Three thoughts to help apply learning to new problems

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Ensuring that students have a strong enough grasp of chemistry to be able to apply their knowledge in unfamiliar contexts is a key goal for any chemistry teacher, and it’s an ability being tested more and more in exams. This skill is sometimes referred to as transfer of learning, and is a particular challenge in STEM subjects.

Traditional teaching methods often result in shallow learning, characterised by rote-memorisation and a dependence on algorithmic methods. This leads to students being unable to apply learning to complex or unfamiliar situations.

In a recent study1, Melonie Teichert and her co-workers explore the relationship between particular thinking processes used by students and their ability to transfer learning to address an unfamiliar problem.

Laboratory work in this study was based on the Model-Observe-Reflect-Explain (MORE) pedagogy, which has previously been shown to improve transfer success compared with standard instruction.

Students first develop initial models of the phenomenon they’re studying based on ideas from macroscopic and molecular-level perspectives. They then conduct experiments that compare and contrast several examples of the phenomenon. Then, they reflect on their observations and how they align with their initial model. Finally, students refine their sub-microscopic models and explain their rationale for doing so.

A key feature of the MORE Thinking Frame is the fact that the teacher prompts students to engage in metacognitive monitoring of their understanding of models – to think about how and why their conceptualisation evolves over time.

Reflective reasoning

In this case, students were first asked to describe their understanding of what happens when salt and sugar are added separately to water. They then carried out experiments designed to inform their models. These included adding different compounds to distilled water, recording observations and measuring electrical conductivities. ‘Reflection questions’ prompted students to refine their models and to explain their revisions.

To test the impact on students’ abilities to transfer learning, they read a passage explaining boiling point elevation and were then asked to predict, with reasoning, the effect of solutes on the boiling point of aqueous solutions.

Of the 28 students interviewed, 12 made accurate predictions with correct reasoning, while the others were unable to apply their knowledge to tackle the problem.

how correct the initial and final models were was not strongly associated with successful transfer of learning

The researchers found that nine of the ‘correct’ students used three specific processes that are strongly associated with successful transfer of learning. These are: constructing sub-microscopic models that are consistent with experimental evidence; engaging in accurate metacognitive monitoring of their evolving sub-microscopic models; and using evidence to justify sub-microscopic model refinements.

Interestingly, how correct the initial and final sub-microscopic models were was not strongly associated with successful transfer of learning. Despite the small sample size, this is valuable evidence that informs how we support students in developing and applying models.

Apply it in your classroom

You can easily incorporate the MORE approach into classroom activities. And it’s not limited to practical work. Even if you don’t rigidly adhere to it, you can adopt and embed some of the principles in existing tasks.

But, students taking part in MORE activities is not enough. Engaging in specific thinking processes is critical to success. You need to ensure that students engage in detailed reflection on the progression of their sub-microscopic ideas. This contributes to developing a deep understanding, improving the ability to apply the knowledge in different contexts. You can prompt students to adopt these key thinking processes, but metacognition is difficult, and you will need to give some guidance to support them.

Teaching tips

  • Give students the opportunity to construct their own sub-microscopic models before teaching a topic. It is important that students retain their initial model to support development.
  • Prompt students to reflect on observations they make during practical activities. Encourage them to relate these to their sub-microscopic models.
  • Then ask students to refine their model based on the evidence. Importantly, they should explain their reasons for the refinements they make to their model.
  • When you’re doing a practical activity, it is important that students link justifications for changes to their model to the experimental evidence.
  • Incorporate the same prompts into other non-practical activities. Encourage students to reflect on and refine models wherever they appear.
  • Of course, these three thinking processes may also be effective in supporting students in other STEM subjects.