies of ideas

A useful way of giving sense and structure to ideas can sometimes be to see them in the form of a hierarchy. At one end is the ‘big picture’ (e.g. general context, principles, theories, ideas, concepts) and at the other end are particular facts, examples and other details. For example, the concept of living things contains the category of animals and plants. Animals contains the category of mammals, which contains the category of dogs, which contains the specific type of dog called Dalmatian. Each thing is connected to the thing before. Looking for patterns, ways to connect things (even if they may sometimes seem apparently unconnected) and contextualising is at the heart of making sense of information and ideas.

General and particular levels of thought often give shape to written communication.

Activity 15

Look at this sample text and see if you can identify and distinguish between general ideas and specific details.

Humans as primates

Humans are primates, a distinctive group of mammals that first appeared more than 60 million years ago and which includes monkeys, apes, lemurs, lorises, and many less familiar species. Most primates live in tropical forests, where they eat leaves, flowers, fruit, soft seeds and small animals such as insects. They have unspecialized teeth and guts and relatively long, flexible limbs that enable them to alternate between several different postures and modes of locomotion, including climbing and leaping. The five toes and finger on each limb are relatively long and flexible, and are tipped with blunt, flat 'fingernails' in place of claws. Primates grip branches and grasp food between the fingers and toes rather than use claws for climbing and manipulating things.

(Open University course, U205)


The central general idea here is that humans are primates. The title of the section and the use of bold type for the word ‘primate’ are clues to this. The text adds further particular detail and facts to tell us more about the characteristics of primates. So, primates are mammals, they include monkeys, apes, lemurs and lorises. We are told about how they move in various ways which include climbing and leaping. We are then given further details and facts about this - that they have long and flexible toes and fingers with blunt fingernails instead of claws.

Ideas in your course work on a similar principle at all levels. There might be overarching course themes, learning outcomes for specific units, blocks or modules, outcomes for chap­ters and so on. Your course will provide helpful clues. These may be in the form of summa­ries (e.g. on and in books), lists of course themes, lists of learning outcomes, assignment questions, in text questions, different sized fonts, use of bold or italic type.