Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Learning and Transfer

High stakes testing creates an artificial environment which impedes the implementation of pedagogical strategies designed to impart students with the means to be successful beyond the classroom. Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (1999) argue that the ultimate goal of formal education is to provide students with the ability to transfer knowledge and learning skills from school to the rest of their lives. In this light, acquisition of facts or skills is of secondary concern to the impact that knowledge can have once a student has left school. Consequently, pedagogy should reflect learning transfer as a priority.

Snowman, McCown, and Biehler (2009) propose that successful pedagogy will explicitly teach transfer skills and assess transfer as an outcome of learning. Strategically teaching transfer skills requires real world application and opportunities for students to problem-solve in new situations. Transfer would then become the focus of schooling, while specific content would serve as media with which to deliver this mode of thinking.

While education theorists, such as those cited above, argue for the merits of learning transfer as a goal and pedagogy, education policy is developing in a contrary fashion. Political demands for accountability and top-down management of curricula have resulted in an emphasis on high stakes testing which has profoundly altered the classroom environment.

Students, particularly those in districts struggling to meet standards of accountability, are asked to focus not on transfer of learning to the rest of their lives, but to the development of skills required to perform on high stakes tests. As accountability standards are made increasingly difficult to attain, teachers and administrators become frantic developing programs to insure student “success.”

Focus on test performance is often at the expense of learning transfer. The goal of classroom instruction has become passing test scores, which at best are symptomatic of a particular set of test-taking skills and strategies which are only marginally applicable to most peoples’ lives once they leave school. High stakes testing engenders pedagogy focused on artificial standards of assessment.

While the climate of high stakes testing is a relatively recent phenomenon, we will soon see the first cohort of students in Pennsylvania who have been educated K-12 in this environment graduate and move into the real world. I have personally heard many college professors lament their students’ decreasing preparation for the rigors of academic thought. The effects of a lifetime of artificial learning on our society at large will not be understood quickly. In fact, we are probably feeling the effects of students educated in the high stakes testing climate right now, though the pangs are diffuse. Eventually, we will have to reckon with the lack of learning transfer skills that have been provided to a generation of learners.

Snowman, J., McCown, R., & Biehler, R. (2009). Psychology applied to teaching, (12th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (Eds.). (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Available online:

1 comment:

  1. Rob Marsteller makes an excellent point about college professors lamenting the 'the teach to the test' mentality and its effect on students. In my recently completed documentary, Children Left Behind, Professor Jonathan King of MIT, persuasively addresses this issue. For more information, please visit: