Tuesday, January 22, 2013

More On Teaching Domain Transfer Skills

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on domain transfer--transferring knowledge and skills from one area to another area, such as using federalism principles in choice of law.  (here)  Teaching domain transfer to law students is important because they will need to apply the skills they learned in law school to a variety of domains in practice.  Now, there is a good introduction to domain transfer in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Why Don't They Apply What They've Learned, Part I by James M. Lang, an English Professor at Assumption College.

Professor Lang writes, "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.'"

He continues: "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.'"

"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."

He also cites to a book by James Zull: "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.'"

He concludes, "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.  In next month's column, I will draw further on the work of Susan Ambrose and her co-authors, and pull in the conclusions of an excellent new book by Ken Bain, in order to provide some concrete strategies for helping students effect transfer both in and out of your courses."

(Scott Fruehwald)  (hat tip: John Edwards)


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