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Students don’t view knowledge as cumulative and useful across courses and hence don’t draw on relevant prior knowledge from other courses.
Even though students can demonstrate proficiency gained in other courses in simplified contexts (e.g., articulating a single argument, executing a technique), they have difficulty applying the same knowledge and skills in new courses under different demands (e.g., when integrating ideas from different sources, applying what they have learned in a new context).
This is a common problem in capstone courses, where the goal is to help students integrate and apply knowledge they have learned across multiple courses in the preceding several years. These intellectual tasks are challenging for students because they require students to identify which knowledge is relevant from a vast array of things they have previously learned, simultaneously consider the implications of multiple pieces of information, and then integrate this disparate knowledge as they apply it in the current context. For example, students asked to design a bridge in a senior civil engineering capstone course need to draw on concepts from courses such as physics, calculus, structural engineering, and materials science and integrate this knowledge as they create a new design. Similarly, students asked to design and market a product in a capstone course need to draw on concepts from courses as diverse as engineering, design, and marketing.
Model for students the processes of identifying relevant knowledge, simultaneously considering implication of multiple pieces of information, and integrating and applying disparate knowledge. For example, set up a mock design situation where you talk aloud as you plan your approach. After demonstrating these skills in one situation, involve students in the process by asking them questions as you pose another (e.g., How would you begin? What relevant knowledge should you apply? How will you handle the complexity of the situation?). Also, after modeling your approach and giving students a chance to apply it with your guidance, be sure to provide students with opportunities to practice the skills of identifying important features and planning their approach because learning only occurs for the processes that students are exercising. (See GlaserChi1988.pdf.)
Give students more practice at developing fluency in applying basic skills. For example, at the beginning of the course, have students identify the argument of each author. Similarly, for each production that students see, have them analyze the lighting features and their corresponding mood-setting. In this way, students will be that much more proficient at their basic skills, making it easier for them to apply them in more complex contexts.
Explicitly teach students skills to manage the extra demands of more complex situations. For example, students can get by without taking notes on individual arguments from single readings, but can benefit from tools or information-organizing strategies that experts use when managing multiple arguments from multiple authors. (See GlaserChi1988.pdf.)
Move more incrementally from simple tasks to those with extra demands (e.g., 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 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, etc., 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 they can decompose the learning task (i.e., help students to practice and see the benefits of reflecting on their own thought processes). 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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