Transfering ideas and skills (Part 1)

By | January 23, 2013

fieldsThere’s an interesting discussion currently underway on one of the Chronicle of Higher Education blogs regarding the issue of students transferring skills and techniques learned in one class to another class. The original article and a lot of the comments support the idea that transferability tends to be pretty low, and that while faculty are sensitive to and generally try to enhance transferability, they don’t seem to do a very good job of it. This has very real repercussions in the context of a university program, where it’s commonly assumed that learning is cumulative and that by the end, the student will be able to see the common themes running through the courses and be able to apply generalized lessons to situations not specifically taught. But if students in general are not learning how to transfer ideas and concepts between their classes, what are they going to have as an overall effect when they graduate?

I’ve weighed in on this discussion at a couple of points, but I thought it worth expanding on here a bit. In fact, there are multiple implications worth discussing, so this will be a two-part post with the second part taking up a different way of thinking about the problem. In this part, I’m going to address the issue of a curriculum as a mechanism for encouraging transferability. By “curriculum”, I mean the next division of a program above the individual course, consisting of a set of intellectually connected courses where there is intentional progression from one idea to another and a gradual elicitation of connections without having to necessarily belabor the point. There may be multiple curricula within a given department or program, as well as second-level curricula tying together a number of specific curricula and courses. A degree may include only one curriculum or possibly more, depending on the area and the individual University. Without the idea of a curriculum, all a student has is a group of individual courses that may or may not add up to anything generalizable.

Some universities are very conscious of and strongly manage curricula; at others, the issue is either skirted or left implicit, usually relying on the structure of the profession to supply the common themes. I’ve seen this pattern work, but in general, I would claim that greater awareness of curricular issues and specific faculty involvement in their formulation is a Good Thing. As the first Chair of a Faculty Curriculum Committee at my late university (the concept of curriculum was late emerging there), I tried to encourage us to move away from the independent-course model with student self-determination toward a greater emphasis on curricular structure.

As I observed in the CHE discussion, one way to encourage the kind of curricular structure leading to greater transferability is slightly less than universally felicitous in its effects – that is, having one individual take responsibility for putting it all together. An example would be my late university’s information technology management program, in which virtually all of the courses in both the bachelors and masters programs were developed and written by me over the period of a couple of years (15 in one term, actually). The good news is all the courses reflected a common perspective (socio-technical systems design) and were systematically linked both explicitly and implicitly; in addition, I was able to impose a sequencing of sorts that reinforced this common direction. The bad news is, of course, that the perspective reflected was, for better or worse, my own somewhat idiosyncratic approach to information systems implementation and use, with only a minor leavening of alternative viewpoints, at least at the earlier stages of the program. I can recall on more than one occasion attending graduation and watching a long line of ITM students trek across the stage receiving their degrees, realizing that all these folks were about to be unleashed on the IT world thinking mostly like me. I wondered if either they or the profession would be thus well served. Obviously, I believed (and continue to believe) that the approach embodied in the ITM curriculum was of value and did at least encourage transferability of ideas and skills, but in general the monoculture approach to curriculum design is as dangerous in education as it is in agriculture.

The alternative to intellectual monoculture is, of course, the explicit involvement of multiple faculty in the formulation of curricular goals and attention to the issue of ideas to be transferred from one course to another. This needs to be clearly set forth in program documents available to students as well as faculty, and reinforced in each course syllabus and in the feedback given to students. As some have observed in the CHE discussion, transference of ideas is not particularly emphasized at any point in the K-12 sequences that most students bring with them to a university. It’s likely to be a pretty foreign concept to many students, and needs to be specifically cultivated rather than taken for granted. It’s important to remember that regarding transferability and generalizability of the ideas, what may sound to faculty like the repetition of the obvious is likely to be largely unfamiliar to most students. Sometimes, it takes beating a concept to death with a stick to make it sink in.

Overall, the transferability of ideas and concepts across courses and throughout a student’s time with the University is critical to the development of the well-rounded graduates we’d like to send out into the world using the things that we taught them about. It’s pretty clear that unless we increasingly and explicitly attend to development of generalizing skills with our students, they are unlikely to develop by themselves. I would commend this issue to all faculty as they think about their own courses and curricula. I would also encourage the development of curriculum committees at all levels of a program or university; unless the development of integrated curricula gets addressed at all the various levels involved, the students – and by extension, the faculty – are not going to have the generalizable experience that they want and deserve.

In Part 2 of this discussion, I’ll address another issue of transferability that occurred to me later on.

  • DrEvel1

    Requiring certain courses and imposing a system of prerequisites is generally an important part of creating a curriculum, but it doesn’t by itself guarantee transferability. The other important element is incorporation into their courses of of similar elements, vocabulary, and analytical frameworks by professors teaching in common areas. In past years, this tended to be achieved informally, by collegial discussion and sharing among the faculty members. Lately, this process has been seriously compromised by at least three factors: (a) the increasing ideological polarization apparent in many departments and fields; (b) the decreased emphasis on the discussion of teaching brought about by the increased stress on research; and (c) the enormous increase in passing individual courses off to adjuncts and teaching assistants with little support and less coordination. When the elements that encourage transfer of ideas between courses are not discussed and regularly asserted, each professor has a tendency to try to put his/her own stamp on the course. The result is often idiosyncratic enough to completely confuse the students.
    Unless those three elements are attended to, I don’t see an end to this problem.

    At least we did eventually notice that there was substantial transferability of ideas among the issues of race, war, gender equality and the environment. By then, however, it was a little late…

  • http://LinkedIn Bill Baldwin, Jr.

    Dr. Eveland,

    Looking back on my undergraduate years at USC, which ended with a BA in International Relations and a mid-year graduation in February 1967, I don’t recall any mention of the need for “transferability” between individual courses.

    Once a student satisfied the basic university or college requirements ( English, Science, Math, PE) after declaring a major you were then presented with the list of required courses you would need to take in your Sophomore, Junior and Senior years in order to qualify for your degree. There were a few elective choices to select and in my case a foreign language requirement to be fulfilled, as well.

    It was bigger picture thinking back then. We weren’t brought up asking “why do I have to take this class?”, in general we assumed the university had thought things through and the courses we were required to take were chosen for a reason.

    My generation DID question the larger issues of race, war, gender equality and the environment.