Thursday, December 22, 2016

Reading Room Material: Luke Cage & Expertise

Editorial Note: One of the goals for my blog is to connect educators with Cognitive Science. To make that connection, I try bring in real-world examples. I've been mildly successful in doing so, but I feel like there's something missing. I feel like there's more I can do. 

With today's post, I am going to start publishing a new type of blog called Reading Room Material. The goal is to share examples of Cognitive Science from the outside world. The focus isn't necessarily to define a technical term from the field, like my traditional posts. Instead, the goal is to connect Cognitive Science to our daily lives. 

Luke Cage: Season 1, Episode 2 "Code of the Streets"

Luke Cage is a Netflix television show that's based on a Marvel comic. The titular character works at a barbershop, and it is owned by a man everyone lovingly refers to as, "Pop." Like barbershops of old, Pop offers a straight-razor shave. Cornell Stokes (a.k.a. "Cottonmouth") is one of Pop's oldest associates; however, he has somewhat lost his way. 

In this particular episode, Cornell comes in for a shave so he can chat with Pop about a missing person. Here's a snippet of their dialog [1]: 

Stokes: The clippers are idiot-proof. That's what's missin' nowadays, Pop. Attention to detail. Everyone wants things fast, quick. Me? I like to take my time.
Pop: Time is a luxury most working class men cannot afford.
Stokes: True. Time is precious. Shouldn't be wasted. Mmm A good razor shave is like a vacation to me. It's incredible how few people take advantage.
Pop: It's a lost art.
Stokes: Exactly. That's the problem with these youngsters. They want it all. But they don't want to put in the work. They'll rob lie, cheat, steal, just to get what they want. Damn shame if you ask me.
Pop: Yeah.
Stokes: Shame.
Pop: Mmm-hmm.

There's definitely some subtext here. So what are they really talking about? Some may disagree, but what I think they're really talking about is deliberate practice [2]. Students just aren't willing to put in the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become experts! Moreover, the vanguard seem to lament that fact. 

Whether a person is a gangester or a violinist, they have to put in the time. There is no free lunch when it comes to expertise!

Share and Enjoy!

Dr. Bob

More Material

[1] Here is the full transcript of the episode.

[2] Ericsson, A., & Pool, R. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Pop a Cap: The iCAP Framework

Learning By Doing

Before we begin, let's learn about how a jet engine works [1]. While you watch this 5-minute video, do your best to learn the contents of the video, while paying attention to your learning process. That is, make a mental note of what you're doing to learn the material. I know that's probably going to split your attention across two different sources of information (I therefore apologize!). Finally, while you are watching, remember not to fall prey to the illusion of explanatory depth! I know that's a lot to ask, but try your best. Here you go:

Friggin' jet do they work?

Pop Quiz! Do your best to answer the following questions:
  • Why is cold air super-heated in the combustion chamber?
  • What shape are the stator blades on the turbine?
  • Why is the outlet narrower than the intake?
  • We all know jet engines are extremely loud. What makes them so noisy?

Now it's time to introspect on your learning experience. While you were watching the video, what did you do to learn the material? Did you:
  1. Passively listen to the voiceover and watch the animations?
  2. Pause the video and take notes?
  3. Ask yourself questions or attempt to connect the material to what you already know?
  4. Talk to a friend about the video? 

Depending on the activities in which you engaged, we can make an educated guess about the likelihood of your learning the material. The iCAP Framework [2] makes the following predictions:
  1. Shallow learning occurs when a student passively processes the material;
  2. Better learning results when the student actively does something to learn the material;
  3. We would observe even better learning if the student is making connections and constructively working with the material;
  4. The best learning outcome would be observed in an interactive discussion.
Each of these four learning processes are defined in the sections that follow.


This is the easiest learning process to describe. Passive learning occurs when the student engages in no overt behavior. A great example is a student listening to a lecture. Presumably, the learner is listening to the words in the lecture and looking at the images (assuming there is a slide presentation). In other words, during passive learning, the information is being attended to and it passes through working memory. From there, it is anybody's guess as to the ultimate fate of that information. In the best case, the presented material is stored in long-term memory in such a way that it is available for later recall. However, from the outside observer's point of view, the student is not overtly doing anything to remember the material.


Here's where things get a little more interesting. An active learning process requires that the student engage in an overtly observable behavior. Going back to our lecture example, a student would be said to be engaged in active learning if she is taking notes. Another example would be highlighting a passage in a textbook. The external behavior that occurs during active learning results in some external representation (e.g., notes or highlighting). Active learning is the hallmark of many other learning theories, which suggest that the student should be doing something while learning. In fact, active learning forms the basis of John Dewey's pragmatic educational philosophy [3]. 


The problem with active learning is that it mainly focuses on the overt learning behavior instead of considering the content or quality of those behaviors. Thus, a constructive learning process is one in which the learner goes beyond the information that is immediately presented. For example, suppose I gave a student the following function: f(x) = ax2 + b+ c, and I tell the student, "This is a quadratic function." Recognizing that the prefix "quad-" is the same as a class of shapes (i.e., quadrilaterals), the student points out that a square is a quadrilateral, and that the formula for calculating the area of a square is A = x2This student is wildly constructive because she has made connections to her previous knowledge and elaborated the original message. Thus, constructive learning takes active learning one step further by adding new information to the target material [4].


Being constructive is a great learning strategy because a student is much more likely to remember something when he or she generates it for him- or herself (see the generation effect). However, construction typically happens while learning alone. Interactive learning says that the lesson or material will be better understood if it is done in the context of a learning partner. The reason for the advantage is that two different people typically have non-overlapping knowledge, in that they share some of the same knowledge, but they also know some things that the other person does not. We also see things differently. The reason interactive learning can be better than constructive learning is when collaborators infer new knowledge together. In the literature, this idea goes by many names, including co-construction or co-inference.

To summarize, Table 1 defines each learning process and provides a concrete example.

Learning Process Definition Example
Passive No overt activity Listening to a lecture
Active Overt activity is observed
Learning by doing
Taking notes during a lecture
Constructive Going beyond the given information Drawing a concept map
Interactive Co-inferring new information with a partner Collaboratively identifying differences and similarities

Table 1. A summary of each learning process.

The S.T.E.M. Connection

Marshall McLuhan famously said, "The medium is the message." When students are given a video to learn from, it is very tempting to sit back and assume a passive learning orientation. After all, that's what we do when we watch television. That might change with the rise in popularity of educational videos; however, most of us have been trained to treat videos as entertainment. One way to combat passive learning is to give the student a task while watching the video that pushes them toward the active/constructive end of the continuum. 

Another suggestion is to ask students to watch videos in pairs with the explicit instructions to pause the video and ask each other questions. This is a good way to structure collaborative learning because the students can learn from the video as well as from each other [5].

I realize it's not always possible, or even desirable, to ask students to work collaboratively and co-construct new information. But I think the iCAP Framework is a useful way of organizing the learning literature because it helps highlight learning processes that are more (or less) effective. Our goal as instructional designers is to use the framework to select the appropriate learning process for the task at hand.

Share and Enjoy!

Dr. Bob

Going Beyond the Information Given

[1] The video "Jet Engine, How it works ?" is produced by Learn Engineering. If you are interested in learning more about a variety of other engineering topics (e.g., wind turbines), this is a good resource.

[2] Chi, M. T. H., & Wylie, R. (2014). The ICAP framework: Linking cognitive engagement to active learning outcomes. Educational Psychologist, 49, 219-243.

[3] I find this idea so useful that I open each blog with the heading Learning By Doing.

[4] Again, I find this idea so compelling that each blog also has also has a section entitled Going Beyond the Information Given.

[5] Chi, M. T. H., Roy, M., & Hausmann, R.G.M. (2008) Observing tutorial dialogues collaboratively: Insights about human tutoring effectiveness from vicarious learning. Cognitive Science, 32(2), 301-341.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Clueless: The Illusion of Explanatory Depth

Learning By Doing

You've seen a bicycle before, right? Of course you have! You probably learned how to ride when you were a kid, although maybe it's been a while since you've last ridden. I'm guessing you're probably not a bike mechanic, but you are familiar with the general shape of a bike and roughly how it works.

To kick off this post, I would like you to do two things. First, I would like you to rate your knowledge and familiarity of bicycles on a scale from 1 ("I know nothing about bikes or how they work.") to 7 ("I have a complete understanding of how a bike works."). The second task requires a pen and some paper. Below is a partial sketch of a bike; however, you will notice that it's missing a couple of parts (Fig. 1). I would like you to finish my drawing. Specifically, I would like you to add the pedals, chain, and the missing pieces of the frame [1]. 

Ready? Let's get started.

Figure 1. Complete the drawing of a bike by adding the missing pieces of the 
frame, the pedals, and show where the chain goes (used with permission).

The answer to this task is probably parked in a bike rack not far from where you're sitting. But if you need to see an image of a basic bike, with no gears or brakes, here is a great example. Now that you've seen the answer, how did you do? Did you make any mistakes?

"I thought I knew more than I did."

Most people, myself included, walk around thinking that we have a pretty good understanding of the way the world works. But every once in a while, we are confronted with the uncomfortable realization that we don't know as much as we think we do. If I asked you to re-rate your knowledge about how a bike works on the same 7-point scale, would it go up, down, or stay the same? If I had to guess, I would say it probably went down. This task is likely harder than you thought it would be [2].

The reason it was so hard is because of the illusion of explanatory depth, which is the belief that you understand something better than you actually do [3]. The illusion doesn't usually happen with facts or procedures. In other words, we're pretty good at estimating when we don't know a piece of trivia (e.g., "When did Amelia Earhart become the first woman to fly across the Atlantic ocean?" ) or how to do something (e.g., "Take the first derivative of f(x) = 3x2 + 4x - 5"). But with semi-complex mechanical objects (e.g., a lock or a crossbow), people are often overly confident when it comes to explaining how things work. 

How Does This happen? 

You might be asking yourself: How does the illusion of explanatory depth happen? 

There are several potential sources of the illusion of explanatory depth, but here are two. First, the illusion might arise from a confusion between familiarity and understanding. Since we have all seen many bikes in our daily lives, we come to think that we understand them. When we learn how to ride, we might also think that we understand how a bike works because we have experience interacting with them. 

Second, the illusion might be caused by the ease by which we can mentally simulate the mechanical device under question. For example, if you say, "Imagine a bike." I can do so easily. The detail of my mental image, however, is fairly sparse. The demands of the task don't require me to do anything more than envision something with wheels and a frame. Thus, my performance on the task seems adequate for the current purposes. Only when we raise the stakes do I stumble and discover my lack of understanding.

The S.T.E.M. Connection

The illusion of explanatory depth is a problem for education, partly because it seems inevitable. When you are learning something new, a necessary first step is to become familiar with the terminology and the concepts. You can't learn about the anatomical structure of a frog without first becoming familiar with the names of the organs. So what can be done about the illusion?

The most basic antidote for moving beyond a superficial understanding is to try and answer the question: Why? or How? Once you are tasked with explaining how something works, only then will you discover the gaps in your knowledge. It is both illuminating and humbling. Here are several examples that I've recently run into:
  • When are you able to see a new moon? 
  • Since the tension on a crossbow is strong, how do you draw back the cord?
  • How do tumblers in a lock prevent the cylinder from turning? 
  • How does a zipper work?
  • Why does the toilet keep running?
The illusion of explanatory depth is strong, and it probably serves a purpose. We can't carry around knowledge of every mechanical device around in our heads. Otherwise, we would never have enough time to do anything else! But we also don't want to dupe ourselves into thinking we understand something when we clearly don't [4]. So the best treatment is to keep asking yourself: Can I explain what the parts are, where they go, and how they interact? In other words, keep asking yourself if you understand the way things work.

Share and Enjoy!

Dr. Bob

Going Beyond the Information Given

[1] The drawing task was taken from Lawson, R. (2006). The science of cycology: Failures to understand how everyday objects work. Memory & Cognition, 34(8), 1667-1675. I am grateful to Rebecca Lawson for allowing me to recreate Figure 1.

[2] Another good example of a deceptively difficult task – and one that we talked about in a previous post – is trying to remember what a penny looks like. We've seen hundreds, maybe thousands, of pennies. But it is surprisingly difficult to identify the real penny. Try it for yourself

[3] Rozenblit, L., & Keil, F. (2002). The misunderstood limits of folk science: An illusion of explanatory depth. Cognitive science, 26(5), 521-562.

[4] Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(6), 1121.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Delay of Game: Delayed Gratification

Learning By Doing

In a recent post, we discussed the effects of self restraint. Let's explore that topic a little further by asking about the long-term effects. But first, let's start with another thought experiment. 

Rewind the clock a bit. You are four years old. We are seated in an empty room, except for a table, chair, and your favorite treat. It could be a pretzel, an animal cookie, or a marshmallow. I'm going to make a deal with you. If you avoid eating the treat while I step out of the room, you can eat the treat and you will get a second treat. In other words, if you can sit, by yourself, for 15 minutes without eating the treat, I will give you two treats. Sound like a deal? Can you resist this temptation? Excuse me while I step out. 

Oh the Pain! The Agony! 

You're not the first person to face this challenge. If you haven't seen it already, take a moment to watch this video of kids attempting to tackle the self-control task. It's amusing to watch, especially when the kids are paired with a sibling. Some kids enjoy the snack right away, while others employ various strategies to distract themselves. They close their eyes, tap on the table, and even lick the marshmallow. For some, the distractions work. But for others, they eventually fall victim to the awful temptation.

In one of the first experiments to investigate delayed gratification, the experimenters divided the kids into four different groups [1]. All of the groups had two different types of rewards: a preferred reward (i.e., animal cookies) and a less-preferred reward (i.e., pretzels). The first group didn't have to face any of the temptations because the experimenter took the treats with them as they left the room. That way, the child didn't need to look at them during the waiting period. The second group had to look at both of the rewards during the waiting period. The third group was left with the preferred reward; and the fourth group looked at the less-preferred reward. The experimenter stepped out of the room for a maximum of 15 minutes. The child could signal to the experimenter that he or she was done waiting by eating one of the available treats. 

Can you guess which group was able to wait the longest? Were the kids who had no temptation able to wait the longest? Or were the kids who were promised the best possible set of treats more motivated to wait the maximum amount of time?

What Does This Predict Later in Life?

As you may have predicted, the kids who didn't face the temptation were able to wait the longest (see Figure 1). In fact, they were able to wait almost ten times longer than the children who were exposed to both the preferred and less-preferred rewards. 

Figure 1. The amount of time the children waited 
as a function of experimental condition.

These results are interesting in their own right, but you might also be wondering: Is the waiting time predictive of outcomes later in life? How is a child's ability to forgo immediate gratification impact other aspects of their lives?

To investigate the answers to these types of questions, Dr. Walter Mischel, who was the lead author on the first study, decided to follow the same group of kids through their teenage years. What they found may surprise you. They found a moderate to large correlation between the amount of time the kids were able to wait and their SAT scores (Verbal SAT: r = 0.42; Quantitative SAT: r = 0.57). In other words, the longer the kids were able to wait, the higher their SAT scores. This is surprising because the behavior that the children demonstrated at the tender age of four had an impact on their lives 10 years later!

The S.T.E.M. Connection

Now the tough question: Can delayed gratification be taught? There seemed to be mixed evidence. On the negative side, experimenters tried to teach the children various strategies, including hiding the temptation from view, or giving them "ideation strategies" which included thinking about topics other than the temptation. Unfortunately, those strategies did not increase the waiting time by the kids [2]. 

On the positive side, however, there have been several different interventions that seem to show promising results on developing student's executive functioning [3]. Executive functioning relates to the mental processes of planning, reasoning, self-control, and self-discipline. Thus, if these interventions can have a positive impact on executive functioning, then they might also increase a child's ability to delay gratification. Some of the interventions include mindfulness training (i.e., meditation), martial arts that focus on discipline (e.g., Tae-Kwon-Do), aerobic activity, and even academic curricula that focus on self-management and impulse control (e.g., Tools of the Mind). 

In conclusion, it seems there are large individual differences in children's ability to delay gratification, and these early tendencies have a lasting impact on their development. The available evidence seems to suggest that interventions can improve self-control and discipline. So the next time we want our students to make the right choice, we will be there to remind them: Don't eat the marshmallow now! Wait until you're and adult...then you can buy all the marshmallows you want! 

Share and Enjoy!

Dr. Bob

Going Beyond the Information Given

[1] Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Rodriguez, M. L. (1989). Delay of gratiļ¬cation in children. Science, 244(4907), 933-938.

[2] Shoda, Y., Mischel, W., & Peake, P. K. (1990). Predicting adolescent cognitive and self-regulatory competencies from preschool delay of gratification: Identifying diagnostic conditions. Developmental Psychology, 26(6), 978.

[3] Diamond, A., & Lee, K. (2011). Interventions shown to aid executive function development in children 4 to 12 years old. Science, 333(6045), 959-964.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Flesh Is Weak: Ego Depletion

Update 9/11/2016: One of the best attributes of science is that it is self-correcting, which means that incomplete or flawed theories are eventually replaced with better, more accurate theories. One self-correction method is replication, where independent scientists repeat the original experiment and see if they get the same results. When replication fails, then we have a problem. After I published this post, I learned from a friend that the research behind ego depletion has been hard to replicate (hat tip: Deb Scharf). Here is a great description of the history behind this fascinating revelation.

Learning By Doing

Let's start with an extremely difficult challenge. I'm going to bake a dozen chocolate-chip cookies, and I'm going to put the plate right in front of you. They are fresh out of the oven, and they are baked to perfection: brown on all sides, and the core is still slightly doughy. I want you to sit there and inhale deeply. Let the smell of the chocolaty goodness wash over you. Unfortunately, you aren't allowed to eat any cookies. Instead, there's a second plate, and it's overflowing with radishes. You can have as many as you want. When you're done with your snack, let me know. I have a puzzle for you to complete.

Unfortunately, the puzzle that I have is unsolvable. (Are you starting to think this experiment is downright evil? Me too.) Let's rewind and try that again. Instead of being forced to eat radishes, suppose instead that you are allowed to give into temptation and eat one of the freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies. If I gave you the same unsolvable puzzle, how long would you work? Would you work longer, shorter, or about the same amount of time as your radish-eating counterpart? 

"Raw Power, More Power" –Apollo 440

As you might imagine, the scenario described above is taken from an actual psychological experiment [1]. In that experiment, headed by Dr. Roy Baumeister, the scientists were interested in better understanding a psychological construct they called: ego depletion. A more common word for the same idea might be willpower. Different individuals have different baseline levels of willpower. So that's where the chocolate-chip cookies and radishes came in. They were designed to experimentally manipulate ego depletion, as well as to test the hypothesis that willpower is finite. The scientists designed the experiment to answer the following question. If you exhaust your supply in one domain (i.e., tempting food), would it carry over into a completely separate domain (i.e., problem solving)?

So let's go back to their original experiment. They had three conditions. The Radish group was designed to exhaust the participants' finite supply of willpower. The Chocolate group was exposed to the same smells, but their willpower wasn't tapped because they were allowed to indulge. Finally, they also included a No Food Control group, just in case some people were on a diet. They tested the relative strength of one's willpower by tracking how long people worked on an unsolvable puzzle. More time meant that they had more willpower. What do you think the pattern of results turned out to be? 

As you can see from Figure 1, the group who ate radishes gave up much sooner than the other two conditions. The Radish group spent less time on the puzzles, and they attempted fewer solutions. There wasn't any difference between the Chocolate and No Food Control groups. The results strongly suggest that we all have willpower, and that our supply of willpower can be easily drained when we deny ourselves. Moreover, ego depletion can carry over from one domain to a completely separate one.

Figure 1: The amount of time (in minutes) and the number of attempts
made on the impossible puzzle.

What's the Difference Between Willpower and Grit?

In a previous post, we talked about grit, which consists of two parts. The first part is passion, and the second part is perseverance [2]. Gritty individuals are enthusiastic about some goal, whether it is playing baseball or composing a moving piece of music. But as you know, there are lots of people who are passionate, but passion doesn't automatically translate into action. That's why grit's second ingredient, perseverance, is so important. Gritty people also keep working at the same goal, despite setbacks and occasional failures.

How does willpower factor into grit? I think it's related to the second component of the definition. If you are going to persevere, then you are going to need lots of willpower to keep going. For example, you might be inclined to stop practicing free throws because you feel tired. But someone who chooses to keep practicing, instead of stopping and doing something easy, must be exerting their willpower. 

But as we said above, willpower is a finite resource. It can be tapped by continuing to do something that you don't want to do. Or, it can diminish by not doing something you'd rather be doing. One way to restore willpower is to do something restorative, like take a nap (or eat a cookie, more on that later).

The S.T.E.M. Connection

What are the implications of research on ego depletion for education? One implication is that it might help us build empathy toward our students. For example, if we observe our students giving up too easily on a complex problem, then we might consider that one explanation is that they are ego depleted. In a typical classroom, it's probably the case that students are suppressing all sorts of behaviors that are not fit or acceptable in the classroom. There are probably as many drains on one's willpower as there are stimuli in the environment.

What, then, can be done? I think understanding the concept of "ego depletion" is an excellent argument for having recess. It gives kids a time to run around and recoup some of the energy that fuels willpower. Study hall can also be a restorative moment where the student is in charge, and he or she can decide how they want to allocate their time. A nutritious lunch also seems like a logical opportunity to restore one's willpower [3].

Is willpower something that can be built up over time, like a muscle or a skill? The current research is unclear [4]. However, if the energy hypothesis is correct, then it seems logical that individuals should be able to increase their willpower.

The current theorizing on ego depletion, willpower, and self-control seems to suggest it is a finite resource. Depleting your energy in one domain carries over into separate domains of life. But all is not lost. We just need to make sure to take a moment, and enjoy the sweetness life has to chocolate-chip cookies! 

Share and Enjoy!

Dr. Bob

Going Beyond the Information Given

[1] Baumeister, R.F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D.M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1252-1265.

[2] Duckworth, A. (2016) Grit: The Power of Passion and PerseveranceNew York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

[3] Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., & Tice, D. M. (2007). The strength model of self-control. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16(6), 351-355.

[4] The study below suggests that ego depletion may also be related to the amount of glucose circulating in one's blood stream; thus, lunch can help elevate glucose levels and restore them back to baseline concentrations. 

Gailliot, M. T., Baumeister, R. F., DeWall, C. N., Maner, J. K., Plant, E. A., Tice, D. M., Brewer, L. E., & Schmeichel, B. J. (2007). Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: willpower is more than a metaphorJournal of personality and social psychology, 92(2), 325.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Future Is Now: Preparation for Future Learning

Learning By Doing

I have an assignment for you. A family of bald eagles was spotted on a hillside in an adjacent neighborhood. Your task is to set up a refuge that will keep them safe from poachers, crowds, and other impediments to nesting. As you start this exercise, what do you already know that will help you solve this problem?

Why would I give you this assignment? If your boss came up to you and said, "I need you to construct a plan for an eagle sanctuary. Have it on my desk by the end of the week." What would your reaction be? Like yours, mine would be, "Um, that's not my job. I don't know anything about eagles, sanctuaries, or how eagles raise their babies." I would protest and generally lobby to be taken off this project.

Now, consider what it's like to be a kid in school. Teachers assign their students projects from wildly disparate domains. Despite what kids know or don't know, they have to oblige their teacher (or face the consequences). Students can't complain that this is "not their job" or that they "don't know anything about eagles." They have to dive in, ask a ton of questions, and try to learn as much as possible. 

Hold Please While I Transfer You.

In a previous post, we defined transfer as the application of knowledge from one setting to another. For example, you might learn how to calculate the length of a hypotenuse of a right triangle in math class. While working on building a shed with your Dad, you have to calculate the length of the roof. You need to recognize that your knowledge from math class applies to this construction scenario. Being able to do so would be a great example of positive transfer. 

Unfortunately, far transfer is rare. People don't see how their knowledge is applicable in many situations. For example, when I was working on my book, I found out that I had to remove all my links to a certain online bookstore. The software I was using didn't allow me to search for the contents within the hyperlinks. I was lost and didn't know how to solve my problem. A few days later, it occurred to me that I do a similar task work all the time. I just need to use grep, which is a command-line search tool. Once I made the connection, I felt like an idiot because the knowledge for solving this problem was always right there, inside my head. I forgot what I knew because I didn’t recognize its application to the new problem at hand!!

The literature on learning is rife with similar examples of transfer failure. So is it a problem with our students? Or is it a problem with the theories on transfer in the literature? The answer is probably a little bit of both [1].

Why Is Transfer So Hard?

Let's make a distinction between two different theories of how to optimize transfer. The direct application theory of transfer is when we must do something new in the absence of any other resource, for example, when the student isn't allowed to look in a textbook, search the web, or phone a friend. In the preparation for future learning theory of transfer, the student is given an interim learning opportunity – an example to study or a related problem to solve. The intermediate step between the initial learning opportunity and the target transfer material should make the student more prepared to master the new problem (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Two different theories of transfer.

To compare these two theories, Dan Schwartz and Taylor Martin conducted the following study [2]. They wanted to compare two types of instruction. The first type asked students to invent a procedure for assessing the accuracy of a pitching machine. In other words, the scientists wanted students to struggle with inventing a mathematical formula that captures variation in a set of data. After they struggled, the teacher presented the "real" solution. This was contrasted with the "tell-and-practice" type of instruction where the students first heard a lecture, and then they are asked to practice applying the mathematical procedure.

Ordinarily, this would be a standard test of the direct application theory of transfer; therefore, they added a twist. On the post-test, they included a worked-out example that was related to the far transfer problem. The worked example served two purposes. First, it represented the resource for an intermediate learning opportunity. It also allowed them to evaluate the preparation for future learning theory. So what did they find?

The results of their experiment are captured in Figure 2. The right side of the figure demonstrates that the students in the Tell-and-Practice classroom did not benefit from the worked example. However, if we contrast that with the left side of Figure 2, we can see that the pattern of results for the Invention-Based instruction was different. The students who had the opportunity to invent a formula for variation were better able to take advantage of the worked example. Their performance on the transfer problem was much better relative to all the other students. This pattern of results lends empirical support to the preparation for future learning theory of transfer.

Figure 2. The learning differences between two types of instruction combined
with the opportunity to learn from a 
resource on the test.

The S.T.E.M. Connection

How does this play out in education? Going back to the eagle example, if we gave this assignment to both children (5th graders) and adults (college students), they would probably both do poorly. It's not really their fault because we just sprung it on both of them. None of the prior learning helped either population transfer their knowledge to this task. Their poor performance on this type of assessment would be consistent with the direct application theory of transfer. 

What if, however, we asked the two groups to generate questions that they would like to have answered so that they could successfully complete this task? By this metric of transfer (i.e., evaluating the questions each group asked), the adults blew the kids out of the water. The 5th graders were more focused on local features of the eagles; whereas, the adult questions demonstrated an appreciation for the inter-relationship between the organisms and their environment.

Examples Questions: College Students 
  • What type of ecosystems support eagles?
  • Do eagles have predators? How about their babies? 
  • What are some man-made threats to eagles?
  • What kind of experts are needed for the refuge?

Examples Questions: 5th Graders
  • How big are eagles?
  • What do they eat?
  • Where do they live?
  • How do they take care of their babies?

In other words, the performance on a "preparation for future learning" measure of transfer, the adults did quite well. They are able to ask the right questions about eagles because they can use their general knowledge of biology. Asking the right questions should, in turn, should help them find the right answers.

It's still true that transfer is hard. However, we should construct our learning opportunities such that "preparation for future learning" is taken into account. This also has implications for assessment because solving problems in a vacuum might not be the gold standard. Instead, as educators, we might be more interested in making sure students learn how to learn, and structure our assessments accordingly

Share and Enjoy!

Dr. Bob

Going Beyond the Information Given

[1] Bransford, J. D., & Schwartz, D. L. (1999). Rethinking transfer: A simple proposal with multiple implications. Review of Research in Education, 24, 61-100.

[2] Schwartz, D. L., & Martin, T. (2004). Inventing to prepare for future learning: The hidden efficiency of encouraging original student production in statistics instruction. Cognition and Instruction, 22129–184.