This is a bite-size research episode, where we briefly describe research findings on a specific topic. This week, Megan talks about the need for multiple concrete examples in order for students to transfer the underlying idea to new problems.
In the last episode, we talked about the research on concrete examples. (If you haven't listened to that episode yet, we recommend listening to it before listening to this one.) One of the points we made was the need for multiple concrete examples. Students need multiple examples, preferably with different surface details, to help them understand the underlying idea and to increase the likelihood that they will be able to apply that underlying idea to novel problems int he future. Research by Gick and Holyoak (1, 2) illustrates this point.
In one experiment (1), students read a story about a general and a fortress, and then were given a new problem, called the tumor problem:
Spontaneous transfer from the general and fortress story to the tumor problem is quite low (20%). When students are given a hint, more are able to transfer (92%). However, a hint is not always feasible.
In 1983, Gick and Holyoak (2) experimented with a lot of different ways to try to improve spontaneous transfer. Unfortunately, many did not increase spontaneous transfer very much:
- Having students summarize the solution doesn't help much
- Providing a verbal description of the underlying structure doesn't help much
- Providing a digram depicting the underlying structure doesn't help much
But, spontaneous transfer does improve when students are given multiple concrete examples with different surface details.
In one experiment (2), students were given two stories, the general story and a fire chief story, that were similar in underlying structure but different in surface details. At the end of the stories the underlying structure was summarized. After reading these stories, the students were asked to summarize both stories, and make some other ratings. Now, 62% of students spontaneously transfer the solution from the two stories to the tumor problem before the hint. After being given a hint, 82% in total can transfer. This is still not 100%, but is moving in the right direction!
These experiments highlight the importance of providing multiple concrete examples with different surface details. It also demonstrates how difficult transfer can be, even when we're trying to transfer information in the same physical context (in this case, a lab) and close in time (in this case, during the same experimental session). To read more about transfer, check out this blog and this blog.
Tune in next month to learn about the remaining strategy, dual coding!
The Learning Scientists Podcast is funded by The Wellcome Trust.
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(1) Gick, M. L., & Holyoak, K. J. (1980). Analogical problem solving. Cognitive Psychology, 12, 306-355.
(2) Gick, M. L., & Holyoak, K. J. (1983). Schema induction and analogical transfer. Cognitive Psychology, 15, 1-38.