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Teaching Strategies

Teaching Students to Transfer Their Learning to New Contexts

The start of a unit is a great time to encourage students to see how what they’re learning applies in different situations.

October 6, 2021
Illustration concept for transfer teaching
Jing Jing Tsong / The iSpot

Students in a first-grade class are starting a new unit on counting up to 120. The teacher is prepared to work with the students to ensure that they can name all of the numbers, use rules to count sequentially, and compare and contrast strategies to count up to 120.

However, to begin the unit, the teacher is focused on helping students identify times in real life when counting to 120 is important. The teacher shares multiple videos of a child putting money into a vending machine, tracking the distance someone is running, and observing the number of marbles that go into a jar. The teacher then asks what is common between each of these scenarios. This question requires students to look outside the core content (i.e., being able to count to 120) and explore where counting to 120 would be important for people to know. Moreover, this question and the subsequent discussion with students leads children to want to learn how to count to 120.

The same experience is found across the street in a middle school social studies classroom. Students walk into class and are arranged in four groups, each of which reads one of four articles on different environmental challenges that disproportionately impact underresourced communities. The students are then tasked with forming new groups that include someone who read each article, and they are asked to identify the connections between the readings. The teacher leads a discussion to find commonalities among the articles. In particular, the teacher wants students to brainstorm what they might be learning, what success looks like, and what questions they want to solve.

In both situations, students are engaging in a conversation about the commonalities across a range or breadth of topics. They are engaging in transfer learning, and they are doing so at the beginning of the learning sequence.

Transfer Learning Rather Than Deep Learning

Transfer learning is the opposite of deep learning. Deep learning is about understanding the core principles and practices within a discipline. Alternatively, transfer learning is the breadth of learning across disciplines. Transfer learning is all about how a student applies learning in a discipline across multiple situations or contexts. To transfer, students need to see across situations rather than explore one situation or learn more in a particular discipline. They need to reach out rather than dig deep. In the previous examples, students were learning the importance of counting in a myriad of situations or understanding the variety of environmental challenges that impact people.

What can we do to support our students in developing transfer-level knowledge and skills? The good news is that we don’t have to spend a lot of time teaching to transfer. Students just need a few subtle shifts in their learning to make the switch. One of the best ways to make the switch from depth to breadth is how we start our units of study.

2 Strategies to Kick-Start Transfer Learning

Strategy 1: Compare multiple contexts. To stimulate breadth or range of thinking, kids need to see multiple examples of where a topic is applicable. As adults, we see how the concept of counting to 120 is applicable in time, measurement, money, counting objects, etc. A powerful way to start a unit is to give students multiple examples that demonstrate the importance of the topic they are expecting students to learn.

Let’s look at a few examples. In teaching students how to count to 120, we could begin the unit by showing students several scenarios where counting to 120 is important:

  • Counting money
  • Counting the number of shirts at the laundromat

Next, students should evaluate the contexts and discuss how they are similar and different from each other. A Venn diagram is a powerful device for students to compare and contrast the situations and work to pull out the key learning intention (e.g., counting). Finally, students generate a list of important questions that emerged from the activity (Where is counting to 120 important? What are the limits of only counting to a hundred?).

Another example includes using the jigsaw method. Students review select examples and then form into new groups, where they share all of the examples and discuss their relationships. Imagine that we used the jigsaw strategy and asked small groups to read a book (each book was linked to dignity and belonging for ourselves, each other, and the environment). After reading, the students met to discuss the similarities and differences between the books.

To engage in this type of activity, the following steps are recommended:

1. Identify multiple contexts that link to your standard.

2. Use a protocol to structure conversations (e.g., jigsaw, think-pair-share, reading circles).

3. Create a list of question prompts for students to discuss with each other to promote transfer thinking (Where… When… To what extent... Should...).

Strategy 2: Create analogous problems. Another way to stimulate a breadth or range of thinking for students is to have them generate analogies from a provided example. For instance, imagine that we shared one of the following with students at the beginning of a unit:

  • A car repeatedly goes down a ramp at different angles, and the total distance before the car stops rolling is different.
  • A brief news article or video on the Bay of Pigs Invasion.
  • A passage from Orwell’s 1984.

Next, we ask students to create analogous problems. Students have the option of developing more than one. Students then prepare to share their analogous problem and discuss why that problem is similar to the original problem provided by the teacher.

To engage in this type of activity, the following steps are recommended:

1. Provide students with one context.

2. Have students create an analogous problem.

3. Use a protocol to structure a discussion on how the student-generated example is analogous to the one presented in class.

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