We are currently looking at the crucial role of metacognitive plenaries in helping our students to develop a more reflective mindset. Last time we looked at some activities designed to introduce the concept of metacognition – or ‘thinking about thinking’ – to young learners. In this bulletin we will look further at the idea of helping students to ‘learn for transfer’

As we have seen, in a typical PLTS-focused plenary, students are asked to share not only what they have learned about the subject, but also what they have learned about the process that made the learning possible. For example, the teacher might ask her class to reflect on the type of thinking they have been doing, the strategy or methods they adopted, the social dynamics they observed within their team, and so on.

We should not assume, however, that our students will automatically transfer new insights, skills and learning strategies to other areas of the curriculum. Studies continue to show that students of all ages are not skilful in recognising how the skills and knowledge they are learning in one subject can help them in another curriculum area, let alone in situations they encounter outside school. Anecdotal evidence would seem to support this. Here, for example, are three typical comments that I have collected recently from secondary teachers:

‘I taught my class a generic technique for problem solving which we were doing in maths. When I asked them in a science lesson how they might come up with a solution to a tricky problem, none of the pupils thought to make use of what they had previously learned.’ (Y5 class teacher)

‘I asked the class to evaluate how believable they found various accounts of reincarnation experiences. I found out later that they’d been evaluating eyewitness accounts in history that same week. None of them mentioned the strategy they had learned or considered whether any of the same criteria might apply.’ (Y9 RE teacher)

‘I knew some of my students had considered the role of psychological concepts such as motive, intention, inner conflict, the unconscious and so on, in their interpretation of English literature. Many gained insights that would have been directly relevant to their study of historical evidence – but when I mentioned it, few students had made this connection.’ (Y12 history teacher)

Evidence such as this is worrying considering how integral the concept of transfer is to our expectations and aspirations for education. After all, our aim is not just to build students’ performance on a narrow range of school tasks, but to help them become better creative and critical thinkers in the many contexts throughout their lives that invite a thoughtful approach. Yet, despite our aspirations, teaching for transfer is challenging, and constraints of time and curriculum pressures mean that all too often we leave transfer to take care of itself and buy into the assumption that if students learn some problem-solving skills in maths and critical thinking skills in history, all this will more or less automatically spill over to the many other contexts in and out of school where it might apply. Well, the message from the research literature and from the experience of many teachers is that, for the most part, it will not, unless the whole problem of transfer is made explicit to young learners and actively ‘taught for’.

Below are some strategies that you may like to consider. They will help you to introduce the concept of transfer to your students and encourage them to ‘learn for transfer’.

Teaching for transfer: Hugging

‘Hugging’, suggested by Perkins and Salomon (1989), uses similarity to make the new learning experience more like future situations to which transfer is desired. This is a lower form of transfer and relies on an almost automatic response from the learner when the new situation is encountered. Students do and feel something very much like the intended applications. Here are a few examples of this ‘hugging’ approach:

1. Setting expectations: Simply alert learners to occasions where they can apply what they are learning directly, without transformation or adjustment.

Example: ‘Remember, you’ll be asked to use these pronouns correctly in the essay due at the end of the week.’

2. Matching: Adjust the learning to make it almost the same experience as the ultimate applications.

Example: In sports, play practice games. In drama, full costume rehearsals.

3. Simulating: Use simulation, role-playing, acting out, to approximate the ultimate applications and help students practice new roles in diverse situations.

Example: Simulated trials, public inquiries, trade disputes, parliamentary debates, etc, as preparation for understanding and participating in government as a citizen, and experimenting with various approaches to solving complex legal and social issues.

4. Modelling: Show and demonstrate rather than only describe or discuss.

Example: A math teacher demonstrates how a problem might be solved, ‘thinking aloud’ to reveal inner strategic moves.

5. Problem-based learning: Have students learn content they are supposed to use in solving problems through solving analogous kinds of problems, pulling in the content as they need it.

Example: Students learn about nutritional needs under different conditions by planning the menu for a desert trek and a long sea voyage, getting nutrition information out of their texts and other sources as they work.

Teaching for transfer: Bridging

Bridging involves students in making more sophisticated, abstract connections between what they have learned and other applications. This is more cerebral and less experiential. Bridging involves generalising your learning – looking for how it might be useful in new and different situations. Here are a few examples of this ‘bridging’ approach:

1. Anticipating applications: Ask students to predict possible applications remote from the learning context.

Example: After students have practised a thinking skill or other skill, ask, ‘Where might you use this or adapt it? Let’s brainstorm. Be creative.’ List the ideas and discuss some.

2. Generalising concepts: Ask students to generalise from their experience to produce widely applicable principles, rules, and ideas.

Example: After studying the discovery of radium, ask, ‘What big generalisations about scientific discovery does the discovery of radium suggest? Can you support your generalisations by other evidence you know of?’

3. Using analogies: Engage students in finding and elaborating an analogy between a topic under study and something rather different from it.

Example: Ask students to compare and contrast the structure of the human circulatory system with the structure of water and waste services in a city.

4. Parallel problem solving: Engage students in solving problems with parallel structure in two different areas, to gain an appreciation for the similarities and contrasts.

Example: Have students investigate a (non-sensitive) problem in their house/home environment and a study problem in school, using the same problem-solving strategy. Help them to draw out the parallels and differences.

5. Metacognitive reflection: Prompt and support students in planning, monitoring and evaluating their own thinking.

Example: Before a challenging task, ask questions to cue ‘backward-reaching transfer’ eg: What does this problem/task/activity remind you of? Have you done anything before that might help? What strategies could you try that you have used before? Do you think they will work here?

After an activity, cue ‘forward-reaching transfer’ by asking students to reflect on, ‘What went well, what was hard, how could I handle what was hard better next time, what skills/strategies have I learned that I might be able to use again, elsewhere?’ (See previous bulletin for further guiding questions of this kind).

6. Explore purpose and value: Ask students to reflect on the value of what is being learned. Research shows that we are more likely to retain new knowledge and skills – and therefore be able to retrieve them from memory when the need arises – if we have recognised, for ourselves, their use and value.

Two game-show style activities that students enjoy and that are very useful in this respect are:

  • W.T.P (‘What’s the point?’) Following an episode of collaborative thinking, conduct a W.T.P challenge for any new thinking skill, disposition or learning strategy that your students have identified. Say, for example, they have identified that a given task has involved ‘resilience’, ‘making connections’ or a particular problem-solving strategy. Give them one minute (backed by a suitable clip of countdown game show music) to consider ‘What’s the point’ of developing these particular qualities or skills?
  • 11/21/41 (or ‘8/28/48’ or ‘16/26/56’ depending upon the age of your students). In this variation, students are challenged to come up with a convincing reason why a particular skill or disposition is useful NOW when they are 11; might still be useful when they are 21; and might still be valuable when they are 41. Thus they are encouraged to take ‘the long view’ and consider where certain skills and qualities that they are discussing now might be necessary for their future.

7. Cross-curricular collaboration: Demonstrate the relevance of a target skill in cooperation with a colleague from a different department. Learners need to experience the relevance of new skills in more than one context and for different purposes in order to begin to develop what Diane Halpern has termed ‘the habit of spontaneous noticing’, ie the disposition to deliberately search one’s memory for any previous learning experiences that are similar in essence – seeing through surface differences – and retrieve from memory any knowledge or skills that may be needed in the new context.

The idea of cross-curricular collaboration in order to maximise transfer of learning lies at the heart of the Secondary Strategy’s ‘Leading in Learning’ initiatives – whole-school programmes for developing thinking skills at KS3 and 4.

What do learners think?

To sum up, transfer of learning is more likely to take place in an environment where students are regularly encouraged to talk about their thinking and learning, and where teachers regularly employ guiding questions to make metacognitive monitoring, usually an implicit process, into an explicit process. This view is echoed by students who have experienced learning conversations of this kind, and who clearly come to value this kind of classroom dialogue:

‘Because we’re actually like… talking about it, we think “Oh yeah that’s a new skill – I can use that in other lessons.” But if we hadn’t been talking about it, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought… I wouldn’t have recognised it.’ (Year 8 student)

‘You’re more likely to use new skills in different lessons because you’ve discussed it and given it a name… what you’re doing. That gives you more chance to use it and know when to use it… it sort of has an impact on your memory and then you use it in other places.’ (Year 9 student)

Making connections with, or ‘bridging’ to other contexts – including authentic, everyday situations – and demonstrating the relevance of a target skill in cooperation with another subject teacher, have also been highly valued by the students with whom I’ve worked. The value of teaching approaches such as these is that they acquaint students with the whole problem of transfer: rather than merely teaching particular knowledge and skills for transfer, they teach students in general how to learn for transfer. The benefit for learners can be summed up in their own words:

‘I can see the point of it… because when we leave school, the things that we’ve learned in school we’re not going to use unless we’ve learned how to transfer from one place to the next…’ (Year 8 student)

‘It kind of merges every lesson together so they’re not separate… before it was like… nothing seemed to connect…’ (Year 9 student)

‘It can help you feel more relaxed in lessons… like… if you’re able to think, “Oh, I’ve done something like this before,” you don’t worry about it, you want to do well, but you don’t worry so much.’ (Year 9 student)

For further information see:

  • G. Salomon & DN Perkins, Rocky Roads to Transfer: Rethinking Mechanisms of a Neglected Phenomenon, in: Educational Psychologist vol. 24 no. 2 (1989)
  • DF Halpern, Teaching Critical Thinking for Transfer Across Domains, in: American Psychologist vol. 53 no. 4 (1998)
  • Key Stage 3 National Strategy Leading in Learning: Developing Thinking Skills at Key Stage 3, Ref: DfES 0034-2005 G (2005)

This e-bulletin issue was first published in March 2010

About the author: Anne de A’Echevarria is the author of the award winning ‘Thinking Through School’. Previously a teacher, PGCE tutor and head of ‘Thinking for Learning’, a research and development team partnered with Newcastle University, she now works as a freelance education consultant and writer.