Applying Knowledge

As I was walking about campus I came across a colleague and as it was midterm season we fell to talking about learners and exams. We commiserated about how it seemed that learners generally had a difficult time applying their knowledge in an exam setting. That got me thinking about a text I had read recently titled How Learning Works. It’s not the kind of text you want to read when you are tired though it speaks to the kinds of experiences my colleague and I had with learners.

The idea that applied to our discussion was learners come to any given situation with a preexisting set of knowledge. That knowledge may be accurate yet insufficient, inappropriately applied, or inaccurate. As far as the experiences my colleague and I saw, students seem to be exhibiting inappropriately applied knowledge; they knew facts from the material but had difficulty pulling the bits of knowledge together. In short, they knew facts or techniques and needed additional practice applying their knowledge.

The good news is that we can create activities that provide learners opportunities they need to practice applying their knowledge. For example, we can ask students to discuss the conditions where a particular skill or knowledge is appropriate. We might ask learners to discuss the pros and cons of a particular skill or set of knowledge in different contexts. Additionally one might propose a scenario and ask learners to discuss what skills or knowledge they would need to solve the problem. In these instances you do not necessarily need to require learners to solve the problem, but rather, explain how they would go about solving the problem.

Engaging in the types of activities in which learners practice the applicability of their skills and knowledge can help them get around the issue of knowing things though not fully comprehending the significance of what they know. It can also move them beyond superficial understanding and into deeper learning.