A colleague and I were recently comparing the various victories and defeats we'd had with our instruction. Both of us have made some changes in our approach to teaching to the standards in biology, although we are not quite on the same track. We are tinkerers, never quite satisfied enough to do anything exactly the same way twice. Although we both feel like we're doing some of the best work we've ever done in the classroom, there is one area which is still not firing on all cylinders: when it comes to application questions on tests, kids aren't making the leap. In some ways, this is not completely alarming. We see other evidence from the classroom that students are thinking about how to take their learning and do something with it. But on the other hand, in a "pressure" situation, students aren't able to apply scientific concepts to solve a problem.
Here's an example. My friend's students recently worked on diffusion and osmosis. In class, they dissolved the shells off of eggs and then exposed the leftover egg to different concentrations of sugar and salt. They used baggies to also observe the movement of molecules across a barrier. There were other activities and demonstrations as well. On the test, nearly every kid could describe and explain aspects of osmosis. Score! But the question on making pickles? Not so much. Mind you, a cucumber has membranes just like an egg. Salt impacts it exactly the same way as the egg (and other examples done in class)...but kids didn't take those experiences and their well-demonstrated knowledge of osmosis to apply to a new situation. Why not?
We're still trying to tease out the answer to this question, as it keeps coming up. It would be an understandable issue if students had not been presented with any opportunities to apply their learning prior to the test. We want kids to have some practice before the final assessment. The larger issue is really about helping kids make connections for themselves between the class and The Real World. Yes, we can talk about examples with them and show them things...but soon enough they will leave our classes. It doesn't matter that they're not all going to make pickles at some time in their life, but they are many other instances they are dealing with on a daily basis which would apply. Is it a matter of finding some other way to foster their curiosity about the world? Is it a function of feeling like taking risks in the classroom is okay because there are no penalties for trying? Do we work on furthering their ability to solve puzzles and problems in the hope that those skills might help them find ways to transfer their learning to new places?
What do you do to help your students make the leap?