BOX 6-1
Deeper Learning Across Topics or Disciplines

Most of the research to date on deeper learning has focused on learning within a single discipline, often investigating how children learn a specific topic, procedure, or strategy. This focus reflects the limited success of earlier efforts to develop generic knowledge or skills that could be widely transferred or applied across disciplines, topics, or knowledge domains. In science, for example, early research sought to clarify children’s understanding of scientific experimentation by presenting them with “knowledge-lean” tasks about causes and effects that required no prior knowledge of relevant science concepts. However, such methods were criticized, and further research clearly demonstrated that children’s prior knowledge plays an important role in their ability to formulate a scientific question about a topic and design an experiment to test the question (National Research Council, 2007). Current research presents children with “knowledge-rich” tasks, recognizing that their causal reasoning is closely related to their prior knowledge of the question or concept to be investigated.

Only a few studies have examined transfer across disciplines, topics, or contexts. For example, Bassok and Holyoak (1989) studied transfer of learning in algebra and physics, focusing on problems with identical underlying structures but different surface features—arithmetic-progression problems in algebra and constant-acceleration problems in physics. High school and college students were first trained to solve such problems, either in algebra or physics, and then were presented with word problems that used either content from the domain in which they were trained or content based on an unfamiliar domain. The algebra students, whose training included the information that the problems were broadly applicable, were very likely to spontaneously recognize that physics problems involving velocity and distance could be addressed using the same equations. These students recognized the applicability to physics, regardless of whether they had learned arithmetic-progression problems using word problems focusing on several different types of content (e.g., growth of savings accounts, height of a human pyramid) or had learned using word problems focusing on a single type of content—i.e., money problems. In contrast, students who had learned to solve constant-acceleration problems in physics almost never recognized or transferred this approach to solve the algebra problems. The authors note that the algebra-focused students were able to “screen out” the domain-specific content of the word problems, while the physics-focused students had been taught that the physical concepts involved in word problems were critical to the applicability of the equations. Bassok and Holyoak concluded that although expertise is generally based on content-specific knowledge, it may be possible to teach some mathematical procedures in a way that enables students to transfer these procedures across content domains; they called for further research to explore such possibilities.

Studies such as these provide some clues about how to support transfer of learning across specific knowledge domains, but much further research is needed to clarify whether, and to what extent, it may be possible to teach students in ways that promote deeper learning and transfer across disciplines or broad content domains.

SOURCE: Created by the committee.

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