It is hoped that the scientific reasoning skills taught in our biology courses will carry over to be applied in novel settings: to new concepts, future courses, other disciplines, and non-academic pursuits. This is the educational concept of transfer. Efforts over many years in the Cell Biology course at BYU to design effective assessment questions that measure competence in both deep understanding of conceptual principles and the ability to draw valid conclusions from experimental data have had at least one disquieting result. The transfer performance of many otherwise capable students is not very satisfactory. In order to explain this unsatisfactory performance, we assumed that the prompts for our transfer problems might be at fault. Consequently, we experimented with multiple versions that differed in wording or the biological setting in which the concept was placed. Performance on the various versions did not change significantly. We are led to investigate two potential underlying causes for this problem. First, like any other important scholastic trait, the ability to transfer requires directed practice through multiple iterations, a feature absent from most courses. Second, perhaps there is something innate about an individual's learning style that is contrary to performing well at transfer tasks. Students sometimes see exams as tests of gamesmanship; "Teachers are trying to outsmart me with trick questions." Post-exam conversations can be very litigious: "But it's not clear what you wanted!" We recommend the pedagogical use of transfer problems which place on the learner the responsibility to define the appropriate scope for inquiry and improve one's ability to acquire the kind of precise and comprehensive understanding that makes transfer possible. In this study, we analyze the effects of directed practice and learning style on transfer abilities. Implications for teaching are discussed and include promoting meta-cognitive practices, carefully selecting lecture and textual materials to reduce the "spotlighting effect" (selective focus on only a subset of ideas), and encouraging students to consciously use multiple learning strategies to help them succeed on various tasks. It is important to note that these skills are likely to take a significant amount of time for both students and teachers to master.



College and Department

Life Sciences; Biology



Date Submitted


Document Type





education, learning styles, transfer, assessment



Included in

Biology Commons