Archive for October, 2013

Why Don’t They Apply What They Have Learned?

Sunday, October 13th, 2013

In the January 21, 2013 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, James M. Lang gave some insights into the answer to the question, “Why don’t they apply what they’ve learned”?  He referred to How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based principles for Smart Teaching (Ambrose and co-authors) and The Art of Changing the Brain (Zull).  Here is Lang’s article:

For two years I taught in a special program in which the same cohort of students took two consecutive courses with me: freshman composition in the fall and introduction to literature in the spring. In the composition courses, I worked hard to help students move beyond the standard strategies they had learned in high school for writing introductory paragraphs: Start with a broad statement about life (“Since the beginning of time, people have been fighting wars …”) and narrow down to a specific topic.

In both years that I taught the two-course sequence, I was startled to see many students come back from winter break and—on their very first papers in the spring class—revert directly back to those tired strategies that I had worked so hard to help them unlearn in the fall.

One such student came into my office early in the spring semester to show me a draft of her paper, and it included a lame reverse-pyramid (i.e., general to specific) introduction. “You have to rewrite your introduction,” I said to her. “Why aren’t you using any of the introductory paragraph strategies we worked on last semester?”

She looked up at me in genuine puzzlement: “You mean that the stuff we learned last semester applies in this course, too?”


In their excellent book, How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, Susan Ambrose and her co-authors describe the cognitive activity of applying learned material from one course to another and beyond as “far transfer.” They note correctly that it might be the most fundamental expectation we have for our students.

“Far transfer is, arguably,” they point out, “the central goal of education: We want our students to be able to apply what they learn beyond the classroom.”

Many of us state that outright in our courses. I am teaching two writing courses this semester and in both of them I tried to articulate for my students on the syllabus that I would be teaching them writing and thinking skills they could use in the future. “This course will open your eyes to the arguments that swirl around you continuously,” I wrote on the syllabus for my “Argument and Persuasion” course, “and give you the tools you need to understand, analyze, evaluate, and respond effectively to them.”

Students in my creative-nonfiction course got an even more specific version of that message: “Whatever writing you end up doing after you graduate—whether published books or essays, blogs or Facebook updates, advertising copy or notes to friends—I want you to understand what forms and techniques of writing grab the attention of readers, win them to your side, and inspire them to change in some way.”

If you have ever thought or told your students that you are teaching them “critical thinking,” for example, you are banking on the prospect that students will abstract some general cognitive skill from your course and apply it to future courses or even life situations.

But in practice, as How Learning Works makes clear, “far transfer” turns out to be a much more complicated process than many of us might expect, or that I might imply in my blithely hopeful syllabus talk.

“Most research has found,” the authors explain, “that (a) transfer occurs neither often nor automatically, and (b) the more dissimilar the learning and transfer contexts, the less likely successful transfer will occur. In other words, much as we would like them to, students often do not successfully apply relevant skills or knowledge in novel contexts.”

In short, the further we move students away from the very specific context in which they have learned some information or skill, the less transfer we should expect to see.

Students in my introductory literature course may learn to transfer the interpretive skills from the poetry unit to the fiction unit during that semester, but may not apply those same skills to an upper-level literature course they take the following year. And, at least according to this research, the chances of them applying skills they have learned in my literature course to a text they are reading in a history or political-science course are even slimmer.

To illustrate the difficulties of far transfer, Ambrose and her colleagues point to a fascinating study in which subjects read an article about a military maneuver that involved an army dividing up to conquer a fortress. After the participants had demonstrated their understanding of that challenge, they were given a medical problem which required a similar solution: attacking a tumor with laser treatments from multiple angles.

“Despite having just encountered the military solution,” they write, “the large majority of students did not apply what they had learned [from the military maneuver] to the medical problem.”

Ambrose and her co-authors point to two reasons for the failure-to-transfer that all of us see sometimes in our students. First, they might tie whatever knowledge or skill we are teaching too closely to the context in which they learned it. Thus, students can write innovative opening paragraphs in my freshman-composition course, but in their other classes they continue to rely on the same strategies they learned in high school.

Second, the inability to transfer a skill or information to a novel context might indicate shallow levels of learning. If students are capable of solving problems, writing essays, or answering questions according to some formula they have learned, they might not have grasped the underlying principles of our course content. Without that deeper knowledge of what lies beneath the formula, they can’t pick up what they are learning and put it back down in an unrelated context.

To dig a little more deeply into the problem, consider the work of James Zull, the author of The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning. A biologist by training, Zull has devoted much of the latter part of his career to exploring the physical structures of the brain in order to better understand how teachers can facilitate learning.

Zull acknowledges our profession’s shared belief “that if we teach someone the rules for a particular kind of reasoning, they will apply those rules in a general way to everything else.” However, he also points out that “this does not seem to be the way the brain works.”

Cognitive skills of any kind depend on the growth and modification of neuronal networks in our brain, as Zull explains in his book. But because these are networks, they only grow and expand by connecting with other nearby networks. In other words, knowledge and skills obtained within the context of one network—say, my English- literature course—will not immediately float up into some brainy ether and plop down wholesale into unrelated networks.

“Neuronal networks grow by building on existing networks,” Zull writes, “so our entree to reasoning in one subject comes through the neuronal networks for the information in that subject. Often we don’t have the networks that connect one subject with another. They have been built up separately, especially if we have studied in the standard curriculum that breaks knowledge into parts like math, language, science, and social science.”

At this point you should be ready to raise an objection or two, since you are no doubt able to recount examples of students in your courses who have ably transferred content or skills learned in one course to another. I had a student last semester in an introductory literature course who gave a final presentation in which she drew on quotations from the Aristotle text she was reading in her philosophy course and applied them to the novel we had read.

And you could likely point to yourself as an example of a human being who has mastered the art of transfer. Most faculty members are capable of impressive feats of transfer when they are preparing for their courses or conducting research, pulling in examples, analogies, and ideas from a wide range of materials they have read or encountered and applying them to whatever novel context is at hand—a new course, lecture, article, or book chapter.

All hope is not lost, then, in spite of the considerable hurdles we face in helping students learn to transfer our course material from one unit to the next, or from one semester to the next, or from their education to their professional lives. We can help students develop that skill—or, perhaps more accurately, that habit of mind—with some deliberate thinking and activity at the level of the specific course, the larger curriculum, and the institution as a whole.

Have you Flipped? Do you want to?

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

Is the “flipped classroom” for you?  Are you already “flipping”?  There has been an enormous amount of discussion about this information delivery and classroom teaching method.  Check out the September 30, 2013 Chronicle article (below) entitled “Inside the Flipped Classroom,” and decide if you have already flipped or if you are thinking about flipping. 


Sara Infante listens intently and scribbles notes as her chemistry professor describes how to identify the masses and atomic numbers of two isotopes of carbon. When it’s time to fill in a table showing that she understands the lecture so far, she clicks her mouse, and the lecture, which is being delivered online, freezes on the computer screen.


The questions that Ms. Infante and her classmates at Southwestern University ask their professor, Maha Zewail-Foote, will help shape the next day’s session in the classroom. There, moving on to more-complex topics, she’ll help them tackle the kinds of problems that used to be given as homework.

It’s Ms. Infante’s first experience with the flipped classroom, where traditional classwork is done at home and homework is done in class.


“I like this because when you’re listening to the lecture at home and you don’t get something, you can rewind and replay it as many times as you need to,” says Ms. Infante, 19, a sophomore majoring in animal behavior who hopes to become a marine-mammal trainer.


“And when you’re working through problems,” she adds, “you aren’t sitting in your room pulling your hair out because you didn’t retain the information from the lecture.”


The video for the semester’s first flipped class, with its accompanying tables and diagrams, lasted just under 10 minutes. They’re usually five to seven minutes, which Ms. Zewail-Foote describes as the attention span of most students. But in her opinion, a well-crafted, concise, 10-minute video that students can pause and replay as many times as they want packs more teaching in than a 20-minute lecture.

The course Web site include outlines that students fill in while they’re listening to her recorded lessons, each of which ends with a short quiz.


“Between the lecture outline and video, they should come to class ready,” Ms. Zewail-Foote says. “They understand how to calculate average atomic mass, so we can jump right in.”


At colleges nationwide, more and more professors are inverting homework and classwork this way, using technology to give students a head start on classroom sessions where they can be active participants and not just listeners.


The flipped classroom is not for everyone. Many students feel lost without a traditional lecture to get them started, and some instructors are reluctant to give up the podium for a role on the sidelines, says Carol A. Twigg, president of the National Center for Academic Transformation.

Since 1999 the center has helped redesign about 300 courses on 159 campuses, often in a flipped format, using technology to cut costs and improve learning. (Southwestern did not work with the center on the revamped chemistry course, but it did consult with other proponents of the technique, as part of a project, supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, aimed at making Southwestern’s science curriculum more hands-on.)


Many of the national center’s course redesigns have been in remedial math, financed by $2.2-million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The center has also helped flip courses in subjects as diverse as Spanish, psychology, nutrition, and anatomy.


“The traditional classroom typically consists of a lecture of some kind where students are listening or watching the professor,” Ms. Twigg says. “Then they do the hard work, solving problems, on their own. The notion is, flip that experience so the professor can help students when they need the help.”

Switching from the role of “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side” requires a professional and cultural shift that many faculty members resist, she says. “It’s easier to stand up and give the same lecture you’ve been giving for 20 years than it is to rethink your course, come up with new activities, and really engage your students.”


The problem-solving and personalized interaction that take place face-to-face sets these classes apart from massive open online courses, or MOOCs, which too often consist mainly of recorded talks, she says, explaining that flipping the classroom requires more than simply moving lectures online.

Teaching to the masses is tempting, but it’s not the same as offering a flipped course, she says. “Let’s say I am the most brilliant lecturer of intelligent design, and now I’ll have an audience of 200,000 instead of 200.


“The problem is, the success rates are awful,” she adds, in a not-so-subtle jab at Sebastian Thrun, the former Stanford University professor who co-founded the MOOC platform Udacity last year, after his online “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course attracted more than 160,000 students worldwide. About 23,000 of those students completed the course.


While MOOCs can be effective at delivering content, flipped classrooms make students active participants in their education, says Southwestern’s new president, Edward B. Burger. The former mathematics professor at Williams College has created more than 3,000 instructional CD-ROMS and videos in math that are used in classrooms from kindergarten through college. Instead of having students struggle to figure out problems in their dorm rooms at 2 a.m., he says, “I want to be there when students hit those roadblocks.”


Although he didn’t call it a flipped classroom at the time, Mr. Burger cultivated the technique of “inverting the roles of homework and classwork,” an approach that contributed to his winning a national teaching award in 2010.


Back in the common room of her dormitory suite at Southwestern, Ms. Infante has finished listening to the online lecture and asks her roommate, who’s curled up in an armchair across the room, for a scientific calculator so she can take the quiz.


Her roommate’s own chemistry professor, Emily Niemeyer, offers the format once a week, on what she calls “flipped Fridays.”


Ms. Infante aces the quiz and doesn’t have any questions for her professor. Other students were stumped by a few questions, Ms. Zewail-Foote notes the following morning as she prepares for class. One student asked: “Will there ever be a time when an atom is not neutral and the number of protons and electrons don’t balance each other out?”


The explanation would normally come up in Chapter 4, but Ms. Zewail-Foote decides to work the answer into today’s classroom problem-solving session. Reviewing the quiz results, she can tell that students generally understand the material, so she is comfortable accelerating the pace a bit.


There’s little danger that students are going to nod off in her class, because she peppers it with questions that they must answer using their hand-held clickers. If 29 students have clicked their answers, she pauses before moving on until all 30 have weighed in.


Shortly after the class begins, students cluster their desks into groups of three or four to work on problems as she walks around, occasionally crouching next to those who seem stuck.


When the semester’s first flipped-classroom session is over, at least one student isn’t yet sold. “I’m going to fail this class,” says Alex Petrucci, a 20-year-old sophomore. The pre-class video didn’t adequately prepare her for the problems she was asked to solve in class, she complains, and even with a cluster of classmates to confer with, she felt lost.


That kind of reaction isn’t uncommon when classes are flipped.


An aeronautics-engineering professor at Mississippi State University who taught a course in statics, in a flipped format, encountered similar resistance from some students who couldn’t get used to online lectures.


Masoud Rais-Rohani, who worked with the National Center for Academic Transformation to revamp the statics course, says having students watch videos, take quizzes, and reflect on what they learned before each class session made it possible to spend class time doing hands-on projects that the course had never before had room for, like working with physical models of bridges and calculating the loads they can carry.


Nevertheless, the flipped format was put on hold for the statics course this year, after tests revealed that learning outcomes were about the same in the flipped classes, which cost the same, or slightly more, because of the extra tutors and teaching assistants required. In addition, students were grumbling.


“Some complained that the instructors were good, but they were wasted if they weren’t standing in front of the class lecturing,” says Pasquale Cinnella, head of the aerospace-engineering department.


If engineering enrollment continues to increase, and the classes become more cost-effective, Mr. Cinnella says, he may reinstate the flipped format.


Eventually, Mr. Rais-Rohani hopes to win over skeptics like the student who responded to his survey by saying: “If I am paying for a class and a professor to teach me, then I do not want to teach myself for homework and have homework for class.”


In time, the professor hopes, more students will come around to agreeing with the student who found that the flipped format forced him to improve his study skills and take a more active role in his learning. “Now,” that student wrote, “I’m responsible for my grade.”

Teaching Resource for All

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

I am a big fan of Maryellen Weimer’s work.  Check out her 2010 book, Inspired College Teaching: A Career-Long Resource for Professional Growth (Jossey-Bass).  There’s something for everyone who believes that excellent teaching enhances student learning.