A boy was helping his grandma learn how to send email. She was very excited about her success with Skype and was now motivated to know more about her computer. He showed her how to compose and send an email and even tested it by sending an email back to her computer. He could see that she was really interested and so he also showed her how to send multiple emails at once and even how to send photos. Finally, completely exasperated at the show-and-tell session, she took the mouse from her grandson and said, “Let me have the mouse. I want to do it myself. Until I use it, I won’t really know it.”

To make use of learning is to apply the learning, the last step of cognitive transfer. This assumes that the understanding is clear and the learning is deep enough to be used in practical, relevant, and meaningful ways. When the ideas, skills, or lessons are applied in purposeful ways, they take on a deeper level of meaning and become solidified. Once one applies a skill or concept, the learning is anchored in a lasting way; it is remembered and retained for future use.

For example, sixth graders learn about the Pythagorean Theorem. They can then apply this learning by building a model to see how the theory relates to real-life problems. Eighth graders learn about the Bill of Rights. To apply this learning, they can create simulations and role plays about what happens when those personal rights are infringed upon. That is what applied learning is all about; it is about the experience, the actual realization of the abstract concepts and complex skills.

Renate and Geoffrey Caine (Caine, Caine, McClintic, and Klimek, 2008) write about curriculum and the brain and learning. They state that extracurricular activities at the school need to be center stage in the school curriculum. The school newspaper, the yearbook, the daily announcements, the gym demonstration, the science fair, the social studies exhibition, and the school play-these are the applied learning experiences that showcase student learning in authentic ways. These are the examples of purposeful learning that require mastery in the skills of reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Project-based learning should assume an important role in today’s classrooms.

This table provides examples of what this thinking skill looks like and sounds like in the classroom.

Looks Like
Sounds Like
Students carrying out an experiment

Students using tools they build

Students conversing in a foreign language

Students engaged in a community project

Students constructing a model
“This is not exactly the right way to use this, but…”

“It’s such a practical idea.”

“I didn’t know it would be this easy.”

“Now I see how it works.”

“This really cements it for me.”

The skill of applying is, beyond a doubt, one of the most neglected skills in the school curriculum, yet the rationale is overwhelmingly simple: all learning is for transfer!

One of the biggest complaints that teachers hear from students is that they don’t see how they will ever use the information or skills they are learning. Their concern has merit to some extent. If all learning is for transfer, then teachers need to provide students with the answer to that very legitimate question: “When am I gonna use this?” When students understand how the lessons they learn in school are applied to real-world situations, the lessons become more valuable to them.

Adapted from:

Bellanca, J. A., Fogarty, R. J., & Pete, B. M. (2012). How to teach thinking skills within the common core: 7 key proficiencies of the new national standards. (pp. 181-182). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.