Explore potential strategies.
Students failed to apply their knowledge and skills.
As novices, students naturally compartmentalize what they learn according to the specific context in which that learning occurred. This makes it difficult for students who haven’t mastered the material to (1) recognize when they have applicable knowledge that they could use in the current situation and then (2) recall and apply that knowledge accurately and appropriately. A further complication occurs when students simply assume that what they have learned in one context can be forgotten after the current test or semester. See also "Students can't apply what they've learned."
To help students appreciate that their knowledge and skills can be effectively applied in multiple contexts, point this out to students when it occurs. For example, when you or your students are tackling a new problem that draws on knowledge and skills they learned previously, identify the general knowledge or skill and explicitly discuss why it applies to the current situation. In addition, you can create multiple situations or problems that are very different on the surface but that all draw on the same knowledge; then you can ask your students to work through these situations, analyzing their similarities. If students have practiced applying their knowledge and skills in different contexts, then they will be more likely to do so on an exam.
When students have the relevant knowledge or skill but do not recognize the opportunity to apply it, giving them a prompt to do so can be very helpful. While you may not feel that such prompts are appropriate for tests, providing them on homework assignments can help students practice making connections so they are more prepared to do so on a test.
To help students apply their knowledge and skills more broadly and appropriately, an effective first step is to find out what conceptual relationships they lack or to identify where their knowledge and skills are overly specific. This can be accomplished by conducting a pretest that exposes how students have organized their knowledge. For example, you can ask students to construct a concept map in which they first identify all the concepts they associate with a given topic and then draw links between the concepts they consider to be related. Concept maps can reveal when students have divided what you consider a single, unified concept into separate unrelated pieces or when they have failed to associate what you consider highly related concepts. Then you can adjust your instruction accordingly so that students can better access the information they need during an exam.
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