Tips on Teaching

Using Effective Learning Strategies to Apply Knowledge Across Disciplines

by Kristin Broussard, Graduate Assistant, Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning

A key challenge for educators and for learners is applying specific knowledge across domains. As teachers, we may struggle to find ways to get students to apply their knowledge from our disciplines or courses to other courses or have difficulty getting students to see the importance of content for life (who has not heard the dreaded utterance, “when will I use this?”). As learners ourselves, we may also struggle to apply domain-specific knowledge about teaching practices to our own disciples or courses. My aim is to help bridge some of these gaps between siloed knowledge by introducing and applying foundational principles of learning, as explained in the book, Make It Stick (Brown, Roediger III, & McDaniel, 2014).

What Are Some of the Most Effective Learning Strategies?

Retrieval Practice

The key to effective learning through retrieval practice is to do it periodically and to space out the practice (instead of sitting down and trying to cram several weeks of material into your brain right before an exam). Research shows that “getting rusty” (i.e., losing the memory pathways to the knowledge) in between helps to build stronger neural connections and eventually makes retrieval of the information more automatic – what we might call long-term learning. Another key aspect of retrieval practice is that by “getting rusty” in between practice sessions, it allows us to reflect on our learning strategies and find what worked or didn’t work and how we could improve in the future. For example, did flash cards work for you? Or was it better to take a practice quiz or to teach the material to a friend? This metacognitive reflection also involves other effective learning strategies, such as retrieving prior knowledge, connecting to experiences, and rehearsal.

Finding Underlying Principles or Rules

By finding underlying principles or rules, people become better at picking good solutions to novel problems and unfamiliar situations because you can apply those foundational principles or rules to a variety of similar situations, even if you have not encountered them before.

Testing Our Knowledge

We all have illusions about how much we know and are able to do based on what we think we know (versus what we might have been taught, but not actually learned). Being tested is how we see what we know and what we are capable of doing with that knowledge.

Elaboration with Prior Knowledge

Elaboration is the process of giving new material meaning by expressing it in your own words or connecting it with prior knowledge. No one can learn new concepts without some prior knowledge; for example, you cannot learn addition if you do not understand the concept of numbers and counting. Additionally, connecting abstract concepts to real-world scenarios or to personal experiences can provide useful examples for understanding and attach meaning to the concept, which helps with long-term learning. Integrating new knowledge and prior knowledge also improves understanding of novel concepts and helps with applying that new knowledge to other concepts and situations.

Understand Intelligence is Plastic

Contrary to the belief that intelligence is “fixed” (i.e., you are born with a predisposition for intelligence or certain types of intelligence; e.g., math, art, music), most of your intellectual and learning abilities change over time with practice and experience. Each new experience and opportunity to practice applying knowledge enables people to build a better foundation of prior knowledge on which to learn more and more and to develop complex mastery and problem-solving (e.g., through discerning foundational principles and elaboration). Failure is just a way of testing our knowledge and gaining more knowledge about ourselves and what we can do, which gives us the ability to learn more, which, in turn, leads to mastery of that knowledge and its application.

How Can We Use These Strategies to Apply Knowledge Across Domains?

Well, if I told you the answer, that wouldn’t allow you to use your new understanding of effective learning strategies!

Instead, I encourage you to reflect on your teaching, your students’ learning opportunities, and your own learning, and to think about how learning effectively necessitates applying knowledge across domains. What are a few of the key concepts and/or skills you want your students to take with them from your course? What are some of the barriers/challenges to getting people to apply knowledge across disciplines/domains? How might effective learning strategies help to overcome those barriers?

It is difficult to learn effectively if you do not know what the strategies are. So, one key step in getting your students to learn more effectively is to show them how to do so. What are some ways in which you will teach and encourage students to use effective learning strategies to apply concepts outside of your course?


References

Brown, P.C., Roediger III, H.L., & McDaniel, M.A. (2014). Make It Stick. The Belknap Press of Harvard University: Cambridge, MA.

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