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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Response: Ways to Promote Transfer of Learning

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 09, 2017 15 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What is “transfer of learning” and what can teachers do to increase the odds of it happening with their students?

In Part One, Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, Adeyemi Stembridge, Todd Finley, Kenneth Baum, and David Krulwich shared their ideas on the topic. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Nancy and Adeyemi on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Cathy Beck, Heidi Pace, Anna Bartosik, Jenny Edwards, Josh Patterson, Ashley Roberts and Andrew Miller contribute their responses.

Response From Cathy Beck & Heidi Pace

Cathy Beck is the assistant superintendent in Summit County, CO. She is the author of “Easy and Effective Professional Development,” and “Leading ELL Students to Success: Strategies for Providing Equity and Access for All,” published by Routledge Publishing. Cathy is a regular contributing blogger for Bamradio Network. She is an adjunct professor at both Concordia University and the American College of Education. You can connect with her on Twitter @cathypetreebeck

Dr. Heidi Pace, former superintendent for Summit County, CO, has 33 years’ experience in education. Dr. Pace is a professor for Colorado College and also an adjunct professor for Concordia University. She is the co-author or “Leading Learning for ELL Students,” published by Routledge Publishing:

Transfer of learning can have several contexts. Learning can transfer one language to another, from one level of Bloom’s Taxonomy to a deeper level, or across content areas. All are equally valuable and teachers must consciously plan for activities and questions that help students make this move.

All content needs to be taught to the application and creation level or higher. Sheer instruction alone does not guaranteed transfer of knowledge. To get to this level students must be proficient in the prerequisite skills necessary for a solid foundation. There are several strategies to increase the likelihood that students will be able to deepen their understanding and apply knowledge to other areas. These strategies include:

  • Questioning-What kinds of questions are you asking in your daily lessons. Have a colleague come in and take data in regards to your questions. Be sure and plan higher order thinking and open ended questions in your lessons. Without planning for them they will not happen within the frequency that is necessary for transfer.

  • Collaboration-Increase the opportunities your students have to collaborate with each other. This helps to generate ideas and model thinking. Set up activities that require students to make connections from one level to the next or across content areas.

  • Assessment-Do an audit of your assessments. Do they require students to think conceptually and apply their knowledge to unfamiliar situations? If not, add some. These should be your questions that score at the Advanced level.

  • Reflection-What opportunities are your students given for reflection? What does this look like in your class? Through the process of reflection students can have epiphanies regarding concepts and skills. Make sure that the reflection process has both a written and a communicative component.

  • Project Based Learning-This process requires students to apply skills and concepts to real world situations. It is one thing to be able to compute a mathematical problem using the Pythagorean Theorem. It is at another level to apply it in a concrete manner.

  • Think Alouds-Model some examples of transfer for specific skills by doing a Think Aloud. As you give the students one example ask them to generate another. The more you model, the more they will begin to understand how to think at this level.

Education’s purpose is ultimately to ensure that students can be successful in the real world, in a job or a personal setting. Today’s job market requires application, creativity, and innovation. Rote memorization of facts will not provide success in this arena. Students must have practice applying and transferring of knowledge before they go out in the world. This practice should be a normal part of school every day. Take a hard look at your instruction. Are you offering opportunities for students to collaborate, reflect, and apply their skills? Are you delivering higher order thinking and open ended questions daily? Do your assessments offer questions that require transfer? If not make some changes. The learning will deepen along with the engagement.

Response From Anna Bartosik

Anna Bartosik is an ESL professor from Canada. She is a teacher/facilitator with an extensive background in ESL/ELT education. Her current interests include instructional design, assessment and rubrics, storytelling, motivation’s role in memory, and thoughtful incorporation of educational technology in the classroom:

Imagine you have a vessel in your classroom that transfers knowledge directly to your students’ brains. The process consists of opening a flap in their heads and pouring in the knowledge. The recipients have no leaks and no evaporation of knowledge occurs over time.

We can all dream, can’t we.

Transfer of learning occurs when knowledge we acquire moves from our working memory to long-term memory, and is retrievable. There are many things which impede this process. As classroom teachers, we need to make the information we provide to students manageable, and learnable, so that our brilliant lessons remain with our students for as long as possible.

Some of you might think that working memory is the most important factor in the transfer of learning. I’d ask you to take a step back and look at your learners first. What motivates them?

Some of you may remember the TV show WKRP in Cincinnati, and the character Venus Flytrap explaining an atom to a young man who wanted to quit school. It is a classic example of the transfer of learning taking place.

A good teacher will analyse students in her class and see what motivates them, then tailor the learning to subject matters which address their interests. Do you have a room full of soccer players? Using soccer examples in word problems will capture the interest of those students. This kills two birds: it captures their interest, and connects new learning to existing knowledge. Activating prior knowledge, whether it be in the form of a review or connecting lessons to what students are familiar with, decreases the cognitive load of new information.

Let’s return to working memory: according to Miller’s Law, it is the magical 7 ± 2. If a learner is only capable of remembering such a small amount of new information, then we need to keep that working memory open to new information by moving learned information to the long-term bank. We make connections for students to previous learning by activating that knowledge and reducing the cognitive load of taking in new information. Imagine taking a sponge and squeezing it into a bucket. Lots of room left in the bucket, and the sponge is dry enough to absorb more water.

How do I do that practically in the classroom?

  • Reduce the cognitive load of multiplication tables by showing students a month on a calendar. Look at the 7th, then look down the 4 lines on the calendar month. Four of the 7 times table down, only 6 more to go.

  • Turn a history lesson full of dates and names into a rap. Or play the class some Johnny Horton. Look him up.

  • Mindmap the plot of a novel the class is reading. Use images and symbols instead of words where appropriate. More pictures means less cognitive load.

Transfer of learning occurs when the student is motivated by the topic, motivated to learn, has previous knowledge on the subject, and knows how to connect new information to existing information. The learner must then be able to retrieve this information and apply it to new learning. A lot of breaks can happen in this chain, but if we model this formula in our teaching and make it a conscious process for students, then our learners stand a better chance of transferring that learning.

Response From Jenny Edwards

Jenny Edwards teaches doctoral students in the School of Educational Leadership and Change at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, Calif. Edwards is the author of the ASCD books Time to Teach: How do I get organized and work smarter? and Inviting Students to Learn: 100 Tips for Talking Effectively with Your Students:

What is “transfer of learning? Students are able to transfer their learning when they can take something that they learned in one context and apply it in another context. Costa and Kallick (2000) listed Transfer of Learning as one of 16 Habits of Mind that would be beneficial for students to learn. Costa (2008) suggested that people learn from their experiences. He added that when they solve problems or face challenges, they call on their prior knowledge in order to be successful.

Strategies that teachers can use to help students to transfer information from one context into another include:

  • Teaching them to use graphic organizers in all subject areas--the more complex, the better (Dexter & Hughes, 2011)

  • Teaching them to use metacognitive strategies (Dean & Kuhn, 2003; Halpern, 1998)

  • Engaging them in Problem-Based Learning (PBL) (Dixon, 2012; Hmelo-Silver, 2004)

  • Inviting them to play digital games (Swanson, 2014)

  • Teaching them to take strategic notes on what they are learning (Lee, Lan, Hamman, & Hendricks, 2008)

  • Inviting them to take tests a week after they have been exposed to information, as well as a month later, and a year later (Carpenter, 2012; Rohrer, Taylor, & Sholar, 2010)

  • Encouraging them to activate their prior knowledge and set goals for learning (Malmberg, Järvenoja, & Järvelä, 2013)

  • Inviting them to share what they are learning with others by creating a video presentation (Hoogerheide, Loyens, & van Gog, 2014)

  • Helping them to feel confident in subject areas, which will make them more likely to transfer their knowledge to other areas (Keiler, 2007)

  • Encouraging them to use their prior knowledge in new contexts (Cleary, 2013)

  • Showing students how what they are learning links with what they have previously learned and with what they are learning in other subject areas (Bhatti, Battour, Sundram, & Othman, 2013)

  • Providing them with coaching on what they have learned (Joyce & Showers, 2002)

  • Engaging them in talking about contexts in which they might apply what they are learning (Nikandrou, Brinia, & Bereri, 2009)

  • When introducing lessons, showing students how what they are learning links with what they have previously learned (Costa, 2008)

Which of these strategies might you use in the coming weeks to help students to transfer what they are learning into a variety of contexts?

Response From Josh Patterson & Ashley Roberts

Josh Patterson, PhD is the principal of Oakland Elementary School in Spartanburg, S.C. He is co-chair of the project-based learning action team with TransformSC, an ASCD Emerging Leader, and president-elect of South Carolina ASCD. Connect with Patterson on Twitter @ACE_Patterson.

Ashley Roberts is the literacy coach and Response to Intervention Coordinator at Oakland Elementary School. She is an ASCD Emerging Leader and facilitates numerous workshops on the topics of inquiry, literacy, and differentiation. Connect with Roberts on Twitter @_my3boys:

As school and district leaders, we often find ourselves speaking out of both sides of our mouth. We believe in creating meaningful, authentic, inquiry-based opportunities for exploration and discovery yet recognize the significance and pressure of achieving high test scores. We advocate for best practice, understanding that deeper learning requires intentional cognitive connections through critical thinking and reflection. We know students need time and space to make authentic connections in their learning, yet are compelled to create urgent pacing to ensure quick coverage of content standards. We feel conflicted and double-minded, immobilized and confused, split between “schooling” and education. Is there an appropriate balance? How can we ensure that in a world of high accountability, assessment, and rankings our students experience a genuine transfer of learning?

As elementary educators, how do we best prepare our students--who are eight to twelve years from high school graduation--to be socially responsible problem solvers who will make a positive contribution to their world? Curriculum standards alone are not sufficient in preparing students for tomorrow’s world. Ultimately, we create instructional experiences to prepare our students to become productive participants in society, not simply to determine what they can or cannot do as a result of planned lessons or units. Therefore, to experience success in the “real world” students must have opportunities to transfer learning in a real, authentic context. Perkins and Salomon (1988) describe transfer of learning as the application of skills, knowledge, and/or attitudes learned in one situation to another cognitive situation. Project-Based Learning (PBL) and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) provide ideal, integrated opportunities for students to transfer learned skills and content to create, construct, and communicate their learning.

In a PBL unit entitled “Tread Lightly,” students discuss the perspectives of environmentalists and loggers, participate in a Socratic Seminar, write action plans to consider how they promote sustainability, and create infographics to argue both sides of the discussion. Additionally, components of STEM are included to increase student interest and transfer of learning. Students are challenged to construct their own edible land field, research various eco-friendly inventions, and restore the damage done to the ocean and affected wildlife through an oil spill simulation.

An inventors and inventions PBL unit immerses students in the concepts of persuasion, supply and demand, and the STEM design process. Students are challenged to investigate various real world problems and create inventions that serve as possible solutions. Throughout the unit, students study reputable inventors, noting the similarities and differences of their experiences, successes, and failures. The culminating event results in an invention convention, using QR Codes to showcase students’ advertisement videos. This unique opportunity provides students with a real, authentic audience to showcase their inventions.

During a weather PBL unit, students visit the school’s science lab to examine and develop various weather tools. Students collaborate and research answers to their own questions. To support the student’s transfer of learning, teachers set up a green screen for students to create videos of severe weather announcements. These performance tasks are not only used to support students’ transfer of learning in one grade level, they are used by the school’s administration in routine emergency preparedness drills for the entire school to learn from.

There is a significant limitation between the learning that occurs during traditional classroom instruction and the application of learning in a real world situation. Without meaningful, authentic connections, a student’s transfer of learning is almost always weaker. Providing quality instruction within a broader PBL framework promotes an increased level of responsibility, both socially and academically. When planning for authentic experiences, the proverbial playing field is leveled and a stronger transfer of learning will occur for all students.

Perkins, D. N. & Salomon, G. (1988.) Teaching for transfer. Educational Leadership 46 (1): 22-32.

Response From Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller (@betamiller) is an instructional coach and educational consultant who focuses on project-based learning, assessment and student engagement. He is on the faculty for both ASCD and the Buck Institute for Education. He is the author Freedom to Fail and also writes regularly for Edutopia and ASCD:

Transfer goals focus on the big picture. They focus on almost philosophical questions of what do we want for our students in the long term. Although these goals may focus on long-term school goals, they also focus on goals outside of school and in the future. While they may focus on course-level content of skills, they can focus on other skills like good judgment, self-regulation, and collaboration.

The first step to focusing on transfer goals is to practice creating them. Teacher teams across grade-level should meet to discuss these goals. This takes diligence and time and commitment. Once that that step is completed, then teachers individual and collaboratively need to create units and assessments that focus on these transfer goals. How will you a unit on genes or creative writing, for example, align and support the learning of the transfer goal? Do we need to create a new transfer goal or modify an existing one? This again highlights that transfer goals connect learning across content and also need to be refined and reflected upon. Transfer goals help us focus on daily work with students on larger, important goals that we people can value regardless of grade-level, content area, or experience.

Thanks to Cathy, Heidi, Anna, Jenny, Josh, Ashley and Andrew for their contributions!

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