SIP 9.12 Prompting for Transfer

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

Three students in a classroom looking at a book

Have you ever watched students struggle to do something you know they should have learned to do in a previous class? Perhaps your students seem unable to write thesis statements for their research papers, but you know they must have learned how to do that in their first-year writing course. Or maybe you’re having the extremely frustrating experience of watching students be seemingly unable to apply what they learned in your class just last week to a situation in today’s class.

Take a SIP of this: Prompting for Transfer

Knowledge transfer is the holy grail of teaching: students’ ability to apply what they learned in one situation to another. Students demonstrate knowledge transfer all the time: A student writing a research paper for their Social Work class applies knowledge gleaned in ENG 1020 to their writing process; a student conducting data analysis in a psychology course uses a principle they were introduced to in a statistics course; a student in an upper-division chemistry course utilizes a principle they learned in an introductory chemistry course to interpret observed phenomena. But it’s not always this simple.

We often mistakenly assume that students will automatically apply what they learned in one class appropriately in another class and are disappointed and frustrated when they don’t. However, research indicates that knowledge transfer is much more complicated than we might assume and can be adversely affected by many factors, including cognitive load, dissimilarity between the earlier learning context and the current one, and incomplete understanding of the original concept.

Research also indicates that there is a fairly simple way for instructors to increase the likelihood of knowledge transfer: Explicitly prompt students to apply what they learned in a previous experience to the current situation (Gick and Holyoak, 1980; Perfetto, et al., 1983; Klahr & Carver, 1988; Bassok, 1990).

Here are some simple ways to do that:

  1. Mention other specific courses in which students might have been exposed to skills or concepts that will help them in the current situation. A writing assignment might include, “As you consider potential topics for this paper, think about what you learned in your first-year writing courses about brainstorming.” An in-class activity might be prefaced with a few minutes for students to go through their notes from earlier in the semester to identify useful concepts that might be brought to bear on the current situation.
  2. After teaching a new concept, give students a few minutes to brainstorm future situations in which they might use the concept. You could even have students write a note to their future selves in which they remind themselves about what they learned today.
  3. When going over a new assignment, ask students to name classes in which they’ve done similar assignments. A research project in an economics class may feel less overwhelming to a student who is prompted to realize that they developed the research skills they need in their art-history course.
  4. As you create activities and assignments, think through what prior knowledge students will need to draw upon. You can then build a brief review of that prior knowledge into the activity or assignment. For example, if an activity in an advanced class draws upon concepts from an introductory class, hand out dry-erase markers and give the class five minutes to write everything they remember about that concept on the board.
  5. Explain what knowledge transfer is and that it often needs to be prompted, and encourage students to prompt one another when it seems appropriate. Before breaking students into groups to do an activity, for example, you might ask them to remind one another about prior learning experiences they’ve had that might be useful to draw on in the activity.

Still Thirsty? Take another SIP of prompting for transfer

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