Transfer of learning

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Transfer of learning is the dependency of human conduct, learning, or performance on prior experience. The notion was originally introduced as transfer of practice by Edward Thorndike and Robert S. Woodworth.[1] They explored how individuals would transfer learning in one context to another, similar context – or how "improvement in one mental function" could influence a related one. Their theory implied that transfer of learning depends on how similar the learning task and transfer tasks are, or where "identical elements are concerned in the influencing and influenced function", now known as the identical element theory.

Today, transfer of learning is usually described as the process and the effective extent to which past experiences (also referred to as the transfer source) affect learning and performance in a new situation (the transfer target).[2] However, there remains controversy as to how transfer of learning should be conceptualized and explained, what its prevalence is, what its relation is to learning in general, and whether it exists at all.[3] There are a wide variety of viewpoints and theoretical frameworks apparent in the literature, which can be categorized as:

  • a taxonomical approach that categorizes transfer into different types;
  • an application domain-driven approach that focuses on developments and contributions of different disciplines;
  • the examination of the psychological functions or faculties transfer models invoke; and
  • a concept-driven evaluation, which reveals compares and contrasts theoretical and empirical traditions.

Knowledge transfer involves the application of previously learned knowledge while completing tasks or solving problems.

Traditional fields of transfer research[edit]

Learning Theories and Transfer of Learning[edit]

The intent of this excerpt is to support the work of transfer in educational materials readily available and for other users to incorporate their ideas as well. Hopefully this article may aid in the planning phase, teaching, and day to day lesson plans when thinking about the importance of educational transfer in the future. When I think of learning theories I think of educational transfer. Educational transfer is important and should be dually noted that researchers, educators, and the like need to know how to teach for transfer. The idea of transfer is seldom specified. However, it is one of the most important goals that we can teach our students. The ultimate goal is for the student to be able to apply their knowledge and skills inside and outside of the classroom, specifically to new cases. Transfer of knowledge goes far beyond simply repeating memorized material but to being able to take old knowledge and experiences and apply this old knowledge to a new concept and being able to use both the new and old knowledge to solving a problem that you have never encountered before. This mode of thinking about the process of learning and transfer resonates with the Gestalt theory of learning.[4]

To understand the idea of educational transfer of learning it involves one's own transferring of knowledge and skills from one problem solving situation to the next. Transfer of learning is so common in our everyday lives that we may not even realize that we are applying the idea of transfer to our everyday practices. We do this without conscious thought. Transfer can be considered positive or negative. Transfer occurs at a subconscious level if one has achieved automaticity of that which is to be transferred, and if one is transferring this learning to a problem that is sufficiently similar to the original situation so that differences are handled at a subconscious level, perhaps aided by a little conscious thought(Perkins, David N. and Salomon, Gavriel (September 2, 1992). Unfortunately, researchers are unable to develop a general theory of educational transfer of learning. This would allow students to get better at applying and mastering the idea of transfer in an educational setting.

Near and Far transfer of learning: Near transfer refers to transfer between very similar contexts, whereas, far transfer refers to transfer between contexts that, on appearance, seem remote and alien to one another. Near and far are intuitive notions that resist precise codification. They are useful in broadly characterizing some aspects of transfer but do not imply any strictly defined metric of closeness. (Perkins & Soloman, 1992) This approach is not effective in helping educators or the like to teach. At one time, it was common to talk about transfer of learning in terms of near and far transfer. This "near and far" theory of transfer suggested that some problems and tasks are so nearly alike that transfer of learning occurs easily and naturally. A particular problem or task is studied and practiced to a high level of automaticity. When a nearly similar problem or task is encountered, it is automatically solved with little or no conscious thought. This is called near transfer. A major goal in learning to read is to develop a high level of decoding automaticity. Then your conscious mind can pay attention to the meaning and implications of the material you are reading. A significant fraction of children are able to achieve this by the end of the third grade.(

The Low Road/High Road Theory on transfer of learning -(developed by Salomon & Perkins, 1988): Low-road transfer refers to developing some knowledge/skill to a high level of automaticity. It requires a great deal of practice in varying settings. Examples of areas where automaticity can be achieved: shoe tying, keyboarding, or steering a car. High-road transfer involves the cognitive understanding and purposeful and conscious analysis, mindfulness, and application of strategies that cut across disciplines. In high-road transfer, there is intentional mindful abstraction of an idea that can transfer, and then conscious and intentional application of the idea when faced by a problem where the idea may be useful.

references: Perkins, David N. and Salomon, Gavriel (September 2, 1992). Transfer of Learning: Contribution to the International Encyclopedia of Education, Second Edition Oxford, England: Pergamon Press. [Online]. Accessed 2/27/02: Salomon, G., & Perkins, D. (1988, September). Teaching for transfer. Educational Leadership, 22-32. Transfer of Learning: Planning Workplace Education Programs [Online]. Accessed 4/8/01: Engish/page01.htm.

Learning and transfer: implications for educational practice[edit]

A modern view of transfer in the context of educational practice shows little need to distinguish between the general and specific paradigms, recognizing the role of both identical elements and metacognition. In this view, the work of Bransford,[5] Brown and Cocking (1999) identified four key characteristics of learning as applied to transfer. They are:

  1. The necessity of initial learning;
  2. The importance of abstract and contextual knowledge;
  3. The conception of learning as an active and dynamic process; and
  4. The notion that all learning is transfer.

First, the necessity of initial learning for transfer specifies that mere exposure or memorization is not learning; there must be understanding. Learning as understanding takes time, such that expertise with deep, organized knowledge improves transfer. Teaching that emphasizes how to use knowledge or that improves motivation should enhance transfer.

Second, while knowledge anchored in context is important for initial learning, it is also inflexible without some level of abstraction that goes beyond the context. Practices to improve transfer include having students specify connections across multiple contexts or having them develop general solutions and strategies that would apply beyond a single-context case.

Third, learning should be considered an active and dynamic process, not a static product. Instead of one-shot tests that follow learning tasks, students can improve transfer by engaging in assessments that extend beyond current abilities. Improving transfer in this way requires instructor prompts to assist students – such as dynamic assessments – or student development of metacognitive skills without prompting.

Finally, the fourth characteristic defines all learning as transfer. New learning builds on previous learning, which implies that teachers can facilitate transfer by activating what students know and by making their thinking visible. This includes addressing student misconceptions and recognizing cultural behaviors that students bring to learning situations.

A student-learning centered view of transfer embodies these four characteristics. With this conception, teachers can help students transfer learning not just between contexts in academics, but also to common home, work, or community environments.

Enhancing transfer between school and every day life[edit]

The National Research Council (2000)[6] states that the ultimate goal of transfer is for students to generalize the knowledge they have learned in school to practical environments such as home, community, and workplace. In order to promote transfer to non-school environments, NRC (2000) has provided guidelines for educators to better understand the needed skills for students to succeed in said environments.

  • Collaboration: Various studies have proven that much work outside of school is done in groups. Students need exposure to this type of collaborative work in order to better transfer knowledge to non-classroom environments.
  • Use of tools: Many school tasks require the use of the student mind whereas many non-classroom tasks allow and require the use of relevant tools. Increased student exposure to functional and relevant tools, such as technology, will only enhance transfer in the non-classroom setting.
  • Contextualized Reasoning: Abstract reasoning is primarily reinforced in school, for example the use of mathematical formulas. In settings outside of school, such as the grocery store, people often use contextualized reasoning to solve various problems. Many adults are able to choose either context-based or abstract-based reasoning to cater to their specific need. The implementation of strategies for both types of reasoning will provide students with the opportunity to develop both equally and use both interchangeably outside of the school environment.[7]

Human-Computer Interaction (HCI): designing for transfer with technology[edit]

Technology has been successfully used to increase the degree with which learners effectively utilize skills and knowledge gained through class in the real world. This interaction of learners with computers and other technology has altered the landscape of education by reducing the need for paper based educational artifacts, altering curriculum, and introducing a plethora of innovations that allow for key simulations and virtual experiences in the learning environment. Examples of curriculum shifts related to HCI include the change from penmanship towards word processing and computer languages being allowed to be substituted as foreign language requirements.

Instructors that properly implement HCI simulations and animation in the learning environment create a learning state that reflects actual situations in which the knowledge or skill will likely be used in. This transfer using HCI techniques has been shown to effectively increase transmission for both scientific and technology knowledge. HCI also allows for group based learning as opposed to teacher based learning through interactive and individualized technologies including: blogs, wikis, social networks, video casts, and virtual worlds such as Second Life. These various aspects of HCI allow for unique learning experiences to be undertaken that highlight different learning styles and cultural perspectives helping to increase transfer (Erikson 2012; Choi 2007).

Transfer is increased when learners see the potential transfer implications of what they are learning. Properly designed HCI interfaces promote visual thinking that leads to more successful transfer as well. The field of Instructional Design will be an area primarily focused on design principles and the implications on successful blending of HCI to optimize transfer. The learner base that benefits the most from transfer enhanced HCI implementations consists of digital natives to these concepts and expertise. The instructors however are often first generation computer users with limited prior knowledge. Often this makes it difficult to incorporate HCI into improved conditions for transfer within the new world learning environments. While these “digital immigrants” struggle to successfully incorporate technology into areas such as transfer, it is possible to overcome with proper goal setting, assessments, peer support, and instructor support (Joo 2011; Rosen 2009; Rodgers 2007; Eriksson 2012; Choi 2007).


In a review of research on motivation and transfer, Pugh and Bergin (2006)[8] concluded that motivational factors can influence transfer, although the research is limited and not wholly consistent. They found that mastery goals were more consistently linked to transfer success than were performance goals. They also found that interest was related to transfer success when this interest was associated with the learning content. However, when the interest was related to peripheral things, such as seductive details in text, it inhibited transfer success. In addition, they found evidence that transfer success was positively related to self-efficacy. Finally, the reviewers proposed that the transfer process is affected by the presence of an explicit goal of achieving transfer. Pugh and Bergin (2006)[8] predicted that motivational factors influence transfer in three ways. First, they can influence the quality of initial learning in ways that support transfer. Second, they can influence the initiation of transfer attempts, particularly in situations where individuals have an opportunity to apply learning but are not required to. Third, motivational factors can influence individuals’ persistence when engaged in transfer tasks.

Adults with Intellectual Disability[edit]

In 2001, research was conducted by Choi, Meeuwsen, French, Sherrill, and McCabe (2001) [9] that examined whether or not adults with a diagnosis of profound intellectual disability could transfer a learned motor skill from the learning environment to a generalized environment. The purpose of this study was to test whether the participants could transfer the skill learned from throwing beanbags to throwing horseshoes. This study concluded that the adults were able to transfer an under armed throwing skill from the learning environment to the generalized environment.

Transfer taxonomies[edit]

The following table presents different types of transfer, as adapted from Schunk (2004).[10]

Type Characteristics
Near Overlap between situations, original and transfer contexts are similar.
Far Little overlap between situations, original and transfer settings are dissimilar.
Positive What is learned in one context enhances learning in a different setting.[11]
Negative What is learned in one context hinders or delays learning in a different setting.[11]
Vertical Knowledge of a previous topic is essential to acquire new knowledge.[12]
Horizontal Knowledge of a previous topic is not essential but helpful to learn a new topic.[12]
Literal Intact knowledge transfers to new task.
Figural Use some aspect of general knowledge to think or learn about a problem.
Low Road Transfer of well-established skills in almost automatic fashion.
High Road Transfer involves abstraction so conscious formulations of connections between contexts.
High Road/Forward Reaching Abstracting situations from a learning context to a potential transfer context.
High Road/Backward Reaching Abstracting in the transfer context features of a previous situation where new skills and knowledge were learned.

Positive Transfer: Transfer of learning or training is said to be positive when the learning or training carried out in one situation proves helpful to learning in another situation. Examples of such transfer are:

  • The knowledge and skills related to school mathematics help in the learning of statistical computation;
  • The knowledge and skills acquired in terms of addition and subtraction in mathematics in school may help a child in the acquisition of knowledge and skills regarding multiplication and division;
  • Learning to play badminton may help an individual to play ping pong (Table Tennis) and lawn tennis.

Near transfer is the direct application level of learning that involves a higher level of cognitive processing (Hung, 2013).

According to Hung (2013), far transfer presents challenges for students due to the decrease in the degree of similarity and pragmatic relevance between the forms of original knowledge and target far transfer knowledge, the unfamiliarity of the target context, or a higher number of variables involved. “Far transfer also requires more modification of the original knowledge than near transfer to adapt to the target transfer condition” (Hung, 2013, p. 29).

Obstacles in Transfer of Learning Several factors may impact the transfer process. This can include the manner in which the learning process is facilitated and the environment in which the learning experience is occurring.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Thorndike, E. L. and Woodworth, R. S. (1901) "The influence of improvement in one mental function upon the efficiency of other functions", Psychological Review 8:
    Part I, pp. 247–261 doi:10.1037/h0074898
    Part II, pp. 384–395 doi:10.1037/h0071280
    Part III, pp. 553–564 doi:10.1037/h0071363
  2. ^ Ellis, H. C. (1965). The Transfer of Learning. New York: The Macmillan Company.
  3. ^ Helfenstein, S. (2005). Transfer: review, reconstruction, and resolution. Thesis, University of Jyväskylä. ISBN 951-39-2386-X.
  4. ^ Phillips and Soltis. Perspectives on Learning. Teachers College. pp. 70–72. 
  5. ^ Bransford , J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. (Expanded ed., PDF). Washington D.C.: National Academy Press, ISBN 0309070368.
  6. ^ Bransford , J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. (Expanded ed., PDF). Washington D.C.: National Academy Press, ISBN 0309070368.
  7. ^ Barrouillet, P. (Ed.), & Gauffroy, C. (Ed.) (2013). The development of thinking and reasoning: Psychology Press.
  8. ^ a b Pugh, K. J., & Bergin, D. A. (2006). "Motivational influences on transfer". Educational Psychologist. 41 (3): 147–160. doi:10.1207/s15326985ep4103_2. 
  9. ^ Choi, S., Meeuwsen, H., French, R., Sherrill, C., & McCabe, R. Motor Skill Acquition, Rentention, and Transfer in Adults with Profound Mental Retardation . Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly , 18, 257-272.
  10. ^ Schunk, D. (2004). Learning theories: An educational perspective (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ, USA: Pearson, p. 220, ISBN 0130384968.
  11. ^ a b Cree, V., & Macaulay, (2000). Transfer of learning in professional and vocational education. Routledge, ISBN 0415204186.
  12. ^ a b Ormrod, J. E. (2004). Human learning (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ, USA: Pearson, ISBN 0132595184
  • Hung, W. "Problem-based learning: A learning environment for enhancing learning transfer". New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education. 137: 27–38. doi:10.1002/ace.20042. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Corder, S. P. (1967). The significance of learners' errors. International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 5, 161–170.
  • Perkins, D. N., & Salomon, G. (1992). Transfer of learning. International Encyclopedia of Education (2nd ed.). Oxford, UK: Pergamon Press.
  • Salomon, G., & Perkins, D. N. (1989). Rocky roads to transfer: rethinking mechanisms of a neglected phenomenon. Educational Psychologist, 24, 113–142.
  • Vignati R.(2009) Il transfer cognitivo nei processi di apprendimento: un paradifma del cambiamento e della creatività?
Psico-In. Informazione dell’Ordine degli Psicologi delle Marche.Anno XV, Numero 2, Novembre 2009 (pp. 15-19)