When students in higher education perform well on exams, papers, projects, and other academic activities, it may seem that they have developed the skills they need for the next challenge—whether that is a more advanced course, a co-op position, or a relevant personal pursuit. However, a significant body of research suggests that learners do not automatically transfer their learning from one context into another. Outside of the classroom, or in different disciplines, students often forget or fail to marshal much of what they learned elsewhere (Perkins & Saloman, 2012). Factors that influence the transfer of learning relate to the learner’s disposition and metacognitive skills, as well as the specific nature of the initial learning experiences.
What does the research offer?
The skill of transfer, in the context of learning, has been defined as an individual’s ability to extend what has been learned in one context to new contexts—for example, from school to the workplace (Bransford et al., 1999). Research shows that some learning experiences can result in effective in-context performance, but poor transfer, while others produce effective in-context performance as well as positive transfer (Bransford et al., 1999). In other words, knowledge is not the same as knowledge that is usable in the future. Schooling is most impactful when students regularly transfer what they learn (Schwartz et al., 2005).
To develop their competence with given skills, learners need an understanding of what they are learning and what it means (Bransford et al., 1999). The strategies below can be incorporated in any discipline or context to foster understanding and thereby promote learning transfer.
- Be Explicit – Be explicit with learners about what transfer is and that it is a goal of the learning experience. Setting the expectation for future use can contribute to actual future use (Engle et al., 2012).
- Prompt Expansive Framing – Prompt learners to identify past experiences and potential future experiences that are relevant to the current lesson or topic (Engle et al., 2012).
- Utilize Multiple Contexts – Include multiple opportunities for practice with feedback in varied contexts. This strategy can improve the learner’s ability to recognize when and how to apply specific prior knowledge (Billing, 2007).
- Similar Context – Because similarity between the learning context and other contexts is a factor in transfer, provide learning environments that resemble the target environment (Anderson & Bower, 1973).
- Facilitate Deep Learning – Provide ample time and opportunity to identify underlying concepts, patterns, themes, and principles related to the knowledge or skill that is being introduced, since deeper learning contributes to later transfer (Bransford et al., 1999).
- Support Social Learning – Allow learners to develop skills in a collaborative environment, where they will see others perform the same skill and receive input from diverse perspectives (Billing, 2007).
Anderson, J. R., & Bower, G. H. (1972). Recognition and retrieval processes in free recall. Psychological Review, 79(2), 97-12.
Billing, D. (2007). Teaching for transfer of core/key skills in higher education: Cognitive skills. Higher Education, 53, 483-516.
Bransford, J., Brown, A., Cocking, R., & National Research Council (U.S.). Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning. (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
Engle, R. A., Lam, D. P., Meyer, X. S., & Nix, S. E. (2012). How does expansive framing promote transfer? Several proposed explanations and a research agenda for investigating them. Educational Psychologist, 47(3), 215-231.
Perkins, D. N., & Salomon, G. (2012). Knowledge to go: A motivational and dispositional view of transfer. Educational Psychologist, 47(3), 248-258.
Schwartz, D. L., Bransford, J. D., & Sears, D. L. (2005). Efficiency and innovation in transfer. In J. Mestre (Ed.), Transfer of learning from a modern multidisciplinary perspective (pp. 1-51). Greenwich, CT: Information Age.