Do you ever wonder whether teaching students is like pouring water through a sieve? Do you ever ask yourself what happened to the material the students learned last semester and why the students aren't using it in subsequent courses?

Well, you are certainly not alone. Retention and transfer are two topics often mentioned, complained about, and puzzled over by professors of all disciplines. Apparently enough professors feel this way that The Teaching Professor ran an article in its October 2003 issue on ways to promote knowledge retention and transfer. They offer 10 suggestions and here they are in a nutshell.

  1. Create opportunities for students to "practice retrieval" frequently.

    The more often they have to search and rescue a specific concept, the easier it will be to find it the next time. Students will need to practice this retrieval soon after "learning" a concept in order to have it readily accessible even four weeks later.
  2. Vary the conditions under which learning happens.

    This makes learning harder but results in better learning. Students may feel more comfortable only working with the kinds of problems they had in class, or in the book, but using the same concepts in different contexts will eventually result in multiple retrieval cues that support both retention and transfer.
  3. Ask students to take information presented in one format and "re-present" it in another format.

    Especially helpful is having students work in both a visual/spatial mode and also in an auditory/verbal one.
  4. What and how much is learned depends on prior knowledge and experience.

    New meaning is constructed on the foundations of old meaning. Find out what they know and build on it, even if this means re-constructing some of their thought foundations.
  5. Learning is influenced by what we and students believe about learning.

    Help students not to over-interpret obstacles. They may find a task difficult and think "I am dumb and I ought to just give up," when the right thing to think is "This is hard, but I will eventually learn if I don't give up." Anticipate these problems and address them frequently in little 15-second moments of "drive-by grace".
  6. Experience alone is a poor teacher.

    What people learn from experience can be systematically wrong. (I wish the article elaborated here, but it doesn't).
  7. Lectures work best for learning that will be assessed by recognition tests, but less well for understanding.

    Create some opportunities for other formats to promote active manipulating and retrieval of concepts.
  8. What is remembered will be strongly influenced by what students are asked to remember.

    From the students' point of view, what they are asked to remember is what you test, not what you say is important. If you say that understanding is important but all you test is little detail, students will conclude that little details are important and may not work hard at developing understanding.
  9. Less is more.

    "An emphasis on in-depth understanding of basic principle often constitutes a better instructional design than more encyclopedic coverage of a broad range of topics."
  10. What learners do will strongly determine what and how much is learned,

    how well it will be remembered and the conditions under which it will be recalled. What you do will be less important than what you ask them to do.

This offers food for thought, I believe. There are, of course, no magic bullets to make this kind of teaching and learning easy on student or professor, but there may be some material here that can help some of us move student learning closer to what we want.