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So far, we have discussed two slightly different ways to use the principle: (1) listing the definitional attributes that make something what it is (“myth” for example) and (2) comparing two parallel lists of similar concepts to distinguish the critical attributes that separate the target concept (tattling) from its close relative (reporting). A third use helps us see which from among the many at- tributes that may characterize an entity are the critical ones—the ones it must have to separate it from the pack. For example, many mammals have hair and bear their young alive (rather than in eggs), but some mammals do not have those characteristics. However, all mammals nurse their young. That is the criti- cal attribute without which a mammal is not a mammal. Through any of these

 

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three variations—isolation of definitional, essential, and critical attributes— this principle can strengthen learning.

When teachers highlight items as important, that is not isolation of critical attributes. Things can be important without being critical attributes—for ex- ample, “These four formulas may be the most important things to know in the chapter” or “These three events may be the most important things to know about the month preceding the Civil War.” Neither set of important things, however, is the critical attribute of anything. Highlighting important items is something teachers do deliberately, and usefully, to focus students’ attention on more important items, but that is quite different from identifying the defi- nitional attributes of a concept.

In exploring the difference between a developed and a developing country, the teacher may highlight certain critical attributes that define developed, such as mechanized planting and harvesting, an efficient national market distribution system, and an infrastructure of highways and transportation networks. It is not enough, however, for this list of attributes simply to be presented in the text or on the board. The teacher must see to it that the critical attributes are gen- erated, call the students’ attention to them (or elicit them from the students), and then have students apply the attributes in deciding which cases (here, what countries) do or do not contain those critical attributes. When students can discriminate developed from developing countries through analysis of critical attributes in new settings or in studies of countries where they’re not specifi- cally asked to look at them as developed versus developing, then learning has transferred.

Meaning

The more meaningful and relevant the task or application of information is to the students’ world, the easier it is to learn. Teachers using this principle may make explicit references to students’ personal experiences as a tie or a hook for connecting content with students’ lives, or they may simulate the experi- ences in the learning activity or in some other way embed the new content in the students’ meaning framework. One teacher using this principle gave us the following example: “The goal is to understand the difference between chronol- ogy and history. I do a two-part assignment. For one day, students are asked to keep a time line of their activities. The next day, they are to write a narrative history of the one day for which they kept the time line, showing, where pos- sible, a cause and effect relationship.” This assignment makes a nice distinction between chronology and history around a context that has intimate personal meaning for the students (i.e., their own day’s activities).

The more meaningful and relevant the task or application of information is to the students’ world, the easier it is to learn.

 

 

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Modeling

Learning can be enhanced by modeling new skills or operations and preserv- ing these models for student reference during early stages of learning. After ex- plaining and demonstrating the algorithm for two-digit multiplication (or the format for writing a book report, or anything else with procedures and steps), the teacher leaves a model showing the separate steps on the board as students go to work practicing examples.

Conceptual models that have visual representations of what concepts mean and how they work improve student recall of the concept and performance on prob- lems that ask them to extrapolate from what they have learned (Mayer, 1989). For example, a lesson on radar included a five-step diagram that showed a se- quence in which a radar pulse moves out from the source, strikes an object, and bounces back, with the distance determined as a function of the total travel time (Van Merriënboer, 1997). Perkins and Unger (1989) posit that powerful concep- tual models have four characteristics:

1. Analogues: provide some kind of analogy for the real phenomenon of interest.

2. Constructed: fabricated for the purpose at hand.

3. Stripped: extraneous clutter is eliminated to highlight critical features.

4. Concrete: phenomenon is reduced to concrete examples and visual images.

Transfer (from Setting to Setting)

This principle is at work when teachers create a series of assignments or tasks in which the call for using a skill is progressively distanced from direct instruc- tional settings.

Example 1: After differentiating fact (that which is immediately verifiable by the senses or that on which most experts in the field would agree) from opinion (a belief; evidence exists to support differing beliefs), the teacher has students label examples as fact or opinion: for example, “Mary is wearing a sweater” and “Mary is the prettiest girl in the class.” Examples are made progressively more difficult (“Some people believe in reincarnation”). Eventually, students are asked to generate the examples themselves. Then, they are asked to bring in newspa- per articles (a new setting) to analyze for fact and opinion. Finally, students are given cues to transfer their skill to settings where it isn’t an assignment to distin- guish fact from opinion, as in text readings.

Video: Transfer

 

 

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Sometimes there is no need to do anything extra for transfer to occur because it happens by itself. If students have learned to borrow in subtraction, they will probably transfer the skill to the supermarket that very afternoon when buying supplies for a class party. But for many skills, transfer does not happen sponta- neously, so we need to engineer a series of events that will induce it. The final event in the chain, the actual transfer of the skill to a new context, is one that students take by themselves. That is what makes understanding this principle a bit tricky. We take students along a planned series of steps up to the edge of the water, but they have to jump in themselves for there to be evidence that transfer has actually occurred.

Example 2: Ms. Crane is teaching her middle school students about charac- terization. They look at pieces of dialogue and physical actions of characters in stories to see what these pieces of behavior reveal about the characters. The objective is to learn to recognize how authors develop readers’ images and un- derstandings of characters through dialogue and physical actions. In the long term, Ms. Crane wants her students to be able to use characterization in every- day life: to “read” people they encounter, making inferences about what they are feeling and thinking from bits of dialogue and physical actions the students observe. In other words, she wants them to transfer their ability to recognize characterization as a literary device to their own ability to use it to understand people they meet. After analyzing the text in novels for characterization, she assigns students to watch one of their favorite TV programs. They are to take down bits of dialogue, or describe physical actions they see that are in some way indicative of the character’s personality. Later in the week, her students are asked to bring in examples of characterization from their observations of peo- ple in their neighborhood or their family. Thus she is progressively distancing their use of characterization from the academic context of novels they are read- ing, and pressing them to use the skill in ever closer approximations of real life.

If students have learned to read novels and plays for authors’ biases, transfer has occurred if they then read nonfiction and magazine articles in the same way. Teachers encourage this kind of transfer by proper sequencing of assign- ments and pressing students to be aware of the multiple applications of their learning (Brown, 1989; Fogarty, Perkins, & Barell, 1991). This principle is easily confused with (but different from) application in setting, where a skill taught in an abstract setting is put to use right away in a realistic setting.

 

 

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DESIGNING FOR MOTIVATIONAL IMPACT

Goal Setting

The point here is goal setting by students. When students get involved in goal setting for their own learning, they learn more. In addition to being common sense, this conclusion is strongly supported by a line of research (Schunk & Gaa, 1981). When students take ownership for goals (either self-set, teacher-set, or jointly negotiated), their motivation to accomplish them and their ability to self-evaluate (and self-regulate) increase.

Student goal setting will not happen by itself except for very motivated students. Teachers have to do something to facilitate the process—for example, take a few minutes of class time for students to write their goal for the period (or the unit) on a piece of paper or hold periodic goal-setting conferences with individual students at timely intervals (like the beginning of new units or projects). These conferences can be quite short, but the goals chosen should be recorded, and students should be asked later to evaluate how they did.

Student goal setting does not automatically lead to increased student perfor- mance. Certain properties of effective goals need to be present. They need to be specific, challenging but attainable, and able to be accomplished soon. Spe- cific goals contain items that can be measured, counted, or perceived directly as criteria for accomplishment. “Try my best” doesn’t fit this mold, “Master the twenty spelling demons” does.

The more difficult the goal is, the more effort the student will expend, provided the goal is viewed as attainable. In guiding students to set goals, teachers have to help them walk the tightrope between what is “duck soup” and what is unre- alistically difficult.

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