Posts Tagged ‘student learning’

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.

Make It Harder to Learn!

Friday, December 14th, 2012

In June, 2010, noted author and Chronicle columnist on teaching and learning, James M. Lang, suggested that when learning seems easy, the result may be shallower learning.  This phenomenon, called cognitive disfluency, creates a challenge.  If material is too hard, learning could be shut off.  What we need to create, Lang suggested, is desirable difficulties – just enough difficulty to encourage deep learning and not shut off motivation to learn.  Lang asked participants at a teaching conference to identify strategies that characterize desirable difficulties that would safely bring about cognitive disfluency.  Here are the strategies (June 4, 2010, The Chronicle Review):

  • Ask students to process or translate course material using unusual rhetorical or expressive modes. I have always listened with skepticism to accounts of teachers asking their students to translate course concepts into 140-character status updates. But my workshop participants argued that having students take concepts and rework them in the form of a text message, or a Twitter update, or even visual representations or performances, could have the same defamiliarizing effect that might be achieved by a change in fonts.
  • Require students to argue on behalf of unfamiliar positions. One of my participants was a political scientist who asks her students to debate issues in the Arab-Israeli conflict—and routinely requires them to argue against their personally held convictions. Another participant, who teaches a course for medical students on abortion, does the same. In both cases, they observed, students are forced into the uncomfortable and defamiliarizing position of having to look at a well-trod debate from a new angle.
  • Ask students to find or identify mistakes. A professor of architecture noted that he occasionally makes mistakes while doing calculations on the board, and that his students had learned to watch out for those errors and correct him. A math professor then pointed out that he would sometimes deliberately seed mistakes into assigned problems and ask students to find them. In both cases students were nudged out of the mode of simply observing or running through the problems on automatic pilot. That may seem like an artificial technique, or like playing games with students—but only until you stop and think about how many jobs require people to review presentations, problems, performances, or communications and make sure they are mistake-free.
  • Plan for failure. A faculty member in chemistry said you can wake students up by asking them to undertake short experiments that are designed to fail. Rather than simply going through the motions of a lab, and finding the expected result planned for them by the teacher, students learn what every experienced researcher in the world knows: that experiments, like scholarly research of any kind, almost never proceed exactly as you planned them, and that you can learn a lot from your failures.

I told the students to go to the writing center!

Monday, November 19th, 2012

Are you seeing completed assignments that don’t match what you expected, but you told the students to go to the writing center?  It’s a common complaint among faculty.  Faculty may give very detailed instructions to students about the required assignments, including encouraging students to make use of campus support centers.  But, writing center and other learning support staff can assist students only in so far as the assignment instructions are provided to those support staff – and, the earlier the better.  Support staff can best help students when there is sufficient time to review the assignment, assess where individual students need the most assistance, and then meet with students to improve the products.

Fleeting Patience?

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012

In April, 2012, Mark Bauerlein wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education about how digital tools have downsides when it comes to needing to slow down.  He wrote that “sometimes, slow understanding is a necessity.  Take, for instance, those sequences in the history of film which are slow and deliberate, but which are nonetheless central expressions of the art form.”  He considers habitual switching and hurrying as learning deficiencies.  He recommends that academics work to “insert into the curriculum exercises and experiences that cultivate a different habit, a slow-down of apprehension.”  Slow down for a moment and consider the speed with which your students access information.  Is there time for retaining and using the information?

Does “cover” equal “learning”?

Monday, August 6th, 2012

In the July 9, 2012 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Dan Berrett described role- and game-playing pedagogy being used in college courses.  Mr. Higbee, an Eastern Michigan University faculty member, reported that on nongame days attendance is lower:  “You can cover things, but there is tremendous evidence that coverage does not equal learning.”  What exactly are we doing when we “cover” material in class?  If when we are “covering” we merely repeat what is in a text or can be read online, there is no point for students to attend class.  By experiencing what we want to “cover,” students have a better chance of actually learning.

Making the Most of Your Office Hours

Friday, June 29th, 2012

To turn office hours into learning opportunities for students, Margaret Walsh, sociology professor at Keene State College, offered seven strategies:  teach, advise, collaborate, offer books, listen well, mentor, don’t ask for feedback on your course or department.  The last strategy can “put students on the spot … in a difficult position.”  You can access Walsh’s article here:

Try Learning Something You Don’t Know How to Do

Monday, April 2nd, 2012

Maybe you think that because you have learned a lot about your discipline, you can easily learn something that is totally new for you.  Have you ever considered what your students are going through when they attempt to learn material that is totally new for them?    In a personal description of what it was like to learn to swim, Stephen Brookfield “recounts his own efforts to master a daunting new skills and the many lessons he learned about teaching and learning in the process.”  The article, Through the Lens of Learning: How Experiencing Difficult Learning Challenges and Changes Assumptions About Teaching, is readily available on the internet:  Read it and then decide about how easily you might learn your discipline if you have no prior knowledge or experience with it.

Should Emerson Have 7:00 a.m. Classes?

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

Before you pass judgment, read the brief article below.  It was published in the online Chronicle of Higher Education on June 14, 2011.

Students With Later Classes Get More Sleep, but Also More Booze and Lower Grades.

College students whose classes start later in the day tend to sleep more, but also consume more alcohol and have lower grade-point averages, according to study findings that will be presented today at Sleep 2011, a meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies. The study, led by two psychologists at St. Lawrence University, in Canton, N.Y., surveyed 253 students about their sleep and class schedules, substance use, and mood, among other data. It found that “night owls” were likely to get more sleep than “morning types,” but were also more likely to binge drink, and that their grades were moderately lower. The authors speculated that drinking more alcohol reduced the benefits of getting more sleep. An abstract of the study is available.

CITL Answers – November 2010

Monday, November 1st, 2010

Question: Grade inflation seems to be a hot topic these days.  Does it exist at Emerson and what can I do about it?

CITL’s Answer: There is a lot of controversy across the country about grade inflation. There are, however, no simple answers about its existence or what to do about it. Nevertheless, a commonly understood definition for grade inflation is the first step in answering questions. A University of Wyoming’s Webpage, called Grade Inflation: The Current Conversation, has this definition: “ . . . an increase in grades without a corresponding increase in the quality of student work.” For more information, visit that Website.

Once a definition is agreed upon, grades and student learning could be compared over an extended period of time to determine the degree of inflation on campus. Regarding what you can do about it, ask yourself if the grades your students earn are true measures of their learning. Then, to explore and address any grading concerns, sign up for the CITL’s Spring Semester workshop series: Effective Grading for Student Learning. Watch for announcements or contact

CITL Answers – March 2010

Monday, March 1st, 2010

Question:  Assessment has been mentioned a lot lately.  What is it, why are we doing it, and what does it have to do with me?

CITL’s Answer:  Assessment is gathering information for a purpose.  You are probably referring to assessment of student learning.  We gather information about student learning for accountabilities and improvement.  Because we make claims about what students will know and be able to do once they complete a course or a curriculum at Emerson, we are obligated to validate those claims with evidence.  Students, parents, funding agencies, and accrediting bodies are entitled to summary information about student learning.  The information also serves to guide the development of new curricula, and to facilitate continuous improvement of existing curricula.  The courses you teach belong to one or more curricula.  The assignments and examinations you have designed for your students yield evidence of student learning.  By sharing information about the evidence, you will contribute to the ongoing assessment for accountabilities and improvement.  For more information, contact