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Metacognition and Transfer

With all of the lessons below, the instructor should always be explicit with his/her students. Tell the students why you are doing what you’re doing and what skills the students are expected to gain from it.

I. Incorporate “pretests” and/or “predictions” into courses.

  • Research indicates that when students are tested in some way before they know the material, or are asked to make predictions about something, the material that they learn “sticks” better (See: Lang, Chapter 2)
  • In terms of problem-solving types of assignments and projects, one can incorporate a proposal phase into the assignment. Ask the students, as individuals, to make a suggestion for how they think they might solve the problem before they have done much research.

II. Process, not so much content, is what transfers to new contexts.

  • What we want students to learn is that, no matter the context, pre-writing (outlining ideas, etc.), drafting, writing and revising are the keys to effective writing in any context. It’s better practice, for example, to have two papers with mandatory drafts and revisions, than four different papers with only one version evaluated.
  • Try to allow some time for in-class practice, even if only 10-15 minutes at the end of a few classes to have students draft a few possible thesis statements, etc. (See: Lang, 133-136).
  • When devising problem-solving exercises or case studies as lessons, provide only as many details as are absolutely necessary. Research indicates that overly specific examples reduce transfer. (See: Bransford and Schwartz 2001).

III. More frequent testing and feedback is better. Cumulative testing is better.

  • It’s better to have smaller “quizzes” more frequently throughout a semester than two big exams (like a mid-term and final.) (See: Lang, Chapter 1, p. 39)
  • Because class times are limited, require more frequent 20-30 minute shorter exams. The total time spent taking a test can remain relatively consistent, thus not affecting overall time limitations in courses.
  • Exams/quizzes/other recall methods should be cumulative and comprehensive (all course material going back to day one is fair game). (See: Lang, 74-77).
  • A caveat: correcting students too quickly can undermine the ability for students to learn from their own mistakes. It is useful to let students struggle briefly, but we should avoid letting them stay stuck too long (Mathan and Koedinger; Doyle 26-28).

IV. Requiring recall of material in students’ own words is much more effective.

  • Whenever possible, avoid testing methods that prevent students from using their own words (i.e., multiple choice, matching and true-false are the least effective forms of testing).
  • Short answer/essay is the most effective (See: Lang, Chapter 6).
  • Asking students to engage with material actively and regularly, through cumulative testing, wikis, rewriting, retesting, practice quizzes and mapping, encourages students to work with ideas in their own words (Doyle 21-26).

V. Teaching abstract principles illustrated with a variety of different examples increases recall and transfer

(See: Billing, 509-511; Brown et al., 155-161).

  • Also, less specific contexts will increase transfer. This means that the instructor should provide just enough detail to make the lesson understandable, but not so much as to make the answers completely obvious.
  • Some uncertainty and “discomfort” among students is actually desirable. If learning is not a struggle, it is less likely to stick and transfer.
  • Failure is not a bad thing. Encourage students to understand that they learn just as much, if not more, from failures as from successes (See: Brown et al., Chapter 4).

VI. Use analogical methods in teaching and try to focus on the commonalities when comparing.

Research supports the ability to compare two things as beneficial over being exposed to those same two things separately. We need to be explicit that an analogy is being used, and why (See: Loewenstein, Thompson and Gentner and Gentner, Loewenstein and Thompson for examples and support).

  • Billing article says that three or more analogies are needed (p. 491, citing a study by Catrambone and Holyoak, 1989).
  • Teaching with analogies may help students to learn in authentic ways, if the analogies connect to the real world (See: Doyle, chapter 3).
  • Humans are good at recognizing patterns, and thus it is good to focus on how new information is analogous to or different from already taught material (Doyle, chapter 9).

VII. Non-linear course structures increase transfer (often called “interleaving”).

  • Though seemingly counter-intuitive, learning actually sticks better when it’s somewhat less orderly, or less “massed.” (See: Lang, Chapter 3; Brown et al., Chapter 3; see, in particular, pgs. 54-55 about teaching art history and bird identification).
  • Consider “looping” back material. Although some knowledge necessarily must “build” upon prior knowledge, when possible, jump back to a previous lesson. This will seem random and perhaps even disorderly to the instructor, but the research suggests it increases learning (See: Brown et al. Chapter 3).

VIII. Metacognition: Or, “Reflection, Reflection, Reflection”

  • Metacognition is the skill of “thinking about thinking.” To foster this skill in students, incorporate assignments that force students to reflect on their own processes and cognition. Synthesizing what they have learned and generating new ideas from existing knowledge helps transfer. Elaboration also improves student mastery (See: Brown et al., 207-208; 223-225)(For a theoretical framework, see White and Frederiksen).
  • A second benefit of reflection is that it deepens memories, thus increasing the likelihood that information will be recalled in the long-term (Doyle, 145). Such long-term recall is essential for transfer.
  • Some examples that work include: a) Journals with explicit instructions to connect material learned in class to something external, which could be some prior knowledge they have from a different context or something new they are just learning, (i.e., ask them to connect a critical theory to a current event they just saw on the news, etc). Journaling can be done using online tools as well (See: Lang, Chapter 4). b) Self-evaluations. Require students to evaluate their own strengths/weaknesses and think about what they would change to improve their next assignment or work (See: Brown et al. 88-90; 222-223).
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