This blog entry is the first of several postings on learning and transfer offered in connection with a TMAC workshop open to all faculty, “The Problem of Transfer, or What Students Misplace Along the Way.” (Friday, March 8, noon – 2 p.m.; rsvp to

Here, I hope to jump-start this conversation about experiences with and responses to a common problem: students do not seem to bring what they have learned from one class to another. Indeed, they often compartmentalize much of what we understand to be transferable skills. 

In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (1/21/13),
“Why Don’t They Apply What They’ve Learned, Part I,” James Lang recognizes the challenge of transfer as the central task facing students and educators. Lang cites the work of Susan Ambrose and colleagues in their groundbreaking book, How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (Jossey-Bass 2010):

Ambrose and her co-authors point to two reasons for the failure-to-transfer that all of us see sometimes in our students. First, they might tie whatever knowledge or skill we are teaching too closely to the context in which they learned it. Thus, students can write innovative opening paragraphs in my freshman-composition course, but in their other classes they continue to rely on the same strategies they learned in high school.

Second, the inability to transfer a skill or information to a novel context might indicate shallow levels of learning. If students are capable of solving problems, writing essays, or answering questions according to some formula they have learned, they might not have grasped the underlying principles of our course content. Without that deeper knowledge of what lies beneath the formula, they can’t pick up what they are learning and put it back down in an unrelated context.

What are your experiences with students’ inability to apply what they have previously learned to novel (or not-so-novel) contexts? How do you promote transfer for future learning in your teaching? I look forward to posting responses from Rutgers Camden colleagues.

Next week, in Part Two of “Learning and Transfer,” I will report on research in composition studies on writing transfer.