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How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School
from textbooks or lectures. In order for learners to gain insight into their learning and their understanding, frequent feedback is critical: students need to monitor their learning and actively evaluate their strategies and their current levels of understanding.
The context in which one learns is also important for promoting transfer. Knowledge that is taught in only a single context is less likely to support flexible transfer than knowledge that is taught in multiple contexts. With multiple contexts, students are more likely to abstract the relevant features of concepts and develop a more flexible representation of knowledge. The use of well-chosen contrasting cases can help students learn the conditions under which new knowledge is applicable. Abstract representations of problems can also facilitate transfer. Transfer between tasks is related to the degree to which they share common elements, although the concept of elements must be defined cognitively. In assessing learning, the key is increased speed of learning the concepts underlying the new material, rather than early performance attempts in a new subject domain.
All new learning involves transfer. Previous knowledge can help or hinder the understanding of new information. For example, knowledge of everyday counting-based arithmetic can make it difficult to deal with rational numbers; assumptions based on everyday physical experiences (e.g., walking upright on a seemingly flat earth) can make it difficult for learners to understand concepts in astronomy and physics and so forth. Teachers can help students change their original conceptions by helping students make their thinking visible so that misconceptions can be corrected and so that students can be encouraged to think beyond the specific problem or to think about variations on the problem. One aspect of previous knowledge that is extremely important for understanding learning is cultural practices that support learners’ prior knowledge. Effective teaching supports positive transfer by actively identifying the relevant knowledge and strengths that students bring to a learning situation and building on them.
Transfer from school to everyday environments is the ultimate purpose of school-based learning. An analysis of everyday environments provides opportunities to rethink school practices in order to bring them into alignment with the requirements of everyday environments. But it is important to avoid instruction that is overly dependent on context. Helping learners choose, adapt, and invent tools for solving problems is one way to facilitate transfer while also encouraging flexibility.
Finally, a metacognative approach to teaching can increase transfer by helping students learn about themselves as learners in the context of acquiring content knowledge. One characteristic of experts is an ability to monitor and regulate their own understanding in ways that allows them to keep learning adaptive expertise: this is an important model for students to emulate.