What Is Transfer? And Why Is It So Hard To Achieve?

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When we apply knowledge learned in one context to a new and different context, cognitive scientists call what has happened “transfer.” The problem is that successful transfer is hard to achieve. James M. Lang, an associate professor of English at Assumption College, examines why this is so in a post on the website of the Chronicle of Higher Education:

“[There are] two reasons for the failure-to-transfer that all of us see sometimes in our students. First, they might tie whatever knowledge or skill we are teaching too closely to the context in which they learned it. Thus, students can write innovative opening paragraphs in my freshman-composition course, but in their other classes they continue to rely on the same strategies they learned in high school.

Second, the inability to transfer a skill or information to a novel context might indicate shallow levels of learning. If students are capable of solving problems, writing essays, or answering questions according to some formula they have learned, they might not have grasped the underlying principles of our course content. Without that deeper knowledge of what lies beneath the formula, they can’t pick up what they are learning and put it back down in an unrelated context.

To dig a little more deeply into the problem, consider the work of James Zull, the author of The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning. A biologist by training, Zull has devoted much of the latter part of his career to exploring the physical structures of the brain in order to better understand how teachers can facilitate learning.

Zull acknowledges our profession’s shared belief ‘that if we teach someone the rules for a particular kind of reasoning, they will apply those rules in a general way to everything else.’ However, he also points out that ‘this does not seem to be the way the brain works.’

Cognitive skills of any kind depend on the growth and modification of neuronal networks in our brain, as Zull explains in his book. But because these are networks, they only grow and expand by connecting with other nearby networks. In other words, knowledge and skills obtained within the context of one network—say, my English- literature course—will not immediately float up into some brainy ether and plop down wholesale into unrelated networks.

‘Neuronal networks grow by building on existing networks,’ Zull writes, ‘so our entree to reasoning in one subject comes through the neuronal networks for the information in that subject. Often we don’t have the networks that connect one subject with another. They have been built up separately, especially if we have studied in the standard curriculum that breaks knowledge into parts like math, language, science, and social science.'” (Read more here.)

Transfer sounds like an obscure concept, but it’s really the point of all education and training: we need to be able to apply what we learn in the classroom or in a training session to situations in the real world.

Have you found ways to make learning stick?

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3 Responses to “What Is Transfer? And Why Is It So Hard To Achieve?”

  1. I think transfer frequently comes down to context. If you are learning via facts that are isolated from their practical context or you are learning in a way that doesn’t allow you to explore the whole option space (looking for a right answer vs. exploring why other answers are wrong or less optimal) then I think it becomes more difficult to achieve transfer, especially transfer across subjects (creativity).

    I would love to verify this further, but my theory is that we need to focus on allowing students to explore the context of learning more, exploring both less optimal (wrong) solutions as opposed to just learning the “correct” solution.

    We want to save people the time by directing them straight to the correct information, but, in doing so, students lose the context of the information and it becomes increasingly difficult to transfer that information to a novel situation.

  2. Jmkam says:

    This is ultimately why the military spends such time and money on Pre-deployment training. Individual skills and job training is designed to teach soldiers their basic job performance with as much realism as possible to enhance transfer, but with safety,efficiency and and cost factors, this is not neceassarily achievable. Pre-deployment training focuses more on training intact teams to conduct their operations with as much realism as possible. Pre-deployment training has greater funding, somewhat more relaxed safety precautions, and realistic training scenarios designed to mimic the anticipated real world problems…and therefore enhance (ensure) transfer.

  3. Bob says:

    largely it is because ‘g’ is untrainable – practice effects are perfectly negatively correlated with the ‘g’-loading of a test. cf. te Nijenhuis et al., 2007, Intelligence, ‘Score gains in g loaded tests: No g’.

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