How can the Course Catalogue Save Education?


In a recent article, James Lang introduces the notion of “Far Transfer” to help address questions about student learning and critical thinking.  As treated here, far transfer is the ability for a learner to apply concepts across classes and circumstances, and represents one of the most desired outcomes of a college or university education. When achieving far transfer learners are exercising critical thinking. Transdisciplinary and liberal education are important considerations to help ensure that the university course catalogue is a vehicle for learners to achieve far transfer and critical thinking.


More than a week or so ago James Lang wrote the first part of a series published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, titled Why Don’t They Apply What They’ve Learned, Part I. In the article Lang questions why many students do not seem to be able to apply previously learned knowledge over time and across courses (and more generally across circumstances). In his article, Lang refers to a recent book, How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, in which Susan Ambrose and her co-authors use the term “Far Transfer” to describe the ability of a learner to apply knowledge across courses. That is, far transfer is the ability of learners to apply conceptual knowledge learned in a class to learning situations and practice in other classes and to circumstances outside of the classroom (perhaps on the job). Intuitively we must recognise that far transfer is a pretty important aspiration of higher education. After all, the ability for our students to apply knowledge outside of a specific classroom situation is a reasonable expectation that reflects not only on the ability of the learner, but also on the relevance of the university itself.

Lang makes it clear that Far Transfer is not easily accomplished, pointing to Ambrose and then James Zull, the author of The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning, Lang highlights that:

  • Transfer is difficult, and it becomes increasingly difficult as the application context becomes increasingly dissimilar or novel to the learner. The failure of the learner to successfully transfer their learning to an unfamiliar or novel context can be attributed to tying their knowledge too closely to a specific situation, or it could be associated with their learning being overly formulaic or shallow. This reveals in the learner an understanding of the mechanics of problem solving, while lacking the understanding of the underlying principles being used.
  • Although conceptually it may appear that applying learned rules across situations should not be too terribly difficult, there are physiological changes in the brain that allow for transfer. Cognitive development depends on the growth of neuronal networks in the brain, with transfer of knowledge across situations being made possible when these networks connect.

After Lang takes us through some examples of how he creates expectations of far transfer in his writing classes, he makes what I think is a critical point.

If you have ever thought or told your students that you are teaching them “critical thinking,” for example, you are banking on the prospect that students will abstract some general cognitive skill from your course and apply it to future courses or even life situations.

This notion stuck with me for a number of reasons. First, it seems that teaching critical thinking skills is frequently cast as the University’s holy grail. That is, critical thinking is often identified as one of the less tangible, highly valuable, and infrequently achieved outcomes sought from graduates of colleges and universities. Second, for me, it points to two critical topics that extend far beyond skill development or skill delivery – the transdisciplinary curriculum and liberal education.


Lang chose the following quote from Zull to connect conceptual notions of what critical thinking is with the physiological response in a learner’s brain to learning a disciplinary subject (forming a neuronal network element) and connecting these networks in ways that allow for far transfer.

“Neuronal networks grow by building on existing networks,” Zull writes, “so our entree to reasoning in one subject comes through the neuronal networks for the information in that subject. Often we don’t have the networks that connect one subject with another. They have been built up separately, especially if we have studied in the standard curriculum that breaks knowledge into parts like math, language, science, and social science.”

For me, Lang seems to be setting the ground for the need to really think about the function of courses and the functions of curriculum in different but complementary ways. Disciplinary and technical skills, that are frequently very sophisticated, are developed in particular classes. While, courses represent the vehicles in which disciplinary conceptual networks are created, it is the constellation of courses that compose a well-developed curriculum that provides the platform through which disciplinary neuronal networks can connect allowing for far transfer of knowledge.


So, if a transdisciplinary curriculum can serve as the framework for an educational experience that lends itself to far transfer and critical thinking, how do students take advantage of the opportunities being offered and actually make the connections among disciplinary networks? It seems to me that simply creating the opportunity for far transfer and critical thinking is not enough. Evidence of critical thinking will require some capacity on the part of the learner to connect the networks with some discipline and creativity. For example, when applying far-transfer, how does the learner decide which concepts from which networks best apply to a problem situation under a variety of circumstances? To what degree can a particular conceptual model be applied, how much of the model needs to be modified, or integrated with other models? What sort of intellectual disposition and what sort of behaviours do learners and practitioners need to successfully engage in critical thinking?

It seems to me that the arts and habits that are the hallmarks of a liberal education are germane to disciplined and creative far transfer. To illustrate, I refer to an earlier posting titled Is a liberal technical education something more or something else? in which a short listing of the arts and habits that are assumed by a liberally educated person. One of the lists started with

habits of an educated person

  • the habit of attention
  • the habit of submitting to censure and refutation
  • the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy

Taken together these habits (along with others) will help learners make thoughtful attempts at far transfer and improve their ability to critically apply their thinking in the future under other circumstances.


So, for me, the punchline from Lang’s article is that for learners to achieve Far Transfer and Critical Thinking they must have

  • opportunities to create disciplinary neural networks (acquired on the course level),
  • opportunities to connect disciplinary networks (acquired through a trans-disciplinary curriculum), and
  • the behaviours and capacity to actually make those connections (acquired through a liberal education).

Because it is obvious that far transfer and critical thinking are particularly valued outcomes when they are extend beyond classroom application, it makes sense to think about the transdisciplinary curriculum more broadly. We might think in terms of moving from a transdisciplinary curriculum to a transdisciplinary education that includes “off-campus” experiences such as experiential and service learning, citizen science, and citizen civics. In addition, we might more consciously construct the notion of a transdisciplinary education as continuing throughout a lifetime.

Maybe I am predisposed to rationalise my way to this conclusion, but it does leave me in a happy place. By my thinking, the elements of an education designed to achieve Far Transfer and Critical Thinking are for the most part inherent in the University mission – teaching, discovery, and service. It is a matter of rethinking the nature of traditional curriculum, to support a transdisciplinary education and recognising the value of a liberal education along side professional (and vocational) education to support the development of technically competent professionals who are able to apply critical thinking. Add a little life-long learning, and some universities may have made themselves relevant in a more broad and recognised way, without fundamentally changing their values, staying true to their learners and the common good.


During the last few days, while I was constructing these few paragraphs, my attention has been drawn to a (wonderful) posting by Christine Geith titled How the Course Catalog Killed Education at the WCET Frontiers site. Its influence on the title of this posting is obvious. Now it seems to me that Christine has hit on an important insight about the poverty of the college and university catalogue as an expression of value. She asserts that the value of the University does not rest in its catalogue of courses or programs, but instead is embedded in its “Brand.” It is the brand that serves as an expression of the university’s capacity to distinguish its catalogue with something far more then the simple collection might imply. I think that Christine and I are barking up the same tree from different sides. Christine did a very tidy job at pointing to what the research university brings to the table beyond its catalogue, while I am pointing to the role of the catalogue in creating that “something more,” which transforms taking courses into an education and transforms course takers into critical thinkers.

It is my feeling that thinking beyond the course catalogue will help us better frame the ongoing trend toward fragmentation in higher education and the “unbundling” of traditional college and university services. Although thinking beyond the catalogue is critical, we may also ask what type of course catalogue will best support a university education? One that delivers on helping learners achieve far transfer becoming critical thinkers and practitioners. I believe too that this type of thinking and these types of questions can provide a way to frame the ways we engage with things like MOOCs, education service providers, open educational resources (there will always be more things), and more generally understand the economics, identity, nature, and value of the University and higher education (themes that seem more timeless).


Why Don’t They Apply What They’ve Learned, Part I

Is a liberal technical education something more or something else?

How the Course Catalog Killed Education

About the Featured Image

Image from page 85 of “Annual catalogue of the officers and students of Oberlin College for the college year” (1850).

Found in the Public Domain at Flicker:

Redefining the Research University: Non-traditional Learners, New Markets, and Cultural Change. by Ken Udas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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