Why They Don't Apply What They've Learned, Part 2

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

February 19, 2013

Every semester I meet with a few dozen student advisees to review their transcripts, discuss their educational plans, and help them map out their schedules for the following semester. More times than I would care to count, I have posed a casual question about some course on their transcript, and have received completely blank stares in response. The student has little or no recollection of an entire semester's worth of intellectual material. I used to find that astonishing until I looked back at my own undergraduate transcript one day and saw courses on there that I could barely remember myself.

Moments like those provide a forceful reminder of the challenges involved in what Susan Ambrose and her co-authors in How Learning Works called "far transfer": the expectation that students will extract knowledge or skills learned in one course and apply them in other courses, and later in their lives beyond the classroom.

In Part 1 of this series, I dug into the work of the biologist James Zull, which helps explain why far transfer poses such a challenge for students, who often have difficulty seeing the relevance of material they learn in one course to other courses or contexts. Since learning happens through the expansion of neuronal networks in our brains, we can't expect learners simply to abstract ideas, skill, or problem-solving strategies from one knowledge network and drop them into ones that might seem unrelated.

I should add: We can't expect them to do it without help from us—even though that is exactly what we often expect. Whatever subject you are teaching, you probably believe your students will transfer that knowledge or those skills to at least some of their subsequent courses or to their lives after graduation. But the research on this topic could not be clearer on the difficulty that humans have with knowledge transfer, especially in new or introductory learning environments.

That doesn't mean we should stop hoping or expecting that our students will apply what they have learned in our classrooms to other contexts. In the remaining two columns in this series I will consider how faculty members can help students do precisely that. In this column, with the help of a fascinating new book by Ken Bain, I want to turn the problem on its head. Instead of asking what teachers can do to help effect transfer in their students, I want to first consider what kinds of students prove successful at far transfer. Why do some students bump along from course to course, never seeing or making connections along the way, while others carry those coveted critical-thinking and communicating skills with them from one context to the next?

You may know of Ken Bain's first book on teaching and learning in higher education, What the Best College Teachers Do. It remains for me the single most inspiring and thought-provoking work in the field. Bain's deep analysis of the teaching attitudes and practices of a small cohort of outstanding teachers, buttressed by research from the learning sciences and narrated in lively prose, provides multiple models for college educators to reflect upon, discuss, and emulate. Nine years after its initial publication, it continues to stimulate my own continuing meditations on teaching.

In his new book, Bain took the model that had served him so well in his first offering and applied it to students. What the Best College Students Do, published in August 2012, draws from interviews Bain conducted with dozens of what he calls "highly successful and creative people, good problem-solvers, and compassionate individuals." The list includes "physicians, lawyers, business and political leaders, computer scientists and artists, musicians, mothers, fathers, neighbors, Nobel Laureates, MacArthur 'Genius Grant' recipients, Emmy winners, and a few current college students." In all cases, Bain explored how his subjects thought about their college experiences and sought to uncover their learning attitudes, habits, and practices.

The results of his research do not lead to an easy checklist to ensure that college students gain the most out of their education, just as his previous book did not offer a checklist for faculty members who want to become better teachers. Instead, Bain tells stories—both about his subjects and about research from the learning sciences—and then looks for patterns within those stories. He leaves it up to his readers to determine how the patterns can manifest themselves within their own specific classrooms or educations.

For example, one pattern he found among highly successful college students was the willingness to embrace and learn from failure. The comedian and talk show host Stephen Colbert, one of Bain's more famous subjects, describes how improvisational theater taught him to see the value of failure—to learn from the experience and then move beyond it. "You haven't done it before," Colbert says, speaking about how he learned to embrace failed first-time learning efforts, "how could you possibly get it perfectly right?"

But the pattern that struck me most forcefully in Bain's subjects related to the subject of far transfer. The very first story he tells in the book, after his introductory chapter, describes a student who entered college with four major questions he wanted to answer—deep, profound questions, the kind that it would take a lifetime of learning to understand, much less answer. The first of them was "Why does anything exist?"; the last was "What's the nature of intelligence?"

That student, unsurprisingly, "took a deep approach to learning, asking in every field why and how, and trying to connect everything together." His own words describe a thinking skill—building theoretical models—that he learned and then transferred to multiple disciplines: "You could build models in math," he said to Bain, "but you could also do it in music, in business, and in engineering."

Transfer occurred for that student because he was seeking answers to his own questions. Every learning experience he had was automatically filtered through the lens of the big questions he wanted to explore, and the habit of seeing across courses and disciplines led him to the kind of connected educational experience that we want for our students.

Bain heard something similar from Colbert, who "took control of his education and began to decide what areas he would explore when he was 10 years old." Bain heard the same thing from an investigative journalist who would earn his fame working with students to help overturn death-penalty convictions, and whose big college questions "centered around justice and how to maintain it and create it." He heard it from a doctor who "chose every course at Boston University with one goal in mind: getting into medical school and becoming a physician." And not just pre-med courses: "She majored in social psychology because she thought it would help her become a better physician."

Those students transferred knowledge and skills from course to course because they brought their own questions and interests to their college experience. Whatever they might have been asked to learn in any one course, they sought to understand how everything they learned connected to their overarching questions and interests. They were able to see how a problem-solving skill learned in one class could help them in another, or how a piece of knowledge from one course connected to another, because they oriented themselves toward some larger question, challenge, or problem. That orientation encouraged them to transfer learning across contexts, to make connections, and to see the bigger picture.

I noted in last month's column that most readers of this space regularly draw from a variety of learning experiences and disciplines as we do research or prepare lectures. In that respect we are just like Bain's best college students: We are driven by the big questions that fascinate us—the ones we pursue in the lab, the field, the text, or the classroom—and so we seek to make connections between everything we encounter and our big questions.

I've spent the past 18 months writing a book about cheating in higher education, and during that time, almost everything that swam into my purview got at least a cursory consideration of whether it might offer me help in that project. When I began my research, I had no hypotheses or theories in mind—just the very big question of what faculty members can do to reduce the incentive and opportunity for students to cheat in their courses. That question led me to the work of researchers in fields ranging from behavioral economics to cognitive psychology, to interviews with scholars of Russian literature and teachers of accounting, and to thousands of informal conversations with colleagues in person and through social media.

It led me, in short, to engage in a continuous effort of connecting and transferring across contexts, as I embarked upon a sustained attempt to answer my big question.

Understanding that link brings us only halfway to where we want to be, however. We know that students who follow their own questions and interests through their college experience will engage in the kind of connected learning that we seek for them. But those questions and interests have to be their own. We can't foist our questions and interests on them and have the same effect. And while some students come to college with big questions already articulated, plenty of them don't. Can we help those students take advantage of the effect documented in Bain's work?

Next month, in the final column of this series, I will consider a teaching approach that seems to help students discover the big questions that can drive their learning in college, enabling them to discover for themselves the joys and benefits of thinking deeply and creatively across contexts.

James M. Lang is an associate professor of English and director of the college honors program at Assumption College. His new book, "Cheating Lessons: Learning From Academic Dishonesty," will be published by Harvard University Press later this year.