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Do Skills Transfer?

By Gordon Eldridge, TIE Columnist

11/13/2019

Transfer is the holy grail of learning. If a student can transfer something they have learned to a new context, they are more likely to be able to take their learning out of the classroom and make use of it in the world beyond school. The trouble is, so much research suggests that students rarely transfer their school learning to new contexts. It is refreshing, then, to find a study demonstrating that transfer can be achieved.

In the study concerned, Chin and colleagues from the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University taught design thinking skills to 197 Grade 6 students in a public middle school in California. Following the lesson, they gave them a task in which transfer was possible but not prompted.

The study focused on two specific strategies from design thinking: seeking constructive criticism and exploring multiple possibilities. The authors note that the power of design thinking strategies often comes from the fact that they can “protect people from natural tendencies that can inadvertently interfere with effective design” (340). In particular, the two strategies chosen protect people from the tendency towards early closure.

One group in the study was taught to seek constructive criticism. The other was taught to explore multiple design possibilities before settling on a final version. In both cases instruction included a specific discussion about the benefits of each respective strategy.

After the treatment, groups participated in a choice-based assessment consisting of an independent design project. Projects offered the opportunity to make use of the respective strategy without expecting or prompting it. Each group served as a control for the other group, since the group was only trained in one of the strategies.

The instruction consisted of 25 separate lessons spread across design projects in three different subject areas. Two research questions were investigated: (1) whether the design strategies practiced during the treatment would transfer to the choice-based assessment, and (2) whether use of the strategies improved performance on the assessment and learning from the assessment. For the purposes of analysis, students were grouped into a low, medium, or high achievement group based on a composite of standardized test results across different subjects.

What were the results of the study?

• In the control conditions, students in the lowest achievement group made use of the strategies much less often than did their higher-achieving peers.

• After the treatment lessons, the lowest-achieving students used the strategy they had practiced during treatment significantly more than their counterparts in the control group and effectively closed the gap in strategy use with their higher-achieving peers.

• There was no significant change in strategy use for the high-achieving students as a result of the treatment, possibly because significant numbers of high-achieving students used the strategies regardless of treatment.

• The choice to make use of the strategies had a marginally significant correlation with improved performance on the assessment task and on improved learning from the task.

What might this mean for our classrooms?

The results would suggest that strategy use can transfer, at least in a situation where the transfer distance is moderate. While the choice-based assessment tasks were different from those used in instruction, they were still design-based tasks.

These results also suggest that well-chosen strategies can improve both performance and learning from that performance. Students whose achievement to date may be lower may benefit more from specific strategy instruction, at least in the case where, for whatever reason, they are not currently using the target strategies.




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