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The real stuff of schooling: How to teach students to apply knowledge

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Larry Ferlazzo is a veteran teacher of English and Social Studies at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California. He has written seven books on education — including a few on student motivation, and writes extensively on education issues, including authoring a teacher advice blog for Education Week Teacher, and maintaining a popular resource-sharing blog. His new book is titled “Building A Community Of Self-Motivated Learners: Strategies To Help Students Thrive In School and Beyond ” published by Routledge. This piece is adapted from that book.

“Transfer of learning” is the term used to describe applying what one has learned in a particular situation to another in a different context. This kind of extension could take place during a school year within an individual class when applying what is learned about one problem to another, to different and future classes, to home situations, and to a workplace situation (now and in the future) . Researchers suggest that the pressure of high-stakes standardized tests does not support or encourage teachers to prioritize reinforcing this practice.

This lack of support is ironic since a good case can be made that transfer is the primary purpose of schooling. We want our students to be able to apply the knowledge and skills they learn with us to other challenges inside and outside of school — the goal of our English class is not have students pass the exam, but to be competent and critical life-long writers and readers; the goal of studying history is not to memorize the dates of major battles, but to develop a broad historical perspective that they can apply to understanding the world around them today and in the future.

Despite this lack of institutional support, how can teachers encourage students to become more conscious of, and interested in, “transferring their learning” to more challenging and higher order thinking contexts (in many ways, comparable to the Application stage of Bloom’s Taxonomy)?

There are a number of kinds of “transfer,” most notably ones categorized in a continuum as “near” and “far” (it’s also been called “nearer” and “farther”). Near transfer tends to be focused on procedures or a routine where learned skills in one area are more easily applied consistently to a somewhat similar situation. For example, students might apply the essay writing skills they learn in English class to writing essays in Social Studies courses, or we apply much of what we learn about driving a car to driving a bus or a truck. As we move a little further on the continuum, once students studying history have learned about the American Revolution, they can begun to explore the similarities and differences between that event and revolutions in other countries and at other times. These kinds of near transfers are easier to encourage and have a higher likelihood of success than what’s at the other side of the continuum — far transfer.

In the more difficult area of far transfer, students use their judgment about applying their skills and knowledge from one context to a substantially different one. For example, a chess player might apply the strategies they have learned there to understanding and perhaps even running a political campaign, or someone might learn about concepts related to wind flow from studying windmills and relate them to using a sail on a boat.

Many teachers operate under the assumption that transfer happens automatically and, in a number of cases, it does — using basic reading skills in multiple contexts are one example. However, studies show that many students have difficulties in applying knowledge they learned in one class to another and to outside situations. How often in our own classes will students learn new words on a quiz or vocabulary review but not use them in their writing, or second language learners will know grammatical written forms but are unable to use them in conversation? Assuming automatic transfer of learning will more likely lead us to live out the supposed Chinese proverb that says “people have to stand still for a long time with their mouths open before roast chickens will fly into them.”

Transfer will not happen magically.

Here are some actions teachers can take on a regular basis to increase the chances of both near and far transfer occurring:

Maximizing the Initial Learning Experience for Transfer

It should go without saying that in order for transfer to occur, students need to gain a good understanding of the concepts that we wish them to be able to apply to new problems. As Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman said, it’s “the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.” Memorizing a list of facts or a list of procedures is unlikely to promote sufficient understanding of a concept for students to be able to apply it in a new situation.

One well-known example describes how two groups of children practiced throwing darts at a target 12 inches underwater and both became good at it with practice. The target was then moved to four inches below the surface, but just one group was instructed on how light refraction can cause a deceptive appearance of the target’s location. Even though both groups had become good over time at the first dart-throwing practice, it was the group that received instruction that was able to quickly adjust its experience to a new situation.

When planning how best to help students gain this necessary good understanding of concepts, teachers might want to keep in mind the substantial research supporting instructional strategies like cooperative learning and inductive teaching, and the equally large amount of research questioning the effectiveness of a heavy emphasis on lecture and direct instruction.

Activate Prior Knowledge

One strategy researchers suggest using in an effective initial learning experience to maximize transfer potential is building upon the knowledge students already bring to a topic, which can enhance the likelihood of developing a genuine understanding of concepts. In addition to relating a lesson to familiar contexts, it strengthens and models the idea of transfer. As neurologist andteacher Judy Willis writes, “memories with personal meaning are most likely to become…long-term memories available for later retrieval.”

Deliberate Practice

The pressure to “cover” the curriculum, especially prior to annual standardized tests, does not encourage teachers to often create the time needed to create the necessary conditions for transfer to occur.   This time is needed for, among other things, students to utilize deliberate practice to increase understanding. This type of practice, which includes active monitoring of one’s learning and regular receiving feedback, is critical for maximizing the possibility of transfer.   There are many ways time could be used for deliberate practice that would enhance student understanding of concepts so that transfer could be promoted. For example, after students learn the qualities of a successful presentation, instead of giving one presentation in front of the entire class, they could give it multiple times in small groups with time for structured feedback from classmates and revision.

Explain In Their Own Words

Another important use of time to promote greater understanding of key concepts is to have students explain in their own words — to others or to themselves (called “self-explanation”) — what they are learning. Substantial research has shown that not only does this type of explaining help students identify their incorrect assumptions, but it also helps them to generalize concepts for future applications.


Simulations are especially recommended for promoting near transfer to similar future situations. They put students in the kinds of roles that they may very well find themselves in at a future date. Students can role-play job interviews instead of just talking about appropriate interview responses and behavior, or play different roles in complex racial or union-management negotiations . Student use of online computer simulations have also been found to have a positive effect on learning transfer.

Group Learning

The National Academy of Sciences examined how school environments tend to compare to the settings in other aspects of everyday life. They found that schools are much more focused on individualized work than in most other nonschool situations. For successful transfer to occur to non-classroom situations, they recommend that schools place a greater emphasis on shared learning.

Analogies and Metaphors

One strategy for knowledge transfer is using an analogy or metaphor — we can use what was known previously and apply it to a new situation to make it better understood — such as comparing how a heart works to a pump. When discussing the importance of providing evidence to support one’s position, we can point to a chair and ask, “What would happen if its legs were removed?” After students respond that it would fall down, a teacher can say that the legs are like evidence and the seat is like a thesis statement — without it, it can’t stand up.

One well known experiment using analogy for transfer, and which also highlighted the importance of explicitly teaching their use, used a war story. Researchers first explain a situation to students where an army wanted to overcome a fortress that had its defenses organized so that the only way it could be successfully attacked was by a general who divided his forces so that smaller units of his army had to attack it from all sides simultaneously. Afterwards, students were asked to solve the problem of how to effectively treat a tumor with rays that would not affect the tumor at a low intensity and would also destroy healthy tissue if used at a high level. Over 90 percent of the students figured out a solution of treating it with multiple small doses of rays targeting the tumor — but only if they were reminded of the fortress story. Only a small number solved the problem without the prompt.

I have used Plato’s Allegory of The Cave in a similar fashion. A very crude and short summary of the Allegory is that a group of prisoners are in a cave facing a wall for their entire lives with a fire and walkway behind them. All they see of the world are shadows. Then one is released and discovers what the real world is like and returns to tell his former fellow prisoners. However, they choose not to believe him and threaten to kill him if he tries to take them outside.   After discussing the allegory and considering questions about its meaning and what might be our, and greater society’s, “caves” today, students create short skits and videos applying the Allegory to modern life.   It is then frequently brought up by students the rest of the year when we explore problems that are contributed to by people refusing to move from entrenched ideological positions.

The question “Why are we learning this?” is not a rare one in most teachers’ classrooms. We might find it arising less frequently in the future if we make “transfer of learning” a higher priority in our instructional efforts.