Researching Transfer of Knowledge with Elementary Pre‐service Teachers

by Sandra Rutherford, Department of Geography and Geology, Eastern Michigan University

As with all educators I would like the students in my class to understand what is behind the knowledge I am trying to impart upon them. I teach Earth Science to pre‐service elementary teachers as well a methods class to secondary pre‐service Earth Science teachers. With the Earth Science for elementary teachers class I have tried many techniques, from weekly vocabulary quizzes (memorizing because I figured if they could not remember what the word was they would not understand the sentence it was in), putting multiple choice questions in the PowerPoint and having the students hold up cards, and review podcasts to explain concepts that could be listened to repeatedly.

Before I became a professor in geoscience education I was a grade 8 Earth Science teacher in Colorado. Although I always told my elementary teachers stories about being a teacher and tried to give them ideas for activities that I did in my class I didn't discuss pedagogy too much with them since I figured this was the elementary methods classes' job. But about two years ago I started having the students do a DLESE project where they were asked to find an activity from the DLESE website that would satisfy a Michigan content expectation (Michigan, 2007); they do this for 3 different content expectations from each of the 4 standards. At the same time I started describing various misconceptions as suggested by Gallagher (2000) in the diagrams I showed in class or in the activities I did as a demo. I also told them they should be keeping these 12 DLESE activities by cutting and pasting them into Word and saving them in a folder on their computer. The students started asking more questions about the content we were discussing but still I didn't think what I was doing was really helping until I started a transfer research project with my colleague in chemistry, Amy Flanagan Johnson.

Transfer of learning is described by Mestre (2003) "to mean the ability to apply knowledge or procedures learned in one context to new contexts." We did a pilot study to determine if the students in our classes were able to make connections between the content of the two courses. We gave both of our classes (she teaches chemistry to elementary teachers) three surveys; an introductory survey which included student demographic information and their expectations for the course. A content survey that reviewed content that was covered in both classes in the style of the New York Regents exams. In this survey we also asked them to explain their answers to the questions and list where they learned the information to answer the questions. And a final survey that asked the students to reflect on what they had learned and what they valued from the course.

I will not repeat the results from the survey as this work has been submitted to a journal but I will say that what surprised me most from the study was that when the students were asked in the final survey these questions:

  1. What do you think are the most important concepts, skills, and/or ideas that you learned in this course?
  2. Why are the items listed in question #1 more important to you than others in the course?
  3. How do you foresee yourself using these in your future education and/or career?
  4. What do you think that your professor feels are the most important concepts, skills, and/or ideas that you have learned in this course (please list specific examples)? Why?

The students in my class listed answers which had to do with pedagogy (and mentioned DLESE) and misconceptions. The chemistry class also discussed pedagogy but more from a career point of view than from wanting to know how to teach the students, they did not mention misconceptions.

Rutherford survey, important concepts

Out of the 5 content questions the Earth Science students had a higher percentage of correct answers except for one question.

Rutherford survey, content knowledge

This question used the term "specific heat" with reference to water and I never actually used that term in class; instead I talked about how water had the ability to absorb heat and that it took longer to heat up. Something I need to rectify. However, the other content questions gave me the feeling after seeing their answers to the final survey questions that the students were motivated to learn the material in more depth because they were going to teach these concepts to their own students. When the students take Earth Science for elementary teachers they have not yet been accepted into the College of Education here at Eastern Michigan University. By putting more emphasis on pedagogy and misconceptions in a class that was supposed to be primarily a content class I believe their understanding improved. Mestre (2003) points out that context which includes things that are relevant to the core concepts being taught also includes a reason to learn the concepts. "How important is it that the learner believe he/she will actually need the knowledge in "real life" as compared to just being able to pass an exam?" Therefore, if the students in my class realize that they need to teach little children this material and they start to think about how they are going to do this, it motivates them to want to understand it so they will not pass on their own misconceptions to them.


I have provided a more comprehensive list of references about transfer research from our paper (which has been accepted to the Journal of College Science Teaching) below for those that may be interested in this topic:

Bassok, M. (1990). Transfer of domain‐specific problem‐solving procedures. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 16, 522‐533.

Bransford, J.D., & Schwartz, D. (1999). Rethinking transfer: A simple proposal with multiple implications. In A. Iran‐Nejad & P.D. Pearson (Eds.), Review of research in education (pp. 61‐100). Washington D.C.: AERA.

diSessa, A.A. (2004). Coordination and contextuality in conceptual change. In E. Redish & M. Vincentini (Eds.), Proceedings of the international school of physics "Enrico Fermi": Course CLVI (pp. 137‐156). Amsterdam: ISO Press/Italian Physical Society.

Detterman, D.K. (1993). The case for the prosecution: Transfer as an epiphenomenon. In D.K. Detterman & R.J.Sternberg (Eds.), Transfer on trial: Intelligence, cognition, and instruction (pp. 1‐24). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corp.

Gallagher, J.J. (2000). Teaching for understanding and application of science knowledge. School Science and Mathematics, 100, 310‐318.

Greeno, J.G., Moore, J.L., & Smith, D.R. (1993). Transfer of situated learning. In D.K. Detterman & R.J. Sternberg (Eds.), Transfer on trial: Intelligence, cognition, and instruction (pp. 99‐167). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corp.

Gick, M.L., & Holyoak, K.J. (1980). Analogical problem solving. Cognitive Psychology, 12, 306‐355.

Haskell, R.E. (2001). Transfer of learning: Cognition, instruction, and reasoning. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Johnson, A.F. (2007). The beliefs and practices of general chemistry students and faculty members regarding knowledge transfer. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Purdue University.

Lobato, J. (2003). How design experiments can inform a rethinking of transfer and vice versa. Educational Researcher, 32, 17‐20.

Mestre, J.P. (2003). Transfer of learning: Issues and research agenda, (more info) (4 September, 2008).

Mestre, J.P. (2002). Probing adults' conceptual understanding and transfer of learning via problem posing. Applied Developmental Psychology, 23, 9‐50.

Michigan Department of Education (2007). Science Grade K‐8 Level Content Expectations, v.12.07,,1607,7‐140‐28753_38684_28760‐‐‐,00.html (12 February, 2008).

Reed, S.K. (1993). A schema‐based theory of transfer. In D.K. Detterman & R.J. Sternberg (Eds.), Transfer on trial: Intelligence, cognition, and instruction (pp. 39‐67). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corp.

Reed, S.K., Ernst, G.W., & Banerji, R. (1974). The role of analogy in transfer between similar problem states. Cognitive Psychology, 6, 436‐450.

Robins, A. (1996). Transfer in cognition. Connection Science, 8, 185‐204.

Salomon, G., & Perkins, D.N. (1989). Rocky roads to transfer: Rethinking mechanisms of a neglected phenomenon. Educational Psychologist, 24, 113‐142.

Sternberg, R.J., & Frensch, P.A. (1993). Mechanisms of transfer. In D.K. Detterman & R.J. Sternberg (Eds.), Transfer on trial: Intelligence, cognition, and instruction (pp. 25‐38). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corp.

Thorndike, E.L., & Woodworth, R.S. (1901). The influence of improvement in one mental function upon the efficiency of other functions. Psychological Review, 8, 247‐261.