Thursday, April 23, 2015

Review: Designing for Transfer: A Threshold Concept

Review by Shannon Murray, English, UPEI

The issue that underlies this short article is one that I’m sure puzzles and frustrates many university and college teachers: the difficulty students often have transferring knowledge from one course to another or from the classroom to the world.  Moore offers a very helpful survey of the literature on knowledge transfer and places that literature in the context of threshold concept theory. Transfer can be either “near” – when a student is expected to “apply a learned strategy to similar contexts” – or “far” – when the original knowledge has to be adapted to suit a completely new situation (21).   What I found most interesting is the emphasis here on transfer as a threshold concept not for students but for faculty.  It is faculty, Moore argues, who first must come to terms with transfer as a troublesome and potentially transformative concept.

But there are constraints that may keep an instructor from designing with transfer in mind, as she points out.  We may find ourselves so focused on the material of the discrete course that we see any attempt by students to bring in prior knowledge as disruptive or as a sign of poor understanding; we may be more focused on students transferring knowledge into our own classrooms than on what they will do after they leave us; or we may simply find mastery of the material and an emphasis on transfer a tall order for a 12-15 week semester.  The article suggests that once faculty master the idea of transfer, it has the power to transform how we think about course design.

The article concludes with some specific strategies to improve transfer: “hugging” activities, which encourage “low road transfer,” and “bridging” activities, which encourage “’mindful abstraction’ of knowledge from a previous context to the new context” (20).  Students, for example, might be asked to “bring in interdisciplinary knowledge” but then to expose the way that knowledge was transferred, so its transfer might be “more visible to others” (23).  The article is helpful for two reasons: as a good survey of the central issues in transfer theory itself; and for its original location of that theory as a potential threshold concept, one capable of transforming faculty course design.

Moore, Jessie L.  “Designing for Transfer: A Threshold Concept.”  Journal of Faculty Development 26.2 (2012): 19-23.

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