'How students can apply their learning to solve real-world problems'

Follow these three rules to help students use their knowledge in real-world scenarios, says cognitive psychologist Cindy Wooldridge

Cindy Wooldridge

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The application of knowledge and skills is called transfer by cognitive psychologists, and it is often considered a primary goal of education; and yet, it is extremely tricky to achieve. However, we want our students to be able to use their knowledge to solve problems in the “real world”.

Transfer can be conceptualized as a continuum. If you are applying information to something very similar, such as a question that asks about the same material but in a new and different way, we refer to that as near transfer. If instead we ask students to apply their information to solve a novel problem or explain a real-world scenario, that would be considered far transfer.

Transfer is an important topic in every discipline. In any class, we do not want students to only memorize the concepts and examples we use, but instead to be able to use them later in life. This is equally important in math and science as it is in history or psychology.

How to Teach Transfer:

Even in controlled laboratory experiments, transfer is hard to achieve. There are essentially three basic rules that must be met in order for students to apply their knowledge (1):

1) Students must be aware that something they have learned could be useful in this new situation.

Unfortunately, we do not know all of the situations that students will need to use the knowledge/skills we teach, but the best way to make them aware of transfer situations is to explicitly teach students when they can use the information. This will make them more likely to recognize situations in which they can apply their knowledge when they come up in the future.

For example, when teaching about the slope of a line in geometry, students could be taught about real world applications (far transfer), such as how to use slope when building a wheelchair ramp or to calculate the rate of return on investments. The more varied the examples, the more likely students are to recognize them in the future.

2) Students must be able to retrieve the information that could be useful.

In order to promote successful retrieval of information, you can use any evidence-based learning strategies. In our first TES post, I talked about five tips on how to study that are all based on research. Any of these will promote better retrieval for transfer situations as well (as long as condition #1 above is met).

3) Students must be able to apply/use the information correctly in the new situation.

In order to learn how to appropriately apply information, students need to actually practice applying information. When teaching students about a situation in which prior knowledge might be useful, have them work in groups or alone to solve the problem of how to apply the information. In this way they get practice applying their knowledge, which also serves as retrieval practice. Double bonus! For the example above, students shouldn’t just be told about how to calculate their rate of return, they need to actually solve those problems using the concepts they are learning in class.

But Be Careful...

What is intuitive to us does not always match up with what works, so we must be careful in looking for evidence. In the case of transfer, a technique used by many teachers – quizzing some information in the hope that it will “trigger” other related information at test – doesn’t always work (2).

Instead, all three of the conditions above must be met and often the first condition is the trickiest. Students have to realize that there are situations in which they might need to apply the information from class. Giving them practice doing just that is the best way to promote transfer in the real world.

Further reading

(1) Barnett, S. M., & Ceci, S. J. (2002). When and where do we apply what we learn? A taxonomy for far transfer. Psychological Bulletin, 128, 612-637.

 (2) Wooldridge, C., Bugg, J., McDaniel, M., & Liu, Y. (2014). The testing effect with authentic educational materials: A cautionary note. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 3, 214-221.

Cindy Wooldridge (@psydoccindy) is a cognitive psychologist at Washburn University, Kansas, and a member of the Learning Scientists team. Follow the Learning Scientists on Twitter at@AceThatTest.

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Cindy Wooldridge

@PsyDocCindy, Washburn University

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