Education is about changing humans. When our students leave, we hope they can do things, see things, and think things they could not before the class. That reality is rich with the potential for abuse and history shows it has been abused, but there is equal reality that education can be co-opted for other goals. I am one who would argue for education that seeks to reach more humanistic goals, but that is a topic for another post.
In this post, I am thinking about the nature of the changes we hope to make in our students; our students are human being s who will eventually leave our classrooms. If our students leave with their abilities unchanged, then they (and we) have wasted their time and energy and (in some cases money) while there.
It may seem a simple problem to solve: Teach them how to do and know and think and give them a test (or in today’s vernacular give them a summative assessment). We reason, “if they can do it on the test, they will be able to do it in other settings.” Scholars call this ability to use what was learned in one setting on others transfer, and it is far more than we think.
We assume students can transfer… they can’t… or at least they are not very good at it. If the learning setting and the application settings are similar, then studnets are more likely to be able to transfer, but the correlation is weak.
We assume that (for example) “teaching math helps students develop thinking skills.” It doesn’t. Generalized thinking skills may emerge with adult-like expertise, but it takes time and practice and reflection by the learner.
We assume students see problems in the exact way we do as teachers… they don’t. One of the important changes as novices become experts is a change in how problems are framed, understood, and solved.
Finally, we assume all teaching is equivalent. Teaching that promotes performance on tests (and summative assessments) will not help students learn in a manner that they can transfer their knowledge.
Perhaps the most important thing for faculty to understand this the multidimensional nature of teaching for transfer. Yes, students need the skills and knowledge to transfer. But if your teaching does not included lessons in which you help them understand the connections and applications to other setting, then they will be unable to. If your teaching doesn’t help them to analyze critically the problems they will face and the nature of their own skill and knowledge, then they will be unable to.