Transfer of learning

Transfer of learning is the process of applying acquired knowledge to new situations.

Examples of transfer of learning:

A student learns to solve polynomial equations in class and then uses that knowledge to solve similar problems for homework.

An instructor describes several psychiatric disorders in class. Next class period students read several scenarios and use that knowledge to identify and explain the disorder in each scenario.

In economics class students use knowledge learned in their statistics course to analyze and evaluate survey data.

Students apply skills they learned in writing intensive courses to write reports, memos, and papers in other classes.

A student applies project management skills learned in a business course to carry out a year-long internship project.

Watching a political speech, an individual recognizes the speaker’s rhetorical strategies based on what she learned years before in her college oral communication course.

Research consistently finds that students have difficulty applying acquired knowledge and skills to situations where they are appropriate (Barnett & Ceci, 2002; Perkins & Salomon, 1994; Holyoak & Koh, 1987; Nokes-Malach & Mestre, 2013). Factors that affect difficulty of transfer include:

  • Depth of initial learning. Students fail to transfer knowledge when they have poor grasp of the subject. Adequate understanding of the subject matter is a precondition for effective transfer (Day & Goldstone, 2012).
  • Encapsulated learning. Students may not think of knowledge and skills in terms of their future use. Instead they may focus narrowly on learning the information immediately in front of them, with little regard for future applications.
  • Dissimilarity between the learning and transfer contexts. Generally, when the transfer context is very dissimilar from the learning context, students may not see how their knowledge is relevant or how their current knowledge can be applied to the new situation.
  • Dissimilarity between initial learning tasks and transfer tasks. Transfer tasks vary in terms of “what” must be transferred. Tasks might involve the transfer of factual knowledge, simple skills, complex skills, procedural rules, abstract principles and so forth. Again, transfer may be more difficult when the transfer task and content are very different from that of initial learning.

Researchers use the terms near and far (or remote) to characterize transfer situations. In near transfer the transfer task and context are very similar to that of initial learning, e.g., students solve practice homework problems that are identical to ones learned in class. In far or remote transfer, the transfer task and context are dissimilar from initial learning, e.g., apply mathematics knowledge to workplace problems. In general, near transfer tends to be easier that far transfer.

Summary

Transfer is the process of applying one’s knowledge and skills to new situations, a central goal of education. Even though all learning involves some degree of transfer, research shows that applying knowledge effectively and flexibly is difficult. Students may be able to demonstrate knowledge in class and on exams but not be able to apply their knowledge in other contexts where it is appropriate. Transfer tends to fail when students have poor understanding of acquired knowledge, and are not aware of how, where and when their acquired knowledge is appropriate.

Recommendations to promote students’ transfer of learning

Use strategies in both learning and transfer contexts to address the underlying factors that limit transfer of learning.

Make transfer a course and programmatic learning goal. Create assignments and learning experiences that involve transfer practice within and across courses in the academic program.

Create transfer maps that identify specific knowledge and skills relevant across courses. For example, if students take a statistics course, transfer maps would identify how, when and where to use statistical knowledge in subsequent courses in their program.

Help students apply material learned in previous courses to your course. Your course is a transfer context. Provide opportunities for students to activate prior knowledge and practice applying it in your course. One way to do this is with review sessions in which students recall knowledge or engage in problems from previous or prerequisite courses relevant to your course. These reviews, combined with the instructor’s guidance, can help students see connections between their prior knowledge and the content and skills in their current course.

Promote depth of initial learning. Students often fail to transfer because their initial learning is shallow and underdeveloped (Day & Goldstone, 2012). Of course, there is no single depth of understanding strategy that will fix student learning. But as a teacher it is important to recognize that poor understanding is likely to derail transfer, and that promoting depth of understanding goes hand in hand with transfer of learning.

Use multiple examples. Instructors often use a single example to show how a new concept can be applied. Research has shown that one example is relatively ineffective compared to multiple examples. In one study, for example, researchers compared the performance of students who learned and retrieved one application example versus those who learned and retrieved several application examples. On a test that involved new application questions, students who had retrieved multiple examples during learning outperformed students who repeatedly studied a single example. Researchers concluded that “repeatedly retrieving and applying knowledge to different examples is a powerful method for acquiring knowledge that will transfer to a variety of new contexts” (Butler, Black-Maier, Raley, & Marsh, 2017, p. 442).

Discuss conditions of applicability. Provide students with explicit information about when and where to apply their knowledge and skills. There is no reason to expect that students can recognize these transfer contexts on their own. They need explicit guidance (Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, & Norman, 2010).

Ask students to identify connections between acquired knowledge and transfer contexts. Use practice exercises in which students try to identify relevant skills or knowledge given a specific transfer context, and exercises to identify the contexts in which certain skills or knowledge could be applied (Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, & Norman, 2010). In these cases, students do not actually apply their knowledge, but anticipate what they would need to know and do in the transfer context.

Use application questions on exams and assignments to emphasize the importance of transfer as a significant part of developing mastery and expertise in the subject. Establish multiple transfer contexts so that students also practice identifying meaningful, distinctive features across situations.

Recommended readings

References

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Barnett, S. M., & Ceci, S. J. (2002). When and where do we apply what we learn? A taxonomy for far transfer. Psychological Bulletin, 128(6), 612–637.

Bransford, J. D., & Schwartz, D. (1999). Rethinking transfer: A simple proposal with multiple implications. In A. Iran-Nejad, & P. D. Pearson (Eds.), Review of research in education 24, 61–100. Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.

Butler, A. C., Black-Maier, A. C., Raley, N. D., & Marsh, E. J. (2017). Retrieving and applying knowledge to different examples promotes transfer of learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 23(4), 433-446. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/xap0000142

Day, S. B., & Goldstone, R. L. (2012). The import of knowledge export: Connecting findings and theories of transfer of learning. Educational Psychologist, 47(3), 153–176.

Holyoak, K. J. & Koh, K. (1987). Surface and structural similarity in analogical transfer. Memory & Cognition, 15, 332-340.

Nokes-Malach, T. J., & Mestre, J. P. (2013). Toward a model of transfer as sense-making. Educational Psychologist, 48(3), 184–207.

Perkins, D. N., & Salomon, G. (1994). Transfer of learning. In T. Husen, & T. N. Postlethwaite (Eds.), International Encyclopedia of Education (2nd ed., pp. 6452–6456). Oxford, UK: Pergamon Press.

Shemwell, J. T., Chase, C. C. & Schwartz, D. L. (2015). Seeking the general explanation: A test of inductive activities for learning and transfer. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 52 (1): 58-83.

Schwartz, D. L. & Martin, T. (2004). Inventing to prepare for future learning: The hidden efficiency of original student production in statistics instruction. Cognition and Instruction, 22(2), 129-184.

Schwartz, D. L., Chase, C. C., Oppezzo, M. A., & Chin, D. B. (2011). Practicing versus inventing with contrasting cases: The effects of telling first on learning and transfer. Journal of Educational Psychology, 103, 759–775. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0025140

Schwartz, D. L., Chase, C. C. & Bransford, J. D. (2012). Resisting overzealous transfer: Coordinating previously successful routines with needs for new learning. Educational Psychologist47 (3), 204-214.