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Teaching Strategies

5 Ways to Help Students Transfer Their Learning to New Situations

As students gain content knowledge, their next step should be applying it to new problems and across academic disciplines.

November 30, 2020
Elementary aged girl using abacus for math
miljko / iStock

As teachers, we all want our students to solve problems that incorporate content we just taught them. Or, we want them to illustrate how they can take knowledge from another discipline and apply it to our class. Often we are bogged down with suggestions from books or experts that are too time-consuming or take us away from the course content that we know is critical for students to learn. However, with a few simple adjustments, we can get students to engage in applying their learning in short order.

Applying Content Knowledge

While it may seem counterintuitive, getting students to apply their learning is the polar opposite of what they need to do when learning new content-based information. Applying learning is all about range—seeing across problems, evaluating multiple situations, and learning how to take what we already know and seeing where it may be helpful in real-world situations. Learning content knowledge is all about depth—defining and describing facts, comparing and contrasting those ideas to better understand key principles and practices within a discipline.

Let’s take a look at the differences. Let’s suppose a teacher wants students to learn how to count to 100. To develop depth, the teacher would provide direct instruction, guided practice, and independent practice. The students would then work on a problem-solving activity such as the Bright Idea 3-Act Task. However, to learn how to apply knowledge, students would need to compare and contrast the Bright Ideas problem with another word problem such as the Pringle Ringle. Here students are looking across problems rather than solving one problem. This latter activity is a core part of developing a student’s ability to transfer.

In order to facilitate this process for students, we need an instructional tool kit to apply in the classroom or the Zoom room.

5  Tools to Support Students in Applying Their Learning

1. Create analogies from classroom-based problems: When you give students a problem, ask them to refrain from solving the problem and instead invent a new problem that is similar to the problem they were given. Again, if we go back to the math problems above, imagine if we would have asked students to create their own math word problem and present how the problem is similar and different from the Bright Idea and Pringle Ringle problems. This type of priming would have focused students on invention while simultaneously seeking the deeper understanding of mathematics.

2. Give kids problems that people outside the classroom are working on or discussing. Make sure that kids talk to those same people: When you give students a problem, provide them with opportunities to talk directly with people who are impacted or involved with such problems. If you’re working on a problem associated with counting, have students talk with bankers, accountants, business officials, student council members, and store clerks to better understand the importance of counting and how it is used in a variety of fields. This certainly doesn’t have to take an entire class period. One or two short video interviews should be enough to support students in understanding the importance and impact of what they’re learning.

3. Give students more than one situation to evaluate: Make sure that students compare different situations that involve the same core content knowledge and skills. As discussed earlier, having students evaluate the Bright Idea and Pringle Ringle problems enables students to see the relationship of counting to both problems as well as the uniqueness of each problem’s context (light bulbs and Pringles). One simple strategy to use is a Venn diagram. A Venn diagram is a strategy that allows students to fill out the differences between each situation and the commonality between both problems.

4. Change the context when students are solving a problem: Imagine for a moment that students were working to solve the Pringle Ringle problem and the teacher told the students to stop working on that problem and begin working on a new problem such as the Bright Idea problem. By providing a bit of cueing, students can evaluate their current work and compare it with the new problem.

5. View different perspectives: When evaluating a situation, teachers should challenge students to evaluate problems from different viewpoints. In mathematics, this may mean using visual representation of a solution versus an algorithmic solution. In science, this may require qualitative as well as quantitative data to make a judgment. In the humanities, this may require students to read a different perspective. All in all, these strategies enable students to step away from the core content they were focusing on and bring to bear information that has not yet been considered, including prior knowledge from different contexts.

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