Why Don’t They Apply What They Have Learned?

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.

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