Explore potential strategies.
Students have learned the individual skill or piece of knowledge but can’t apply it in complex contexts because they haven’t practiced the skills of integration and synthesis.
Even though students can demonstrate proficiency in simplified contexts (e.g., articulating a single argument or executing a single technique), they have difficulty applying the same knowledge and skills in situations that impose added demands (e.g., when integrating ideas from different sources, applying multiple techniques to solve a larger problem, or under time pressure such as during an exam).
For example, early on in a history course students are able to identify and critique a particular argument from an individual reading. However, when they are asked to integrate multiple arguments into a persuasive thesis of their own, they have difficulty reconciling different points of view and pulling out pieces of the argument that can be used to shape the student’s unique perspective.
Similarly, in a lighting design course, students learn which kinds of lighting create different moods and can easily apply this knowledge in a simple, specific situation. However, they have difficulty drawing on several different principles to create an appropriate lighting scheme when the scene requires complex contrasts (e.g., a joyful wedding in stoic Victorian England).
Give students more practice at developing fluency of basic skills (e.g., at the beginning of the course, have students identify the argument of each author; for each production that students see, have them analyze the lighting features and their corresponding mood-setting).
Explicitly teach students skills to manage the extra demands. For example, students can get by without taking notes on an individual argument from a single reading, but can benefit from tools or information-organizing strategies that experts in the area use when dealing with multiple arguments from multiple sources. See GlaserChi1988.pdf.
Move incrementally from simple tasks to those with extra demands. For example, ask students to compare and contrast two authors’ arguments before going to a more broad or complex set of perspectives; assign group work in class so that individual students don’t have to bear the full responsibility of the more complex situation before they have to do it on their own; assign intermediate level problems to bridge the gap between simple and complex (e.g., ask acting students to rehearse a 10- to 20-minute scene, moving to a 20- to 40-minute scene so that they can build up to a full-scale two-hour theatrical production).
Give students practice at integrating ideas because the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and they need to practice synthesizing information before they can adequately apply it in complex situations. For example, ask students to write in a way that makes connections among papers they have read or between their reading and the discussion/lecture. This builds the expectation that making connections is an important and exercised skill.
Help students learn the different types of knowledge and sources of difficulty so that they can decompose the learning task (i.e., help students be more reflective and metacognitive). Just because students can recognize a theory doesn’t mean that they can apply it, and just because they can recognize a term doesn’t mean that they can define it in their own words.
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