Teaching basic science to optimize transfer
Background: Basic science teachers share the concern that much of what they teach is soon forgotten. Although some evidence suggests that relatively little basic science is forgotten, it may not appear so, as students commonly have difficulty using these concepts to solve or explain clinical problems: This phenomenon, using a concept learned in one context to solve a problem in a different context, is known to cognitive psychologists as transfer. The psychology literature shows that transfer is difficult; typically, even though students may know a concept, fewer than 30% will be able to use it to solve new problems. However a number of strategies to improve transfer can be adopted at the time of initial teaching of the concept, in the use of exemplars to illustrate the concept, and in practice with additional problems. Aim: In this article, we review the literature in psychology to identify practical strategies to improve transfer. Methods: Critical review of psychology literature to identify factors that enhance or impede transfer. Results: There are a number of strategies available to teachers to facilitate transfer. These include active problem-solving at the time of initial learning, imbedding the concept in a problem context, using everyday analogies, and critically, practice with multiple dissimilar problems. Further, mixed practice, where problems illustrating different concepts are mixed together, and distributed practice, spread out over time, can result in significant and large gains. Conclusion: Transfer is difficult, but specific teaching strategies can enhance this skill by factors of two or three.