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  • Print publication year: 2014
  • Online publication date: December 2015

18 - The Question of Transfer: Investigating How Mathematics Contributes to a Liberal Education

from Theme 5: - Tackling Large Questions


Editors' Commentary

An opportunity, not a teaching or learning problem, prompted the investigation in this chapter, where all three types of SoTL questions make an appearance. The authors raise questions about evidence: what to gather and from whom, and how to analyze it. They describe unexpected difficulties they encountered. The study, completed in 2004, continues to offer lessons and open new avenues for the authors, their department, their university, and the discipline, especially related to quantitative literacy and first-year-seminar courses.


Appropriate transfer of knowledge, even within the same domain and across remarkably similar contexts, has been demonstrated to be very difficult to achieve (Bransford, 2000; Broussard, 2012; Dufresne, Mestre, Thaden-Koch, Gerace, & Leonard, 2005; Mestre, 2002). Yet, mathematics teachers at all levels often sell the study of mathematics as a good foundation for almost any career (Paulos, 1995), referring to the problem solving and logical thinking skills the major is supposed to develop. Recently, Alan Tucker (2011) wrote, “The value of studying mathematics is perhaps more in its mental training than its content. The wide-ranging accomplishments of math majors speak for themselves” (p. 705). As examples of mathematics majors who found success in other fields, Tucker cited a famous economist (John Maynard Keynes), a biologist (Eric Lander), a hedge fund operator (Jim Simons), and a basketball superstar (Michael Jordan). However, in our SoTL investigation, we investigated the transfer of mathematical skills from an entirely different perspective.

Our inquiry into how the proof writing and problem solving skills gained as a mathematics major transfer beyond the mathematics classroom started when we were selected as 2003–2004 scholars in the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (CASTL) program. The suggested theme that year was Liberal Learning and we had applied with paired projects that were going to examine different aspects of the question:

What role does mathematics play in a liberal education?

This question belongs to the What is? category in the taxonomy of SoTL questions (discussed in Chapter 2), but we will see later on that our investigation touched on the other types of SoTL questions as well.