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The following is a guest post by Bridget Arend, director of university teaching at the University of Denver.

“We’ve reviewed this type of problem in class many, many times. Then I change a few details and my students act like they have never seen it before!” Have you ever found yourself uttering this sentiment? This is a common issue, especially when teaching problem solving or decision-making skills. Being able to apply previously-learned concepts and skills to a new context is called transfer. Transfer is one of the most valued aspects of learning; after all, isn’t a main goal of college to prepare students to go out and solve real life problems? Unfortunately, considerable studies have indicated that transfer does not occur automatically and can be difficult to achieve.

In higher education, we often put emphasis on the answers and conclusions of what we teach. Yet when our goal is to teach students to transfer learning – often through problem solving, case studies and lab work – it is actually more valuable to focus on the processes and the structure of the problem, rather than the answers. Below are a few guidelines to help foster transfer in problem solving:

  1. Transfer requires significant original learning. Make sure students have enough time to truly learn a concept or skill in the first place, ideally within a realistic context.
  2. At the same time, we should also provide students with examples from multiple contexts to help them see that the deeper underlying structures are applicable to other situations.
  3. When using multiple examples, spend time comparing and identifying similarities and differences. “What if we changed this one aspect of the problem? What if we completed the steps in a different order? Why are the outcomes of these two case studies so different?”
  4. Use your assignments and discussions to focus students’ time on the steps and patterns of a problem. Ask them to “show their work.” Identify common pitfalls and use sample problems that specifically address these pitfalls. Explore incorrect steps and patterns to show why they do not work.
  5. Recognize that you may fall into the “expert blind spot” where you simply don’t remember what it’s like to not know how to solve a certain problem. When modeling the process, take sufficient time, more than you think you need, to articulate the decisions and assumptions that underlie each step. When teaching students to solve problems, if we keep our focus on the process, we can better help students learn how to transfer their learned skills to multiple contexts.


2015-2016 Teaching Issues Writing Consortium’s Teaching Tips Davis, J.R. & Arend, B. (2013) Seven Ways of Learning: A Resource for More Purposeful, Effective, and Enjoyable College Teaching. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Perkins, D.N., & Salomon, G. (1988) Teaching for Transfer. Educational Leadership, v46 n1, p22-32.

Willingham, D. (2009). Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions about How the Mind Works and What it Means for the Classroom. (San Francisco: Jossey Bass).

Call for Applications:

The Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning seeks graduate students with teaching experience to serve as Kaneb Center Graduate Associates for Spring 2016 and the 2016-2017 academic year. Kaneb Graduate Associates facilitate workshops on effective teaching, develop teaching resources, and contribute to other activities to help graduate students and postdocs grow as teachers. This position is an excellent opportunity to develop as an instructor, a professional, and a leader.

Throughout the academic year, Kaneb Graduate Associates contribute an average of 5 hours per week, scheduled according to availability, and receive an hourly rate of $16.67. Graduate Associates attend weekly meetings with Dr. Kristi Rudenga, Assistant Directory of the Kaneb Center, during which they contribute content and ideas for Kaneb Center program planning. They will receive additional training in May (1.5 work days required; dates scheduled according to availability). In some cases, additional hours and additional pay may be available.

Applicants should have completed one or more semesters of TAing or teaching, preferably at Notre Dame, before holding this position. Postdocs may be eligible; contact krudenga@nd.edu for more information. Advisor and DGS approval will be required before hiring is finalized. Applicants must be in residence during the fall and spring semesters and must be available the week of August 15 for orientation events.

The Kaneb Center encourages applications that will help us to build a team diverse in culture, background, and academic discipline.

To apply, please submit the information below to kaneb@nd.edu by midnight, November 1, 2015. Interviews will take place in November 2015.

· Name
· Phone
· Email
· Department
· Current year in graduate school & anticipated year of graduation
· Paragraph describing your interest in this position
· Description of your participation in professional development activities in your department or elsewhere (teaching workshops, panel discussions, reading groups, etc…), as well as any leadership roles you have taken on in these activities.
· A 1-2 page summary of your teaching experiences, strengths, and strategies.
· Description of a workshop or seminar you would like to implement. These may be current programs that you will revise or programs that are brand new to the Kaneb Center.

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