As educators, we all hope that the knowledge our students gain in our classes will be of use to them outside of the specific context in which it was learned. After all, if their knowledge is so contextually bound that they cannot recognize how and when to apply it in a new situation, what good is it? This ability to take what is learned in one context and use it productively in another is known as knowledge transfer and is generally considered to be a fundamental goal of all levels of education (Haskell 2001; Mestre 2003; Robins 1996).
In many cases, college-level courses are designed with the expectation that students are able to connect what they have previously learned to what they are currently learning. Ironically, the very way in which courses are structured may be inhibiting transfer of learning from occurring. Sternberg and Frensch (1993) noted that "the way in which academic subjects are typically isolated from each other, and from any real-world use, does not encourage a mental set for transfer" (p. 36). In other words, we cannot reasonably expect our students to realize the utility of information across time and/or academic disciplines if the ways in which we present material do not indicate that they should be doing this. Furthermore, it is not enough that the connections between the material exist; students have to be able to perceive that the connection exists (Gick and Holyoak 1980; Lobato 2003). Gallagher (2000) concurred, stating that "students are not commonly taught to, nor that they should, make connections between new information and that which they have previously learned in order to develop a deeper understanding of the subject matter" (p. 311). Reed (1993) echoed this concern by calling on teachers, researchers, and textbook writers to increase their efforts to make evident an organizational framework for the content being presented to students. Salomon and Perkins (1989, p. 136) agreed that teachers can help their students establish an "expectation of transfer" through the careful design of instruction and classroom activities that encourage interconnections of knowledge.
Traditional transfer research has historically been quantitative in nature and has focused on teaching students a problem-solving strategy, then testing to see if they can apply that strategy to a novel situation (e.g., Bassok 1990; Gick and Holyoak 1980; Reed, Ernst, and Banerji 1974; Thorndike and Woodworth 1901). The predominantly negative results of these types of studies prompted Detterman (1993) to conclude that "little transfer occurs" (p. 9). More recently, researchers (e.g., Bransford and Schwartz 1999; Greeno, Moore, and Smith 1993; Lobato 2003) have begun taking a more inclusive view of transfer, which includes qualitative studies investigating how students perceive connections between their current learning situation and previous experiences, as well as how social context impacts these connections. In this more expanded view of transfer, the types of questions students ask and even their incorrect answers can provide insight into how students think and the level of their understanding. Our research embraces this broader view of knowledge transfer, and through this study we learn more about the process of transfer as it impacts preservice teachers in their science courses. Although physics educators have published a variety of transfer studies (e.g., Mestre 2002; diSessa 2004), college-level transfer studies in the fields of chemistry and Earth science, especially with preservice teachers, are virtually nonexistent (Johnson 2007).
We feel strongly that successful knowledge transfer is particularly consequential for preservice teachers. This group of students must be able to take what they have learned in their university coursework and apply it in their classrooms as they educate the next generation of students. Our position is supported by the participants …