In 2009, an Indiana University group published results from a comprehensive survey of more than 40,000 high school students. That seminal report—the High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE)—detailed how students felt about school, what instructional methods they preferred, and how they liked their classes. 

The responses that indicated how disengaged students felt during the school day are particularly noteworthy. Sixty-six percent of school-age respondents said they were bored at least every day in class in high school, with almost one out of every six students stating they were bored in every class they took. Only 2 percent of the respondents reported that they had never been bored in school. 

Even more telling were responses that revealed some of the reasons for their boredom: “I think a lot of classes are pointless, boring, and have no real-life application,” wrote one student. “I feel like there should be more classes that attract different types of peoples’ interest rather than just one general curriculum that is the same thing every day.” Echoing this sentiment, another student wrote, “This school does a lot of prepping for state tests, but you forget all the material soon after.” 

These responses are indicative of many students’ perception of school. A lack of relevance is what bores students, causing many to remain disengaged and others to drop out. In fact, between 2006 and 2009, the HSSSE reports that 20 percent of respondents considered dropping out of school at least once or twice. The incorporation of transfer goals in curriculum and instruction can help engage and excite students by making content relevant and applicable to real-world situations.

Definition of Transfer 

The concept of “transfer” has been considered a component of learning theory for over a century, perhaps advanced most effectively in contemporary pedagogy by Wiggins and McTighe. Transfer goals “highlight the effective uses of understanding, knowledge, and skill that we seek in the long run; i.e., what we want students to be able to do when they confront new challenges—both in and outside of school,” they wrote. Wiggins asserted that “transfer is the aim of any education,” and it is difficult to disagree with him. Good transfer goals go beyond straight application of what was just learned and instead require independent use of strategic thinking to determine, of all that a student has learned, what will best apply to advance their purpose. “You truly understand and excel,” note Wiggins and McTighe, “when you can take what you have learned in one way or context and use it in another on your own.” 

Finding Relevance 

As educators, do we do a good job of demonstrating to our students why the content we cover in our classes matters? Do we make classes relevant to students’ lives and the world around them? The HSSSE survey indicates that maybe we do not. The reality is that a student’s quest for relevance in the material they are learning is essential to the learning process. The idea of transfer, applied to curriculum and instruction, can help educators plan more relevant lessons and assessments so students perform problem—and project-based tasks aligned with real-world problems. Transfer allows students to demonstrate understanding in more profound ways than a traditional multiple-choice or essay test. 

Setting Transfer Goals 

We opted to engage teachers directly in crafting transfer goals at the unit level to encourage relevance and emphasize student-centered learning. These goals reinforce real-world connections to their corresponding unit of study and encourage teachers to work collabor­atively to develop projects that make this happen. In the “Understanding By Design” curriculum template our district uses, we place the transfer-of-learning goal at the top of each unit of study. These goals are performance-based tasks students need to complete to demonstrate understanding for a given unit. 

Moving Forward 

Creating unit transfer goals began as a pilot program in middle school humanities courses. The success of the program prompted us to continue the practice in high school courses. To date, transfer goals have been included in grades six through nine for history curricula and for some Advanced Placement courses. Now all new curricula and revised curricula in our humanities departments include unit transfer goals.

In fact, teachers are noticing that transfer goals have sparked student interest by making learning relevant, challenging, and unique because there is no one “right” answer. “Transfer goals have added a dimension of relevancy to the world history honors course that my students have embraced,” says Linda Weinstein, a high school history teacher in the district. Curriculum revision with an eye toward including transfer goals helps teachers make distinctions between what must be known and what would be nice to know.  

For instance, Randolph Township Middle School’s eighth grade world history teachers exemplified how creating solid transfer goals can influence learners. Humanities teachers focused on one of the essential questions in their world history curriculum and felt that it could serve as the basis for a transfer goal. The essential question (focused around a unit on ancient Egypt) read: “Why do some civilizations flourish while others do not?” The teachers decided to add a rigorous transfer goal that would tie the history of ancient Egypt, which was dependent on water from the Nile River, to modern-day problems surrounding water scarcity. The unit transfer goal they developed read: “Students will formulate ways to advance the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goal to provide fresh water to all people by the year 2015.” This transfer goal helped the teachers focus the unit’s content while embedding a performance task to showcase student learning. The district realized a paradigm shift at the meeting when all teachers nodded as one mused aloud, “Why haven’t we been doing this all along?”  

Refining Through Review 

Including unit transfer goals in all courses has not been easy and improvements are ongoing. Transfer goals have been transformational for many teachers, helping to inspire a greater focus on relevant learning experiences for students. When teachers craft a transfer-of-learning goal, they are challenged with the ultimate test of a unit’s value-what can students do independently with all the “stuff” that has been taught? 

Lisa DiAgostino is the Randolph Township Middle School human-ities supervisor in Morris County, NJ. She has led the district’s transfer goals initiative.  

Jonathan Olsen is director of secondary education for the Randolph Township Schools in Morris County, NJ. 

“Need an assessment idea? Try this exemplar: Performance-Based Assessment: Making Math Relevant | Edutopia” — Jonathan Olsen (@JonathanAOlsen)