Why Students Don’t Always Transfer What They Seem To Understand

johmorgan-slowing-the-summer-slideWhy Students Don’t Always Transfer What They Seem To Understand

by Grant WigginsAuthentic Education

As a follow up on my series on reading, most recently yesterday’s post on reading comprehension with respect to the gradual release of responsibility model, let’s take a look at transfer.

What is transfer, and what does it demand? Let’s go back to two seminal papers from 1983 (Paris, Lipson & Wixon) and Palinscar & Brown (1983) on Reciprocal Teaching that foreshadow the problem of transfer of individual lessons in strategy:

Palinscar & Brown:

“We turn now to the instructional mode, how to teach the activities. One main concern was to try to avoid a common problem with traditional training studies, the outcomes of which have been somewhat discouraging. Although improvement on a particular skill in isolation has been reported, this improvement is often slight and fleeting, and there is very little evidence of transfer. Maintenance over time, generalization across settings, and transfer within conceptual domains are rarely found.”

Paris, Lipson & Wixon:

“[D]eclarative and procedural knowledge alone are not sufficient to ensure that children read strategically. They only emphasize the knowledge and skills required for performance and do not address the conditions under which one might wish to select or execute actions… We want to introduce a new term, conditional knowledge, to capture this dimension of learning to be strategic. Conditional knowledge includes knowing when and why to apply various actions. For example, skimming is a procedure that is only appropriate for some tasks and situations. The procedure needs to be applied selectively to particular goals in order to be a strategy.

Reading only some of the words and sentences in text is not a strategy by itself; such skimming could be the result of skipping difficult words, poor visual tracking or laziness. The systematic employment of skimming to accomplish goals of speeded reading or previewing, however, would be strategic reading.

Conditional knowledge describes the circumstances of application of procedures. An expert with full procedural knowledge could not adjust behavior to changing task demands without conditional knowledge…”

Here are other relevant summaries of research on transfer in reading strategically for comprehension. Most come from the Handbook on Research in Reading Comprehension that I have cited in previous posts:

  • Explicit instruction generates the immediate use of comprehension strategies, but there is less evidence that students continue to use the strategies in the classroom and outside of school after instruction ends (Keeny, Cannizzo & Flavell, 1967; Ringel & Springer, 1980) or that they transfer the strategies to new situations.
  • The lack of evidence [about when and to what extent strategy instruction transfers] stems from the heavy reliance on smaller sample sizes and shorter-term intervention designs as well as limited attention to a “gold standard” of transfer of training to autonomous use.
  • Teaching students in grades 3–6 to identify and represent story structure improves their comprehension of the story they have read. In the case of this strategy, there was no evidence that the strategy transferred to the reading of new stories and improvement was more marked for low- achieving readers.
  • Skilled comprehenders use metacognitive strategies significantly more often than less skilled readers. Less skilled comprehenders were significantly less likely to make inferences from text even with equal background knowledge.
  • Spiro and colleagues suggested traditional educational techniques often oversimplify the presentation of knowledge in ways that hinder subsequent ability to use knowledge flexibly, and argued that instruction must present information in multiple ways to foster flexible thinking, a method they called “criss-crossing the landscape”(Spiro 2004.)
  • Work in cognitive development shows children must develop the ability to consider multiple aspects of stimuli. Children are predisposed to derive a single interpretation from a text. Even when faced with inconsistent text information, children’s inability to consider multiple features of texts leads them to select one interpretation over others – rather than considering and comparing alternative perspectives and then choosing the most appropriate one, resulting in poor text comprehension.
  • Oakhill, Youwill and Parking 1986 compared inference making abilities of skilled and less skilled 7 to 8-year-old comprehenders who did not differ on decoding skills or working memory, finding the less skilled comprehenders were significantly less likely to make inferences from text. Cain and Oakhill 1999 reported similar findings, even when skilled and less skilled comprehenders possessed the requisite prior knowledge to support inference generation.

From Beck Questioning the Author:

  • Building understanding… is what a reader needs to do to read successfully. Building understanding is not the same as extracting information from the page. Rather, building understanding involves actively figuring out what information we need to pay attention to and connecting that to other information.

Toward Successful Transfer Of Learning

How then is such flexible self-regulation in building meaning of text more likely to happen? How can teachers more likely facilitate transfer of learning vis a vis the comprehension and metacognitive strategies?

Here are a few key passages from How People Learn (2001) that summarize what we know about effective use of conditional knowledge in new situations – i.e. successful transfer of learning:

“A major goal of schooling is to prepare students for flexible adaptation to new problems and settings. Students’ abilities to transfer what they have learned to new situations provides an important index of adaptive, flexible learning; seeing how well they do this can help educators evaluate and improve their instruction…

People’s ability to transfer what they have learned depends upon a number of factors:

  • Spending a lot of time (“time on task”) in and of itself is not sufficient to ensure effective learning…. [It is vital to] emphasize the importance of helping students monitor their learning so that they seek feedback and actively evaluate their strategies and current levels of understanding. Such activities are very different from simply reading and rereading a text.
  • Knowledge that is taught in a variety of contexts is more likely to support flexible transfer than knowledge that is taught in a single context. Information can become “context-bound” when taught with context-specific examples…. One frequently used teaching technique is to get learners to elaborate on the examples used during learning in order to facilitate retrieval at a later time. The practice, however, has the potential of actually making it more difficult to retrieve the lesson material in other contexts, because knowledge tends to be especially context-bound when learners elaborate the new material with details of the context in which the material is learned (Eich, 1985).
  • When a subject is taught in multiple contexts, however, and includes examples that demonstrate wide application of what is being taught, people are more likely to abstract the relevant features of concepts and to develop a flexible representation of knowledge (Gick and Holyoak, 1983).
  • Students develop flexible understanding of when, where, why, and how to use their knowledge to solve new problems if they learn how to extract underlying themes and principles from their learning exercises. Understanding how and when to put knowledge to use—known as conditions of applicability—is an important characteristic of expertise. Learning in multiple contexts most likely affects this aspect of transfer.”

These are all helpful points, for sure, but probably not concrete enough or supported by relevant English/ELA examples enough for most teachers to apply directly. In my final posts I will offer a tentative set of practical implications of all this research for teachers in grades 6 – 12 who are trying to improve comprehension and achieve self-regulated transfer of learning in students.

I will also share some excerpts from books written for teachers of English that provide the most helpful tools and tactics reflective of this research. And I’ll return to a classic text that I have recommended before. Its wisdom holds up 75 years later.

This article was excerpted from a post that first appeared on Grant’s personal blog; Grant can be found on twitter here; Why Students Don’t Always Transfer What They Seem To Understand; adapted image attribution flickr user johmorgan


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