Teaching is building knowledge by using transfer

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Prior knowledge and the use of prior knowledge to learning is very important. Prior knowledge is used as a peg to build new knowledge, make it meaningful and retrievable. In nowadays learning knowledge is not considered as a solid phenomenon, but knowledge has to be transferred into al different kind of situations. So context and structure of the environment has to be variable. In teaching classroom the roll of the teacher here, becomes very important. He has to support collecting prior knowledge and he has to support transfer of knowledge in classroom situations as well. Research shows that teachers have all different kinds of insights about what prior knowledge is and how transfer can occur in classroom situations. Teachers conceptions about these topics are influencing the way how they use prior knowledge and how they actually support transfer in classroom. Using existing theories in how to support a right way to use concepts about prior knowledge and transfer can support teachers in how to improve teaching styles in supporting those topics in classroom situation. In this paper this theory is used to design a questionnaire about four domains to clarify on what level a teacher is act on use of prior knowledge and transfer. This questionnaire is called the questionnaire teachers activities towards transfer (QTATT). This paper shows that for now the QTATT can be used as an reflection tool for teachers to identify where they can improve teaching activities to support the use of prior knowledge and transfer. More research has to be done to develop the QTATT in to a valid tool to measure use of prior knowledge and transfer by teachers.


Prior Knowledge is very important to learning. Recognizing and using prior knowledge to make new information meaningful and thereby useful in practice are the main topics in education nowadays. More and more educational institutes use the constructive learning principles to educate their students. Stimulating prior knowledge before adding new information, is increasingly acknowledged by teachers and integrated in curricula as well. However in practice is seems to be more difficult to exercise those main teaching principles, due to lack of knowledge about what prior knowledge is and about what transfer means in classroom situations. (Ertmer & Newby, 1996; Ormrod, 2007). This study will explore which factors are influencing a correct way of using prior knowledge and using transfer in classroom and give some guidelines to teachers to use prior knowledge to improve transfer in classroom situations. Teaching is about learning and learning is about exploring new things and making it usable in daily life or real practice. It is necessary to understand what prior knowledge is and how prior knowledge is acting in learning to be capable as a teacher to bridge prior knowledge to new useful, meaningful information. This has relevance because retrieving information will improve, and takes less memory load. (Merriënboer & Sweller, 2010; Ormrod, 2007) Furthermore it is important to know how prior knowledge can be used as a catalyst in learning. A teacher has to know how to use prior knowledge in a way that new knowledge can be used in practice on several circumstances and he has to vary on context and structure. Then transfer can occur. When transfer occurs in the right context, meaningful learning is in process. Besides this it can improve the conceptional change of knowledge of students (Ormrod, 2007; Simons, 1999; Vosniadou, Loannides, Dimitrakopoulou, & Papademetriou, 2001)

Teachers do have a considerable contribution to learning in classroom, when they really understand how to create a learning environment that supports transfer in learning. But unfortunately what teachers approach is, is depending on their own insight and believes about prior knowledge and transfer. This makes teachers role vulnerable. Research showed that there is a great variety between novice and expert teachers in their approach to learning. (Miller, 1990; Ten Cate, Snell, Mann, & Vermunt, 2004; Trigwell, Prosser, & Waterhouse, 1999) This paper examines those issues about what is, and how to use prior knowledge and what is an adequate teachers approach to facilitate use of prior knowledge and transfer in classroom.

Prior Knowledge

Outcomes from a survey done with one teacher in higher education of a Nursing teaching program is used as an example to show what kind of teaching approach is used and what issues in that approach can be improved and to point out what approach is very beneficial to learning. Next to know is what prior knowledge is? Shortly can be said that prior knowledge is that what people already know. Prior knowledge stored in long term memory can be retrieved and used in working memory. This process becomes very important for learning because new information has to be linked to already existing information and support conceptual way of thinking so later on retrieval easier occurs. This encoding, which uses a huge amount of working capacity, of new information gives learners the ability to connect the information in to a meaningful way, and see total new concepts. (Ormrod, 2007) Those concepts contribute to someone's believing or insights how his world is build. Here misconception of prior knowledge appear. When new information is stored in a wrong correlation this new information will be used in future as prior knowledge. In another way, this prior knowledge are the assumptions and reality of that person for that moment. This hinders learners to accept or recognize that there is a misconception in his prior knowledge. To change this misconception, when even discovered by a teacher is hard to change, because a conceptional change is demanded. (Meyer, 2004; Ormrod, 2007; Simons, 1999) It is known that linking new information to existing concepts of knowledge, this new information has to be meaningful. Classroom situations can be helpful to make new information meaningful. Students have to understand when and how the new information can be used. A teachers role is to provide students these kind of concepts. A teacher has to support learners by give a broad variety of examples wherein the new information could be used. This variety contains changes in contexts and structures . When a learner is capable to make this new information useful for himself like create new contexts of understanding and apply this knowledge (i.e. skills) in practice, transfer of knowledge occur. A teachers role in classroom is to provide a classroom climate where prior knowledge can increase, and transfer is facilitated. (Simons, 1999; Ten Cate, et al., 2004) .

Role of transfer

Transfer has a wide range in diversity. This diversity can introduce difficulties, to fully understand what transfer is. Some examples of variation on transfer are positive and negative transfer, characterized by that new information is helpful in the other situation or in a negative way, the new information hinders the learner. For example now how a computer works and use that information on a new computer system with touchscreen. When a learner is searching for the keyboard and is helpless using the computer this can be seen as negative transfer. Another way how transfer is recognized, is if transfer is specific transfer or general transfer. Specific transfer is characterized by the same context and structure wherein the skill or knowledge has to applied. In general transfer both structure and context is different to the original situation. For example, using competencies as a soccer trainer to accompany youngster in their play, can be useable and applicable as a nurse on a children's ward on how to approach youngsters and fit to their level of knowledge. A teacher has to vary on themes, contexts and structure to improve the effect of transfer in education. (Ormrod, 2007; Trigwell, et al., 1999) But transfer of learning contains some paradoxes for learners which make it hard to achieve real transfer. New information has to be identified as a meaningful information and the contrast is, how can students recognize when new information is meaningful? So when use prior knowledge in a new situation and when is a situation similar or not? For example, when general transfer is demanded, how can students use actually use their prior knowledge? This can be difficult because nature of the situation is almost not recognizable and maybe they will not see the relevancies of both, their prior knowledge or the new situation. (Meyer, 2004; Simons, 1999)

Novice versus Expert

A teacher's role, earlier mentioned, is a key role to support transfer. But how teachers are aware of prior knowledge or think of prior knowledge is effecting the way they support students in classroom.(Bransford, Brown , & Cocking, 1999; Meyer, 2004). Even a teacher can be an expert or novice in teacher as students can be novice or expert in learning or being a professional. (Benner, 1982) Novices use more guidelines, and step by step processing then experts. Experts use concepts of knowledge and are able to see coherencies in a split second by chunking information to a whole concept. So if a teacher is a novice or is not able to see higher concepts he can be blindfolded to recognize misconceptions of prior knowledge, but even more the teacher will not be able to create a great variety of transfer in classroom. For example, when a student has a superficial understanding of knowledge and the teachers beliefs about prior knowledge are the same, and not using higher concepts of knowledge, information will not deepen out enough. This will affect how transfer will occur. (Meyer, 2004)

Teachers can be supported by a some kind of guideline on how to understand and recognize misconceptions about prior knowledge and how to be beneficial to transfer on learning in classroom. The CONTACT strategy, continues activation, based on a study done by Biemans and Simons (1995) revealed that in 5 steps students actually can support themselves to use their prior knowledge in a beneficial way. Those steps are, search for old ideas, compare and contrast with new information, formulate new ideas, apply new ideas and evaluate new ideas. (Biemans & Simons, 1995; Simons, 1999) Maybe those steps can be used as a guideline for teachers as well. In the CONTACT strategy a computer program was facilitating students choices, in classroom a teacher can facilitate that role as well. In classroom a teacher has several handles to support transfer to a work based setting. A teacher has to make relations between concepts and make that concepts more explicit. He has to give or design assignments so that students can find out what is relevant on their own and vary on context and structure of work, create learning environments that stimulate to use learned skills or knowledge (e.g. skills lab, or learning on the job) besides of all that subject matter he has to give opportunities to reflect on practice. Maybe, a teacher has to go through all these steps for his own too. A teacher has to be a conceptional thinker and a reflective educator like his own students are supposed to be. That makes him an expert, who has the insights to use the benefits and is aware about pitfalls of being an experts teacher. This reveals some questions about teacher behavior in classroom situations. Do they know about what prior knowledge exactly is, how it can be used to improve transferability of knowledge to a practice environment or a real work based situation.


A questionnaire based on theory about the CONTACT strategy and insights about being a novice or expert teacher, was developed. This questionnaire contains 27 questions combined into three domains which can be scored on a 5 point likert scale. Those domains are knowing about prior knowledge, use of prior knowledge in classroom and facilitating transfer in classroom. This questionnaire is called the QTATT-HE, Questionnaire Teachers Activities Toward Transfer in Higher Education. (see annex I) Before using this list as an instrument, the questions where presented to four teachers in education, specialized in doing research. They where asked to do a face validity check, one teacher was ask to provide feedback about the content validity. Now computing was done about construct validity. It has to be considered that this questionnaire was used on one teacher to score teachers activities on use of prior knowledge and transfer in classroom. After the questionnaire was conducted, a brief interview was done about the topics in the questionnaire to deepen out the issues in the questionnaire. Outcomes of this interview are used to improve the questionnaire for the future. Outcomes from this interview are presented in this study as well.


Three domains where calculated by each domain and the mean of each domain is calculated. An overall mean is calculated. This means that the highest possible score is 5, lowest is 1. The figure 1-5 shows that the higher the figure is, the more a teacher uses activities to either insights about knowing about prior knowledge, use of prior knowledge and facilitating transfer in classroom.


Outcomes of the questionnaire are presented below. The means for the four domains, Use of Prior Knowledge (I), Knowledge about Transfer (II), Strategies in facilitating transfer in Classroom (III) and Strategies in facilitating transfer to work (IV) are calculated and the overall score is calculated as well. Table 1 and 2 are showing that the outcome for each domain is ranged between 3.29 and 3.71. (sd 0.35) This means that on a 5 point likert scale the outcome is more right from the middle. (score is above "sometimes"). Domain 2, knowledge about transfer is scored the lowest and domain 3, strategies facilitating transfer in classroom is scored the highest. The overall mean is 3.44. (see table 2) On item level the items, identities of prior knowledge (domain I), several forms of transfer and characteristics wherein transfer occur (domain II) where scored the lowest, score 2=rarely. In no domain a 1 or 5 was scored on the scale.

Table1; mean per domain

Table2; overall mean

Outcomes interview

In this outcome section the most important outcomes from the interview are briefly presented. In the discussion part the benefits or disadvantages of the QTATT mentioned by this teacher are noted.

In general, the teacher told, is was difficult to fill out the questionnaire sometimes, because some topics really make here wonder if she was aware about doing presented items. On domain I and IV, the teacher said that the education system makes here doing those items like using prior knowledge and transfer, presented in the questionnaire most of the times, but is not always aware about the didactical impact of it. So she discussed here awareness about those issues. According to prior knowledge (domain I) she explains that prior knowledge is a state of understanding how things work or are related to the subject matter presented in classroom. The usefulness of prior knowledge about concepts in other disciplines and use that concepts to understand the subject matter was new for her.

On domain IV, Strategies in facilitating transfer in classroom, she found it difficult to make choices because it depends, so she said, on what level she taught. For example teaching a novice she would explain more about transferability then teaching an expert student. It was difficult to, to score items, because it was hard to imagine if topics where about individuals or on group level. Most of the time she said, there is no time enough during classroom activities to hook on to individual learning questions. When she was teaching skills, she would be more engaged to tell about usefulness of the new knowledge gained during classroom activities then she would be in more cognitive learning settings, like tutorials.


Using prior knowledge to support transfer in classroom activities depends more or less on teachers beliefs and insights about prior knowledge and transfer. This paper tries to give insight about how prior knowledge can be used to facilitate transfer, in all different forms, in classroom activities. The QTATT, used in this paper, has to be validated in future and developed more into a good measurement tool. For now this measurement tool and the use of one person introduces a diverse range of bias. But on the other side, the use on one person filling out the questionnaire give a kind of insight on how a teacher can think about the issues in the QTATT. So interpreting the outcome for one person and not generalizing the outcome it can be used as a personal information tool, to reflect on didactic activities. The outcome of the QTATT in this form, with one person, shows that the more or less an average understanding and use of prior knowledge and transfer in classroom occurs. (mean >3) Besides that it shows that this teacher has a kind of lack about knowledge and about what prior knowledge and transfer is, and how it occurs in classroom. (Two items scored 2) The benefit of the educational program makes that the didactic choices are inhibited automatically. This could mean that the chosen design of the curriculum and the underpinning of the didactic choices can be explained more to teachers which participating in this curriculum. For example, chosen principles could be discussed during a training with all participants. Then misconceptions about what prior knowledge and transfer is then could be corrected. The unit books could give some direction, on concept level to provide some guidance to teachers. (Biemans & Simons, 1995; Meyer, 2004)

During the interview came clear that this teacher uses several didactic choices, wherein prior knowledge is used to support transfer, but that the level of prior knowledge and transfer is more based on stepwise processing rather than fully understanding concepts of knowledge and use several ways of transfer. This teacher support conceptional thinking more on expert learners then on novice learners , because here beliefs that novice students could not handle this level of information processing. It should be noted that if the student is more experienced the teacher felt more dared to use conceptual thinking in a broader way. Due to her beliefs about conceptional thinking as well. So can concluded that a deeper understanding of the use of prior knowledge to support transfer does not exist. Didactic choices are more engaged by curriculum design and partly based on experience being a teacher. The CONTACT principle could be used by teachers to check if and how they use didactics to stimulate the use of prior knowledge and use that knowledge to support transfer in classroom. (Biemans & Simons, 1995; Simons, 1999) Going through the items of the QTATT after filling out the questionnaire, helps this teacher to be more aware about choices which could be made to work more in a conscious way with prior knowledge and transfer. So it is recommended to do more researched about the content and usefulness of the QTATT. But for now the QTATT can be used as a checklist or reflection tool for teachers. Furthermore it would be interesting to do research about the effects of explanation and improving awareness about teaching misconceptions about teaching principles about correct use of prior knowledge and transfer in classroom situations.