“Transfer” is a cognitive practice whereby a learner’s mastery of knowledge or skills in one context enables them to apply that knowledge or skill in a different context. Because transfer signals that a learner’s comprehension allows them to recognize how their knowledge can be relevant and to apply it effectively outside original learning conditions, transfer is often considered a hallmark of true learning (Barnett & Ceci, 2002).
Transfer functions in a variety of ways. Instructors should be aware of negative transfer, or the application of misunderstood information and concepts when learning new knowledge (Perkins & Salomon, 1992). Instructors can detect possible negative transfer by assessing students’ prior knowledge. Regarding positive transfer, students can perform near transfer, where they apply their knowledge to a related context like a different class or assignment; or far transfer, where they apply knowledge in an unrelated context typically beyond the classroom, like field trips, social interaction, or career performance (Kober, 2015).
Learning theory suggests that a variety of teaching strategies can help students reach the intellectual maturity to transfer their knowledge, including practice with conceptual understanding, comparative scenarios, and clear road maps for learning (NRC, 2000).
- Electrical engineering students read about circuitry and electricity in an introductory course. The instructor brings market products into class for students to apply their knowledge dissecting and rebuilding.
- In class, students in public health learn about tracking the spread of influenza in an urban American community. Over spring break the class takes an international trip, and does field work charting the spread of a different virus through a rural community, applying related concepts from their class work.
- A creative writing student takes a course on Shakespearean drama. Over the course of the semester she continues to write her own play, drawing from techniques and structures throughout her coursework.
- An economics student writes several papers on Game Theory throughout her undergraduate degree. She accepts a management position in an organization that assists a variety of nonprofit efforts. Although she does not apply Game Theory per se, she applies her knowledge of economic cooperation to insure smooth operations.
- Focus on core concepts - Students can more effectively transfer their knowledge when they comprehend principles that organize, guide, and explain content and skills. Instructors can develop activities that connect dots through deeper relationships, shared functions, or similar organizing principles. With a strong conceptual framework, rather than memorized facts or a string of lecture notes, students can recognize contexts operating through similar concepts and arrange knowledge as more functional parts of a whole.
- Include activities that promote deeper learning - A larger approach to conceptual learning, deeper learning asks students to practice more rigorous thinking than memorization, skills practice, or test preparation. Instructors can design class activities and assessments like active learning that span Bloom’s taxonomy, thereby leading students to more independent thinking and the ability to recognize both the details and the broad strokes of what they study.
- Provide comparative scenarios - Students develop the ability to transfer their learning by practicing transfer. Instructors can present two different scenarios, formulas, or readings and ask students to find single approaches for solving or analyzing each; flipping the script, they can ask students to construct a different problem or scenario that requires the same skills and knowledge as a pre-completed assignment; instructors can also engage students in case studies, where a variety of skills and knowledge sets may be stretched to address issues that are similar to, but not exactly, readings or lecture material.
- Provide a roadmap with links - Students are more engaged when instructors provide a clear sense of direction for intended learning. By making intellectual links between segments of class, or asking students to articulate the relationship between a previous class and a current class, instructors show how knowledge operates in more than one context, and give students practice charting their learning beyond single contexts.
- Build on previous knowledge - Students construct their learning by integrating new knowledge into knowledge they already have. Instructors can support student learning by assessing and building from previous knowledge. They can also make this process explicit for students, which in turn helps students learn to link their knowledge and treat it as a network, rather than individual nuggets.
- Be explicit about transfer - When engaging students in activities that promote transfer, instructors should feel free to make their learning goals known. Students will practice transfer better when they learn to recognize it in action, and will more willingly engage in a lesson if the instructor presents the benefits of transfer for career aspirations and future learning.
Building Knowledge Through Transfer - Northeastern Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning Through Research
Transfer of Learning: Issues and Research Agenda - National Science Foundation (March 21-22, 2002)
What is transfer? - Big Ideas, Grant Wiggins (Mar 27, 2010)
Barnett, S., & Ceci, S. (2002). When and where do we apply what we learn? A taxonomy for far transfer. Psychological Bulletin 128, 612-37.
Kober, N. (2015). Reaching Students: What Research Says About Effective Instruction in Undergraduate Science and Engineering. Board on Science Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
National Research Council. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience and school: Expanded edition. JD Bransford, AL Brown, RR Cocking (Eds)., Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning and Committee on Learning Research and Educational Practice, Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, National Research Council. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Perkins, D., and Salomon, G. (1992). Transfer of Learning. International Encyclopedia of Education. 2nd Ed. Oxford, England: Pergamon Press.