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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.

Grading and Its Discontents-Via Negativa

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013

In his article entitled, “Grading and Its Discontents” (The Chronicle, July 11, 2012), Ahmed Afzaal reflected about grading in ways that you may find helpful when you are discontented with grading.  To find out how to minimize discontent, he asked his students for their thoughts on grading.  The responses led to several suggestions you can use in your teaching.  The first suggestion was posted in May, 2013.  The second was posted in June, 2013.  Below is the third of those suggestions.

Via negativa. I want students to understand that there are certain functions that grading is not designed to perform. For instance, grading cannot measure a student’s effort.

Sometimes a student complains: “I worked so hard in this course and spent so much time studying but I only received a. … ” That student is probably assuming that grading is intended to gauge the time and effort that students invest in their studies—an assumption that clearly isn’t true.

Professors rarely observe their students outside of the classroom or lab, which is why we are in no position to judge how hard or long someone has studied. We can only assess their actual performance. A student using ineffective methods of study would have to work a lot harder and a lot longer than a student who is using effective methods. Similarly, a student who is trying to do multiple things simultaneously, or is being constantly distracted by technology, is likely to accomplish much less in the same amount of time than a student who is giving full attention to the task at hand.

Grading cannot measure a student’s progress either. On the first day of classes in any given course, some students are already ahead of others because they have a special aptitude for, or a particular interest in, the subject matter. And some students are already at a disadvantage: Perhaps they grew up in an intellectually impoverished environment, or their personal inclinations don’t match the subject matter of the course, or they bring to the class deeply ingrained misconceptions that will inhibit them from fully engaging with the material.

Typically, professors do not take such an initial advantage or disadvantage into account when evaluating students’ performance, mainly because such factors cannot be realistically quantified. Some students must invest more time and effort than other students in order to receive the same grade. That may seem unjust, I tell students, but it simply mimics the way “real life” functions.

Even academic performance in the form of exams, presentations, and essays provides the professor with no more than a cross-section of all that a student learns during a semester.

Consider this common student complaint: “I learned so much in this course but I only received a. … ” It is true that the quantity of what a student learns is one of the main factors that determine his or her academic performance and grade, but it is also true that not everything a student learns in a course can actually be tested, measured, and graded in a reliable fashion. Indeed, the most important skills that any student can acquire—abstract thinking, self-awareness, empathy, perspective, personal maturity, respect, love of learning, curiosity, and responsibility—are all unquantifiable.

I try to help my students realize that learning is its own reward. No amount of accolades, trophies, diplomas, and money can equal the worth of one’s actual learning. It is impossible to reduce the full richness or value of a genuine learning experience to something as bland as a letter grade.

Why Student Ratings of Teaching Improved

Friday, June 29th, 2012

In a 2009 issue of The Teaching Professor, Maryellen Weimer summarized McGowan’s and Graham’s research on changes faculty made to their teaching in response to their end-of-course ratings (McGowan, W. R., & Graham, C. R. (2009). Factors contributing to improved teaching performance. Innovative Higher Education, 34, 161-171.).  Faculty attributed an increase in ratings to the following changes in teaching:  more active learning pedagogy, better teacher-student interactions (knowing students’ names, for example), clearer learning outcomes, better preparation for class, and revisions to the evaluation policies and procedures that are used to assess student work.  Perhaps making one change a semester would eventually build toward improved student ratings of teaching.  It may be overly challenging to make many changes at once.  Besides, there are anecdotes that specific changes in pedagogy (more student interaction, for example) lead to lower student ratings!