Module 3: Quality course structure and content

3.6 Enhancing retention and transfer (Event 9)

What is retention and transfer?

Retention and transfer are key ingredients to meaningful learning. Retention refers to the storage of information in long-term memory in such a way that it can be readily retrieved. Transfer refers to the ability to use the knowledge or skills learned in one context in a new context, to solve new problems, or to make sense of a new situation or subject matter (Bennett & Rebello, 2012).

Gagné’s Nine Events of Instruction framework, Events 4- 9

Strategies to enhance retention and transfer

Nilson and Goodson (2018) provide a useful summary of evidence-based strategies to enhance retention and transfer (pp. 80–1).

Retention and transfer are enhanced when new material is presented to learners

Retention and transfer are enhanced when learners

  • are emotionally engaged in learning (see Module 2.6 Building Community Through Activities and Assessments);
  • learn by engaging in an activity (see Module 2.4 Eliciting Learner Performance);
  • engage in retrieval practice, i.e., when they are tested or test themselves on new material (see Design Useful Online Content);
  • review and engage with new material at spaced intervals (referred to as spaced or distributive practice);
  • practice elaborative rehearsal, “which means thinking about the meaning and importance of the new material and connecting it to their prior knowledge, beliefs, and mental models” (Nilson & Goodson, p. 80); and
  • occasionally review earlier material as they learn new material (referred to as interleaving).

Many of these strategies rely on providing opportunities for learners to practice working with content, rather than passively consuming it. Key to these practice-based strategies is prompt and targeted feedback, which allows learners to correct misunderstandings and improve their performance.

Connection to prior learning

Refer to Module 2.5 Providing Feedback/Feedforward and Assessing Performance for more information about effective feedback strategies.

Examples of how enhancing retention and transfer could work

Quality Essential

Example 1: Scaffolded concept check questions in a STEM course

Chemistry for Engineers is an open course that uses scaffolded concept-check questions to provide retrieval practice opportunities for learners in a staged way. This strategy makes problem-solving strategies visible, helps learners target specific skill areas that they need to strengthen, and helps them develop confidence for more complex questions.

The two concept-check questions at the end of the Oxidation States module are good examples of how to scaffold these kinds of self-assessment questions.

Quality Essential

Example 2: Scaffolded concept-check questions in a writing course

Waterloo Writing Works is a series of open modules designed to help learners improve their report-writing skills. The modules offer an overview of key grammatical structures with opportunities for learners to get feedback on their learning through “Try For Yourself” practice exercises.

The Waterloo Writing Works: Active Voice module provides a good example of a scaffolded question that guides learners through the process of transforming a sentence from passive to active voice.

Quality Advanced

Example 3: Using case studies to organize or present new content

Presenting course concepts through case studies provides learners with opportunities not only to be introduced to new concepts, but also to experience how concepts are applied in practice and to develop problem-solving skills.

Depending on the level of your learner, case studies may be used to introduce a concept and then guide learning in a scaffolded way into new concepts and/or expanded for advanced courses.

Here’s what this looks like in a third-year pathology course:

Learners are presented with hypothetical patients, which they are asked to view through the eyes of a practicing pathologist and to identify the causes, effects, and ways to diagnose and treat a given disease. Learners are not necessarily asked complicated questions about the patient; rather, the hypothetical patient is used as a framework on which learners can organize and review the content. In other words, they practice working with content and engage in active learning.

For example, for a particular topic, the hypothetical patient could be incorporated in the following ways:

  • Learners are introduced to a hypothetical patient, their lifestyle factors, and any relevant (level-appropriate) symptoms. To test prior learning, learners could be asked what kind of initial test would be appropriate to run on the patient or, even more fundamentally, to review basic anatomy related to the case that they should have learned in prerequisite courses, thus activating prior learning (refer to Module 1.7 Learning About Your Learners).
  • After learning details about the disease in question (core content aligned with the learning outcomes), learners may be asked which risk factors of the disease align with those of the patient, or which morphological or functional changes are likely to have occurred in the patient, based on the information they have received about the clinical history.
  • Learners may be periodically asked to explain possible genetic events occurring (self-testing of content recently learned) or to hypothesize how family members may or may not be affected by the same pathology (application questions) with answers to these questions being provided right after the questions are posed and as scaffolds to support deeper learning on the topic.
  • In some cases, simple narratives of how the hypothetical patient progresses through their health care journey provides an engaging and authentic way to enhance retention, rather than providing the content in an abstract way.

Arguably, the most challenging aspect of this kind of approach is to ensure that material remains level-appropriate and the use of a case-based approach does not distract from the core learning outcomes of the module/course.

If your learners are more advanced and already have sufficient foundational knowledge, you could use case studies as the framework for having them elicit important concepts themselves, using an inquiry-based learning approach. In this approach, instructors provide opportunities for learners to discover meaning by posing questions and providing the resources which learners use to make meaning themselves; instructors then follow up with feedback and other forms of guidance at the end of the exercise.


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