Building Knowledge Through Transfer

"Expansive Framing" Opens Doors

What is “transfer”?

Transfer of learning—also referred to as “application”—is the ability to use something you’ve learned in a context that is different from where you learned it. Transfer is one of our primary goals as educators: to equip our learners with knowledge, skills, and insights they can use for the rest of their lives. 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).

How can I promote transfer in my learning opportunities?

Supporting transfer of disciplinary content to new problems, learning opportunities, or real-world contexts begins with the initial educating and learning experience. When educators consistently frame learning “expansively,” taking the time to connect knowledge as it is learned to both past and potential future contexts, the likelihood of transfer is substantially increased (Engle et al., 2012). For example, you can ask your learners to:

  • consider future learning opportunities or tasks in which they might use particular skills,
  • evaluate the ways in which their prior knowledge, from both academic and real-life experiences, can be used to address the problem at hand, and
  • identify potential co-op or career scenarios where the topic at hand might be relevant.

As an expert, you can help learners begin to recognize situations where 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.”

When experiences like these occur frequently throughout a learning opportunity, learners are more likely to seek and detect meaningful relationships between their current learning and a new problem or experience, elect to explore those connections, and successfully and meaningfully connect their knowledge to the issue at hand (Perkins & Salomon, 2012).



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

Goldstone, R.L. & Day, S.B. (2012). Introduction to “New Conceptualizations of Transfer of Learning”. Educational Psychologist,47(3). 149-152.

Halpern, D. F. (2003). Thought and knowledge: An introduction to critical thinking. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

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