Learning to apply course material

Series Editor: Michael Theall, Youngstown State University
Authors: Todd Zakrajsek, Central Michigan University; Tamara Rosier, Cornerstone University

Instruction in the absence of application is incomplete because it occurs in a kind of artificial learning environment. Often, there is no direct connection between the material and the learner’s experience and as a result, learning can be extremely difficult. Dewey (1) and many others over the past 100 years have stated emphatically that learning is greatly facilitated when students are shown how new information applies to their lives. This application not only increases motivation (2), but also increases critical thinking (3), and later recall of the material (4).
In fact, the entire constructivist view of learning is predicated on the concept of building upon experiences across one’s lifetime. That is, we “use” the information we obtain to construct meaning in our lives, and we use previously learned material and experiences to build a framework for effectively incorporating new information.

IDEA research has found that several of the IDEA method items are related to Objective 3. The following six are of particularly important:

  • Method 2. Helping students answer their own questions
  • Method 4. Demonstrating importance of subject
  • Method 6. Make it clear how topic fits in course
  • Method 8. Stimulated intellectual effort
  • Method 13. Introduced stimulating ideas
  • Method 15. Inspired students to set challenging goals.

They primarily suggest the importance of stimulating interest in the topic, demonstrating the importance of the topic, inspiring students to set high goals, and helping students to answer their own questions. In “learning to apply course material,” it is important to actively involve students in the learning process and to help them see both the relevance and importance of the information involved. These six items all pertain to helping students to build a foundation of specific course knowledge and to take responsibility for their own learning.

Objective 3 is also strongly related to several other learning objectives pertaining primarily to developing solid foundational knowledge and skills, and an interest of the topic. Specifically,

  • Objective 1 (item 21). Gaining factual knowledge,
  • Objective 2 (item 22). Learning principles and theories,
  • Objective 4 (item 24). Professional skills/views, and
  • Objective 12 (item 32). Interest in learning more.

Interestingly, “learning to apply course material” is not strongly related to items pertaining to amount of work and difficultly of the course, nor participating in teams and discussion groups. While these are very important aspects of the learning process, the mere presence of difficult material and working in groups themselves does not necessarily relate to Objective 3. Application must involve an individual effort.

Helpful Hints

It appears that learning relevant foundational information and skills and seeing how these are used in class is more critical to applying course material for improved thinking and decision making than is simply the amount of course material assigned. Understanding a concept, even at an expert level, does not by itself ensure the material can be applied in an appropriate manner. It is important to help students to learn by helping them to practice recalling and using the information and skills as often as possible.

Helping students to learn to apply course material is closely related to Chickering and Gamson’s (5) principle of using active learning in the classroom. Active involvement through applying new information is crucial to real-life problem solving, and connecting learning to something directly relevant to the student as a person is a basic concept in creating an active environment.

As teachers, we need to consider approaches to instruction that allow students to involve themselves in their own learning processes. They must be given opportunities to construct, question, transfer, critique and apply their new learning. Students’ understanding improves when they actively construct meaning and try to make sense of the material. There are many ways to assist students to learn application of course material. This Note will focus on four methods – teaching for transfer, improving critical thinking, problem-based learning, and service-learning.

Improving critical thinking. A first step in critical thinking is to apply relevant information and experiences to the solution of the issue or problem at hand. Thus, using questions to prompt the application of existing or new information is one strategy you can use to improve critical thinking. Probing questions encourage students to think more productively and to evaluate the evidence more efficiently. Model critical thinking and application thinking in your classes by asking questions that encourage students to evaluate alternatives and make educated choices (3).

The questions asked should stimulate critical and creative responses. Don’t ask for lists of items or what happened, but rather “Why” and “How” they happened. As instructors and facilitators of learning, we must not rely too heavily on textbooks or work books, or simply seek simple, “correct answers” to validate student learning. This only reinforces student belief that there is a “correct response” and that our job as teachers is to uncover that answer and then move to new material. Instead, we need to ask questions and speculate beyond what is known to create new ideas and information. As we facilitate conversations, we show our students that we value their questions, consider them as thinkers, and invite them to share their points of view.

To promote critical thinking with our classes, provide opportunities for students to relate the material to their life experiences and to evaluate and question what is said, rather than immediately accepting it as truth. When we promote critical thinking skills, we teach our students to argue both sides of an issue, compare answers and judge the “best” answer based on evidence and encourage students to create arguments in a reasoned way rather than through emotions. Critical thinking strategies also encourage students to use new information and apply it to that which was previously learned.

Teaching for transfer. Applying recently learned course material to new situations is a complex and critical cognitive goal. Transfer is the cognitive process of applying previous experiences and knowledge to learning or problem solving in a new situation (6). It is one of the most important skills we can teach our students.

Cognitive transfers can be described using three sets of concepts: near or far (7); high-road or low-road; and forward or backward (8). Near and far transfer refers to the relative ease with which new material is applied. Near transfer occurs when the learning context is very similar to the context where the information is used. An example of near transfer is a student who learns to type on a typewriter applies that knowledge to a computer keyboard. Far transfer of learning applies when the learning context and the application context are very different. For example, if a student works in an office setting and applies what she has learned about leadership styles to her situation, a far transfer has occurred.

High-road and low-road transfer refers to the “cognitive energy” required to make the connection. A low-road transfer is unconscious or intuitive and takes little effort (for example driving a new car similar to one’s old vehicle), whereas high-road transfer takes a conscious, explicit effort to apply learning from one situation to another (for example, selecting and using a statistical test with a new and different kind of data). Backward-reaching and forward-reaching transfers are concerned with the timing of the application. Backward-reaching transfer occurs when a student examines a past experiences and applies the new learning to it. A forward-reaching transfer occurs when a student thinks to a time in the future when the new information can be applied.

When teaching for transfer, it is important to ground the concept you are teaching in some applied context. Introduce your topic, briefly discuss, and then ask students to generate examples of the concept. As you do this, notice the type of transfers they are using. Challenge them to apply the concept to their personal and professional lives as well as to other contexts. As you teach concepts for application, you will also want to remember that teaching for depth of meaning and understanding increases a student’s ability to transfer information. Students will need time to construct meaning and consider the implications of the new knowledge. They will also need assistance to first see how information can be transferred to a variety of settings. By encouraging students to make a variety of transfers, you will be increasing the likelihood of deeper learning.

Problem-based learning. Too much of “traditional” teaching involves giving students isolated bits of information to be memorized and then demanding that it be retrieved for examinations. Problem-based learning is an alternative approach whereby students are given a real-world scenario that is often structured to be complex and ill-defined. Students are required to use specific course material and concepts to solve the problem at hand, thereby setting up a situation in which students are directly applying course material to a real-world problem. Working in groups, students strive to solve the problems while the instructor serves as a facilitator and guide. Instructors who use problem-based learning report that this approach helps students to develop critical thinking sills, improves retention of material, demonstrates the values of working with others, and provides a framework for solving problems that persists after the course has ended (9). This approach also facilitates transfer of learning as described above. The University of Delaware maintains one of the most informative websites for information on problem-based learning (http://www.udel.edu/pbl/).

Service-Learning. Service-learning is an experiential teaching/learning method that connects meaningful community service with academic learning. It gives students opportunities to directly apply course material to meet a community need, and is based heavily on the suggestions for good instruction and learning by Dewey, Piaget, and Kolb. One example may be a marketing class assisting a local school district in getting the word out about school millage for an upcoming election. Students in the course might do audience research, develop a marketing strategy, create a theme or message, and collect data to determine the effectiveness of the campaign. Service-learning has many of the same benefits of an apprenticeship, with students learning directly applicable skills from course content, and the community receiving assistance at very little cost. With respect to academic development in the area of the course content, reflection on the project is vital to learning. Evidence of student learning and future civic engagement by those participating in well-organized service-learning activities is overwhelming (10). Extensive information regarding service-learning can be found at the national service-learning clearinghouse (http://www.servicelearning.org/).

Assessment Issues

In order to apply course material, it is important that students have a strong foundation of basic information. As the course instructor, you should first assess for critical aspects of foundational knowledge in the course. This can be done through examinations, quizzes, and class discussions. The important issue here is that students have appropriate and accurate material as the basis for reasoned applications to new problems.

It is important that students understand the importance of application in your course. Explain to the students that they will be expected to apply course material to “real world” problems and that they will be tested on their ability to solve problems in the course. It is important that students realize there are critical steps to logical problem solving and application of course material. Students must understand responses will not be given full credit just because they have opinions and attempted to answer. To assess the extent to which students have learned to apply course material to improve thinking, problem solving, and decision making, ask students periodically to express their perception of the value of applying course material to new problems. Students who are in class with the expectation that there is one correct answer and simply desire for you as the instructor to give them the answer will be frustrated by a course in which they are asked to do “extra” work, such as applying information to seemingly extraneous situations. It helps to be aware of this possible resistance. Do not be discouraged if at first, students object to your assignments.

With respect to transfer, start with applications that are very close to the learned material and then increase the distance from the learned material to that which they are applying their new knowledge. This shift from near to far transfer will assist the students in understanding not only how to apply the current information, but the process of learning to apply information in an increasingly wide range of situations. For example, students in an environmental biology course may first be asked how a certain chemical will impact the frog population of a stagnant pond. Later, they may be asked how introduction of a given chemical will impact the ecosystem of an entire stream and surrounding area.

Problem-based learning focuses on applying learning. Having students solve problems (alone or together) either in class or through at-home assignments, better prepares them for examinations. For critical thinking assessment, the instructor should be certain to ask questions at a higher cognitive level – analysis, synthesis, and evaluation (11). These questions are good for testing students on both forward and backward transfer. Present well-known problems in societal issues and ask student how the information in the course could have been used to solve those problems. At times, students will note that technology and knowledge present today were not even available at the time, so it is not an issue that the people at that time made a mistake and “should have done things differently,” but rather a demonstration that as a society we are able to solve increasingly complex problems. For example, an automotive design class may be asked to look at the design of the Ford Pinto of the 1970s and asked how the design might have been changed to avoid the exploding gas tank problem, or to look ahead to increasing traffic and pollution problems and suggest how new designs might avoid these problems.

There are several methods to test understanding of application of course material with respect to service-learning. On examinations, students can be asked to recount what took place and how the material from the class was used to solve specific problems. For example, in a marketing class in which a service-learning project helped bring needed donations to a food kitchen, students might be asked what principles of marketing made the advertising campaign successful. For service-learning, reflection is also an important part of the class and a way to gage understanding of application of course material to meet community need. Students in that same marketing class may be asked what they felt was their most important individual contribution and how their knowledge of course material benefited the soup kitchen.

There are also a number of classroom assessment techniques that can be used to document the extent to which students are learning to apply course material (12). As an example, “Application Cards” may be used whereby students write down one unique real-world application of the material covered. This is a quick and easy method to determine whether the student understands the material and how it can be applied. This technique may be broadened to include aspects of problem solving and critical thinking.

If the goal in a course is to teach students to apply course material for improved thinking, problem solving, and decision making, it is imperative to give the students multiple opportunities to practice that behavior. Additionally, if these forms of thinking and problem solving are important aspects of the course, they should be demanded of the students as part of the course. Students quickly determine that issues of importance to the instructors are related to the grading process, and that attention to these issues is important for better learning and better grades.

References and Resources

  1. Dewey, J. (1913). Interest and effort in education. Boston: Riverside Press.
  2. Svinicki, M. D. (2004). Learning and motivation in the postsecondary classroom. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Company, Inc.
  3. Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2001). Critical thinking: Tools for taking charge of your learning and your life. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
  4. Craik, F. I. M., & Lockhart, R. S. (1972). Levels of processing: A framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11, 671-684.
  5. Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1991). Applying the seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. New Directions for Teaching and Learning #47. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  6. Gentile, J. M. (2000). Then and now: A brief view of Hope College today. In M.P. Doyle (Eds.) Academic Excellence. Chapter 6. Tuscon, AZ: Research Corporation.
  7. Shunk, D. H. (2000). Learning theories: An educational perspective (3rd ed). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  8. Salomon, G., & Perkins, D. (1989). Rocky roads to transfer: Rethinking mechanisms of a neglected phenomenon. Educational Psychologist, 24(2), 113-142.
  9. Major,C. (2002). Problem-based learning in general education at Samford University: A case study of changing faculty culture through targeted improvement efforts.The Journal of General Education 51(4), 235-256.
  10. Eyler, J., & Giles, D. E. Jr. (1999). Where’s the learning in service-learning San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  11. Huitt, W. (2004). Bloom et al.’s taxonomy of the cognitive domain. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved September 20,2006, from http://chiron.valdosta.edu/whuitt/col/cogsys/bloom.html
  12. Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Related POD-IDEA Center Notes

  • IDEA Item #2 “Found ways to help students answer their own questions,” Nancy McClure
  • IDEA Item #4 “Demonstrated the importance and significance of the subject matter,” Nancy McClure
  • IDEA Item #6 “Made it clear how each topic fit into the course,” Michael Theall
  • IDEA Item #8 “Stimulated students to intellectual effort beyond that required by most courses,” Nancy McClure
  • IDEA Item #13 “Introduced stimulating ideas about the subject,” Michael Theall
  • IDEA Item #15 “Inspired students to set and achieve goals which really challenged them,” Todd Zakrajsek

Related IDEA Papers