• September 1, 2014

Why They Don't Apply What They Learn, Part 3

Careers 1-7-11

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

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close Careers 1-7-11

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

I hear complaints about the poor quality of student writing today as often as I read stories about the Internet causing the end of higher education as we know it (i.e., frequently). When those complaints come in the form of actual conversations with peers, instead of in print, I feel myself immediately put on the defensive. As a tenured member of the small work force of writing teachers on my campus, I wonder: Are my colleagues who encounter such poor writing holding me (and the rest of my department) responsible?

I do help students become better writers during the time they spend with me, I want to tell my colleagues—I promise! I could show you writing samples from the beginning and end of the semester, and you would see the ways in which they have improved. For some reason, though, many students check those skills at the door on the way out of my classroom, and never realize that editing their papers for clarity and concision, or writing transition sentences between paragraphs, are not just of use in English composition.

Writing strikes me as one of the primary learned skills that students have difficulty transferring from one context to another. In the previous two columns for this series, I have described the work of a trio of learning researchers to explain why students—and human beings in general—often have trouble taking knowledge or skills learned in one context and applying them to a new one.

In Part 1, I cited the work of Susan Ambrose and a group of co-authors, as well as the biologist James Zull, on the cognitive barriers that we face in attempting to transfer knowledge from one context to another. Part 2 used Ken Bain's What the Best College Students Do to explore the learning practices of students who do manage to transfer knowledge successfully. To finish the series, I want to consider what faculty members can do to help their students.

The basic principle in a sentence: Since we can't follow students out of our classrooms and show them all of the diverse contexts in which our course content could help them—in other classes and in their eventual careers—we have to work as much as possible to bring those diverse contexts into our classrooms.

Last year I wrote about the work of Andrew Kaufman, who teaches Russian literature at the University of Virginia. His community-service learning course helps demonstrate the relevance of 19th-century Russian literature to his students' lives by asking them to lead discussions on the texts with the residents of a nearby juvenile correctional center. Those residents find much with which to identify, and useful material for analyzing their own past mistakes, in the stories of authors like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.

While the residents are discovering how long-dead Russian writers can still speak to us today, so, too, are the students in Kaufman's course. One of his students articulated precisely the kind of transfer that we want to see happen: "If you can have calculus and applied calculus, I think ... this class is applied literature. You're applying it to your life. The personal aspect is something you don't ever get in English classes. You're not expected or ever requested to compare [the literature] to your life to see if you could relate to it."

My fellow English professors might disagree that we never make such requests. But I also suspect that most of us seek such comparisons only in informal classroom interactions, rather than by building them into the structure of our courses. In our lectures we might use analogies or examples from contemporary culture, and in class discussions we might ask students to make comparisons between their lives and the characters in a novel. But when the time comes for evaluation, we lock all of that material away and ask for standard academic analyses: the five-page essay, the multiple-choice exam, the presentation to a roomful of glassy-eyed classmates.

Kaufman's course would fall under the aegis of service learning, a teaching approach that specifically seeks to draw connections between course material and real-world context—all while doing some good in the world. Courses like Kaufman's have tremendous potential to open up the eyes of students to the diverse applicability of their learned skills and knowledge.

In a similar way, Esteban Loustaunau, director of Latin American studies at my college, teaches a course in Spanish-American drama that draws the world into his classroom. He assigns his students to read the Brazilian director Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed, one thread of which describes a project designed to give voice to indigenous Quechua speakers in Peru by providing them cameras and allowing them to tell their own stories through their photographs. My colleague uses that story to help students understand how art can bring about social change by empowering marginalized members of the community. A fascinating lesson—but one that students might easily box away at the end of the semester and move on.

To help students apply that lesson to the world, my colleague worked with a local organization that offers training to job-seeking immigrants in our city. His course provided disposable cameras to immigrants in a training class at the center and asked them to use the cameras to depict the everyday realities of their lives in the United States, and to write essays about their photographs. His Spanish students then took on the role of teaching assistants at the training center. The immigrants made presentations in oral and written forms, and ultimately Loustaunau's class worked to create an exhibit of the photographs and essays in our library.

Students who might have been abstractedly interested in theories and artistic strategies for empowering marginalized people now could understand how those strategies made sense in our local city and, I expect, in the cities to which they return every summer, or move after graduation. Those students will see the immigrants in their midst in a new way, and perhaps begin to see them at all for the very first time.

Service-learning courses offer a means. but not the only one, of pulling new and diverse contexts into our courses. Accomplishing that objective requires nothing more than thinking about why our disciplines matter, and about how we transfer our own expert knowledge into our daily lives and careers, and then giving students a taste of that experience.

That will seem like standard fare for faculty members in some disciplines. Courses in nursing, engineering, or accounting come with a clear pathway to a life after college; asking students to apply the skills or knowledge they've learned is second nature to faculty in those fields.

It might prove more challenging to envision how to draw in the world when you are teaching literature, history, or anthropology. How do you allow students to understand the ways in which historical reasoning or critical interpretive skills will enrich their lives when your time with them is finished?

You can preach it to them, of course. I suspect many of us do. But we know that the deepest learning happens when students make the connection themselves. They have to be immersed in a challenging environment, faced with a puzzling question, or given some intractable problem to solve. And then—with the help of a faculty member—they will suddenly realize they have learned something that will help them find the way out.

If we are not providing students with the opportunity to experience that first moment of transfer, and to pull a single thread out of our courses and into some other context, we should not find ourselves surprised that students walk through our courses like window shoppers, having spent a little time enjoying the view in our plate-glass window, but taking nothing home.

A major challenge we face in pulling the world into our classrooms is that the world can be a messy place. Every such innovation you make to a course will cost you hours of new work and require you to cede a little more control to the unpredictability of the universe. We can (mostly) control what happens in our classrooms; we have far less control over what our students might experience in a juvenile correction center or an immigrant training classroom. That can be both messy and frightening.

Earlier this semester, after months of thinking about these issues, I tried an experiment with an upper-level writing course in creative nonfiction. My entire class co-wrote an article for the campus newspaper, using the writing techniques we had been learning, with a shared Google document. It was messy, and that was mostly my fault: I misjudged how long it would take, and we encountered some technical challenges along the way.

But the two class periods in which we were writing the article were the most alive and energetic ones I have ever experienced. A little mess seemed a small price to pay for the opportunity to open the door of the classroom and help students see how the writing skills they were learning could help formulate and shepherd an article into print.

My one-week experiment was a small step compared with the innovations of Andrew Kaufman or Esteban Loustaunau. But the research I have covered in this series on transfer has convinced me that such steps are necessary if I want my students to understand how to apply writing skills in novel contexts. As long as we continue to speak the language of transfer in higher education, promising our students that our courses will make a difference in their lives beyond the classroom, this seems to me like a path we have to be willing to pursue.

James M. Lang is an associate professor of English and director of the college honors program at Assumption College. His new book, "Cheating Lessons: Learning From Academic Dishonesty," will be published by Harvard University Press later this year.

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