Most educators aim for a level of comprehension that moves beyond memorization. We want students to be strong thinkers and problem-solvers, and to be empowered to use their learning beyond the school walls. But applying what we’ve learned to new contexts—also known as “learning transfer”—can be incredibly difficult to achieve. Nearly all learners, young and old, struggle with learning transfer.
When I was a young teacher, I remember pouring my heart and soul into creating engaging lessons, thinking they would deeply affect my students. I would check for understanding throughout, and it often seemed like they got it. I would I go home feeling good. But when I asked a few review questions the next day, one thing became clear: They didn’t get it. Or they forgot. Overnight?
It was even worse when I would pour my heart and soul into planning out an entire unit, breaking down each topic into subtopics, with each lesson carefully and intentionally building on the next, adding nuance and complexity to the topic at hand. When I asked my students to make connections to what we learned the previous week or month, one or two of them could tell me, but most of my students just stared at me blankly!
Why does this happen?
Nearly everything I read from cognitive scientists and other legitimate researchers about the science of how we learn seems to be saying something similar: Humans need to make connections between abstract concepts, grounded in fact-rich specific examples or experiences, in order to build schema or organizational structure in the brain that unlocks novel situations.
That’s a long, jargon-filled sentence, I know. But here’s an (admittedly) oversimplified and magical way to make this happen for your students.
Three Steps for Learning Transfer
- Ask students to articulate the relationship between two or more concepts you are currently studying.
- Use specific examples or learning experiences to illustrate the relationship.
- Find additional contexts where the relationship is present and ask students to examine how their understanding deepens or becomes more sophisticated with this new context (transfer).
Here are some question stems for step 1:
- What is the relationship between ________ and ___________?
- How does ____________ impact _____________?
- What effect do ___________ and ___________ have on _________?
- How do the forces of _____________ and _____________ interact?
English example: How do rhyme and repetition impact poetry?
Math example: What is the relationship between surface area and volume?
Social studies example: How do shared resources (e.g., water sources) impact nations?
Science example: What effect do structure and matter have on a substance’s persistence in the environment?
Music example: How do the forces of tone, rhythm, harmony and sound interact?
When we organize lessons in this way, students retain the information better because they’ve thought about it on a deeper level. We then have less need to completely reteach and more ability to review, refine and transfer to new contexts.
Transfer Is a Means and an End
A huge aha moment for me was realizing that learning transfer is both a means and an end. It is the ultimate goal of learning, but we cannot wait until the end of a learning progression to ask students to transfer their understanding. Each time we ask them to apply their learning to a new situation, their comprehension deepens.
We need to ask our students to notice the nuances among situations. Differences between situations or contexts are not barriers to transfer. Rather, they are a way to help students to see that life is complex! But that building schema, often called “big ideas” or “enduring understandings” help us to see order, patterns and general principles.
The key to understanding transfer is this: Facts, topics, definitions or overly specific ideas do not transfer. Whenever we try to apply our insights from one situation to another, we are always abstracting to the conceptual level—that is, generalizing from a specific instance to a broader rule—before our knowledge helps us unlock the new situation.
Once we shift to practicing this regularly in our classrooms, students will retain information better and start to make connections to new material on their own.
Problem-Solving in the Real World
Here’s where it gets really exciting. Next, we can ask students to apply their learning to real-world problems.
Students can use their understanding about rhyme and repetition or rhythm and harmony to write a poem or compose a song about discrimination. They can apply what they know about the relationship between surface area and volume, as well as structure and matter, to make recommendations on a design for composting buckets.
When we ask students to make conceptual connections, they can more easily transfer this knowledge to solve complex problems.
Try it out and see what you get. I bet you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
For more practical ways to apply research in the classroom, see Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, Elementary or Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, Secondary. Or join me for a world-changing summer workshop this June in Georgia.