13 Tips You Can Use Now to Help Your Students with Knowledge Transfer

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As a child, we learn our ABCs before we learn how to write. In high school, Algebra I precedes Algebra II. But the connections students need to make in college, or as they transition to work, aren't always as obvious. For example, it’s not as clear that the techniques and rules for writing that a student learns in their composition class will help them with writing assignments in their upper-level courses (or even to get their first post-college job).

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Knowledge transfer, or the ability to apply knowledge and skills to new situations, is not always automatic or easy. It requires students to learn how to learn—how to both acquire new information and skills effectively and how to apply them in different contexts. While college education is a journey that builds upon what students have learned throughout their lives, research consistently finds that students have difficulty applying acquired knowledge and skills to new or different situations. 

Several learning strategies can equip students to transfer their knowledge to new situations, understand complex ideas, and continue learning throughout their lives. There are things that can be done to help nurture that transition and build a bridge between educational experiences. But to do that, there needs to be a greater understanding of why that critical knowledge transfer is not happening.

The Transfer of Learning Theory, proposed by Robert Gagne, suggests that transfer of learning is most likely to occur when the new task is similar to the task on which the student was originally trained, and when the student has been explicitly taught how to transfer their knowledge and skills to new situations. Drawing inspiration from and building upon Gange’s research, here are 13 practical suggestions to help instructors support the transfer of knowledge:

  1. Have a sense of what students already know: Whether it is from their high school or college experience, or through their own personal exploration, students often come to college with a wealth of knowledge and skills that can be built upon. Low-stakes assessments can help offer both students and instructors a sense of what they already know, as well as what should be an area of focus. Also, validating knowledge can help ease the transition between academic environments and make the student feel more confident in their knowledge.

  2. Gain students’ attention: To capture attention, share a surprising fact, use humor, reveal a relevant personal anecdote, or ask a thought-provoking question using iClicker. When students are focused and engaged, they are more likely to understand, retain, and apply what is being taught. Additionally, a positive and engaging classroom environment can foster motivation and enthusiasm for learning, leading to better academic performance.

  3. Inform students of the learning objective: Clearly state the goals of the lesson, what learners will be able to do after the session, and why that lesson is important to not only the class, but to their overall learning path. Instructors can also ask students to set their own goals. One way to do this is by reflecting on class objectives with Goal-setting and Reflection Surveys found within Achieve. By setting goals, students can identify what they want to accomplish and prioritize their study plans, monitor their progress and improve their metacognition.

  4. Stimulate recall of prior learning: Recall exercises such as asking learners to share what they already know about the topic, or conducting a pre-assessment can help activate prior knowledge. Spellman College Senior Instructor Kiandra Johnson recommends starting a new topic by asking students if they are familiar with a concept, what they know about it, and what they think it might mean. This can help instructors gauge student understanding and build upon it, rather than start from scratch.

  5. Fill in learning gaps: Not all students come to class with the same level of understanding. This is increasingly common with learning loss incurred during the pandemic. Macmillan Learning's Achieve platform offers diagnostic tools like General Chemistry Readiness which covers basic math, algebra and chemical concepts to assess students' understanding; based on the assessment results, it also offers recommendations on how to improve readiness for the course.

  6. Promote equity and inclusivity in the classroom: Instructors can use methods like culturally responsive instruction to help make all students feel valued and respected, regardless of their background, race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or any other personal characteristic. This can help lead to better academic outcomes and personal growth, as well as foster a sense of community and empathy among students, and prepare students for success in a diverse and interconnected world.

  7. Present the information effectively: Information should be presented in an engaging, organized and clear manner. This works best when there are examples, images, and visual aids. By engaging multiple senses, tools like animations, videos, or our interactive graphs in Principles of Economics, and other multimedia can help increase student attention, facilitate the understanding of abstract concepts, and provide opportunities for practicing skills and knowledge.

  8. Provide learning guidance: Techniques such as summarizing key points, using analogies or comparisons, and asking learners to restate information in their own words can help provide guidance for learning. Tools such as iClicker’s confidence rating can be helpful in this, as they allow students to indicate their confidence level in the answer they have given by selecting a rating, such as "very confident," "somewhat confident," or "not confident." This can help instructors gauge students' understanding of the material, and give instructors information that empowers them to adjust their teaching accordingly.

  9. Encourage active learning: Ask questions, conduct group discussions, or have learners perform a task or complete a small project. Incorporating peer learning and other soft skills development opportunities can not only help students engage with the material, but can also help students develop communication and teamwork skills that will serve them well in the future. Student response systems like iClicker encourage participation and interaction with the material. Just as important, they allow instructors to ask questions during lectures and gauge student understanding in real time.

  10. Nurture critical thinking and self-directed learning: Encourage students to use the resources available to them, such as research and library databases, to explore and develop their own interests. This will help them to develop a greater understanding of the subject matter and build on the knowledge they have already acquired. This is also where goal setting and reflection shine, as it encourages students to take ownership of their learning by setting their own goals, seeking out resources, and reflecting on their progress.

  11. Provide feedback: Feedback goes two ways. To reinforce learning, instructors can provide immediate feedback on a task or quiz, and also offer constructive criticism to help learners improve.  Spellman College Senior Instructor Kiandra Johnson noted that tools like LearningCurve Adaptive quizzing are helpful because they provide immediate feedback to students; this helps them understand why they got the wrong answer rather than creating frustration over missing a question and not understanding why they got it wrong. Instructors may also want to use exit polling to quickly gather feedback from students at the end of a class or lecture. Using iClicker, students can anonymously respond to questions about the session, providing insights into what was learned and areas for improvement.

  12. Assess performance: Exams, quizzes, or other forms of assessments can help evaluate how well the learners have retained the information and apply it to new situations. Tools like LearningCurve Adaptive Quizzing use machine learning algorithms to analyze students' performance on quizzes and adapt to their individual learning needs. The system provides immediate feedback, target areas for improvement, and adjusts the difficulty of future quizzes based on students' performance. Also, having learners complete a final project or presentation that requires them to apply the information in a new context can also help assess retrieval.

  13. Make information relatable: To enhance retention and transfer of learning, instructors can encourage learners to relate new information to their prior knowledge, and also provide opportunities for learners to apply the information in new and different situations. By drawing on what students have learned and experienced in their lives, instructors can help students see the relevance of the course content to their interests and perspectives. One way to do this is by incorporating real-world examples or case studies to help learners see the relevance and applications of the information. The New York Times offers a lesson plan with four different ways to help students connect with their studies.

Learning is a journey that takes place not only in the classroom, but also in the wider world. Building a bridge between students’ different educational experiences is critical because it allows them to connect their previous knowledge and experiences to new material and to better understand and retain knowledge. This helps lay the foundation for students' future success both in and out of the classroom.