Promoting Transfer of Knowledge Through Expansive Framing

Create flexible learning

What is transfer?

Applying what one has learned in a new context is called “transfer.” As educators, transfer is something we all want for our learners. The frustrating reality, however, is that transfer turns out to be quite difficult: we must first detect the potential for transfer, motivationally elect to pursue that potential, and then do the challenging intellectual work to connect new surface features to an abstract concept that we learned in a different time and place (Perkins & Salomon, 2012). The difficulties with transfer have mostly to do with context—being able to de-couple the learning from its initial context so that we can make use of it in new contexts. One could argue that transfer is the beating heart of intellectual agility.

While transfer happens easily or even spontaneously for experts who have used their knowledge flexibly in many scenarios over time, novices commonly require repeated practice and support to see beyond distracting surface features of problems or contexts to the deeper, conceptually meaningful elements that they have in common (Chi & VanLehn, 2012).


What is framing?

The good news is that recent research shows that how educators “frame” a learning experience—that is, how we describe relevant contexts during the learning activity itself—can increase the likelihood of transfer later on.

“Bounded” framing is language that signals limits to where and with whom the learning might be useful. Bounded framing describes the learning as something discrete and related only to a specific time and place. In contrast, “expansive” framing describes the learning experience as related to larger places, more contexts, and more people. In this way, expansive framing builds into the initial learning experience a de-coupling of the concepts from that specific context, making it easier to transfer to other times and places (Engle et al., 2012).



Drawing on Engle et al.’s (2012) study of expansive framing in the context of tutoring for an anatomy course, you can use the following categories to frame learning activities with your learners:

  • Prompts: As often as possible, ask learners how the material can be related to other contexts in their lives, past or present. For example, you might ask, “Is this familiar in any way? Have you encountered this pattern in other classes, jobs, co-ops, or even personal relationships? Are there other people in your life who you think might find this useful to know? If so, who?” As an expert, you can help learners begin to recognize situations in which certain knowledge can be useful by helping them learn to look for “structure cues”—the tell-tale signs that a situation is ripe for application of the material you are introducing to them (Halpern, 2003). For example, you might tell your learners, “In situations where you see X, that’s where you can use Y.”
  • Time and Place: As often as possible, relate material to what you’ve discussed before. This is important not only to help learners recall and make use of that previous material, but also to help them understand the new material as related to more than just today’s lesson. Similarly, describe as often as possible different times and places that this material will be authentically useful in the future. You might also describe the learning process as a fluid process of sense-making. Consider using language from the Engle et al. (2012) study, such as “You’re figuring out how to…” instead of “We’re done with that, let’s move on.”
  • People: Ask learners to choose someone in their life and ask how they would explain the material to that person. What parts might that person find interesting or difficult? You may consider asking learners to do this with a partner in a think-pair-share activity.



Chi, M. T. H., & VanLehn, K. A. (2012). Seeing deep structure from the interactions of surface featuresEducational Psychologist, 47(3), 177-188.

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.

Halpern, D. F. (2003). Thought and knowledge: An introduction to critical thinking (5th ed.). New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Perkins, D. N., & Salomon, G. (2012). Knowledge to go: A motivational and dispositional view of transfer. Educational Psychologist, 47(3), 248-258.