Student Standby’s: Transferable Concepts and Transgressive Thinking

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The idea of a Student Standby can be best-expressed as a tip, trick or technique that can be used to generate ideas and information quickly and efficiently, particularly but not exclusively in time-pressured situations such as an exam. One such Standby I’ve posted about previously is the transferrable concept – a key idea students can use to generate a wide range of further information about a topic – and this post looks at how to develop this idea further through transgressive thinking.

In the main, transferrable concepts are useful when a student needs to generate ideas quickly and efficiently around a topic or question. This is particularly likely to occur in an exam, for example, when a student may be under an intense time pressure that inhibits their ability to think clearly. On the other hand, of course, they may simply be faced with a question they haven’t adequately revised and need to try to score as many marks as possible in the best way they can: we’ve all been there.

Transferrable concepts are also a useful teaching tool because they can be consistently applied throughout a course to embed the kind of thinking we’ve just outlined. The more students see transferrable concepts as an integral part of your teaching and their learning the more comfortable they will be in using / applying them.

As I’ve previously argued, four hugely-useful transferrable concepts are embodied by the mnemonic CAGE: Class, Age, Gender and Ethnicity. There are variants to this basic idea, such as Sexuality (CAGES), District (Location) or Disability (CAGED), but for the purpose of illustration we can stick to the basic mnemonic here.

Concepts like class, gender and so forth are useful because merely by thinking about them in relation to a question or problem it should always be possible for students to generate ideas about basic inequalities. There will, for example, always be class, age, gender or ethnic differences that can be brought to bear on a question in some way, shape or form.

Ideally, these will be ideas that are integral to a question but, as I’ve suggested, there may be occasions when a student finds themselves struggling for an answer and the ability to fall-back on a range of transferrable concepts will help them to produce answers that are coherent, sociological and broadly focused on a question.


Although transferrable concepts can be a valuable Standby to fall back on as-and-if-necessary, you can extend their value by encouraging students to think transgressively. “Transgression” involves “exceeding or over-stepping a boundary” and in this context the boundaries to be transgressed are those of categories like class, age, gender and ethnicity.

While applying each in isolation to a question or problem – looking for class differences, gender differences and so on – can pay dividends, transgressive thinking involves combining different categories in ways that allow students to generate even higher levels of information.

For example, if a student was asked a question about differential educational achievement they would gain exam marks by talking about things like class, gender or ethnic differences. Applying transgressive thinking, however, adds a whole new dimension to an answer by demonstrating how different conceptual combinations can produce much deeper insights.

In this example, a clear gender difference is the fact girls generally achieve more than boys in our education system – but this observation can be extended by applying transgressive thinking: how, for example, does social class impact on gender and achievement?

And when you’ve considered that question, further transgression could involve speculating about the influence of ethnicity on both gender and gender-class achievement. Transgressive thinking, in this respect, produces more-nuanced observations about real-world behaviours.

And as an added bonus transgressive thinking will earn students a shed-load of extra marks in an exam.


If you want a simple, visual, way of demonstrating these ideas I’ve put together a PowerPoint Presentation that can be used for this purpose. I’ve deliberately created a fairly basic Presentation to make it easy to edit it in any way you feel appropriate:

Slide 1. Give students a question to answer.

Slide 2: Identifies 4 useful transferrable concepts (Class, Age, Gender and Ethnicity).

Get your students to apply each concept in turn to the question.

E.g. For class, how does it impact on the question?

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Slide 3: Uses a modified Venn Diagram to identify the areas where Class, Age, Gender and Ethnicity intersect (transgress).

Explain how this slide is simply indicative of transgressive thinking (e.g. class and gender or age, ethnicity and class might combine in some way,).

Slide 4: To make this more-explicit, this slide can be used to identify examples of how each of the four categories can be broken-down to their component parts: gender, for example, can be broken-down into subcategories like male, female, transgender / non-binary; class could be broken-down into subcategories like upper, middle and working.

Slide 5: This slide provides a few possible examples of transgression. (class and gender; age and class; class, age, gender and ethnicity)

Get your students to suggest ways that, for example, class relates to gender and how this impacts on the question. Will, for example, a middle class female have different life experiences to a working class male?

There are a large number of possible transgressions to consider – culminating in how a combination of class, age, gender and ethnic differences combine to impact on the question – so it’s up to you how deeply you decide to explore the possibilities with your students.

The main point here, however, is to demonstrate how:

1. Transgressive thinking produces deeper answers and should consequently have an impact on exam performance and scores.

2. The subcategories for each major category allow for the construction of very complex ideas and arguments from a relatively small number of easily-remembered concepts. It’s not difficult, for example, for students to remember class subcategories like “rich / poor” or “upper / middle / working” and then apply them to ideas about gender, age or ethnicity.

3. Signposting transferrable concepts throughout the course and providing opportunities for students to continuously apply them to questions (and by “opportunities” I mean testing…) will encourage students to remember and use these ideas in their exams.

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