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Transfer of learning

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Transfer (of learning) research can be loosely framed as the study of the dependency of human conduct on prior experience. The notion was originally introduced as transfer of practice by Edward Thorndike and Robert S. Woodworth (1901)[1]. They explored how individuals would transfer learning in one context to another context that shared similar characteristics. Their theory implied that transfer of learning depends on the proportion to which the learning task and the transfer task are identical, also known as 'identical elements'. Transfer research has since attracted much attention in numerous domains, producing a wealth of empirical findings and theoretical interpretations. However, there remains considerable controversy about how transfer of learning should be conceptualized and explained, what its relation is to learning, or whether it exists at all (e.g., Detterman, 1993; Helfenstein, 2005 [2]).

Transfer of learning should not be confused with knowledge transfer, as the former concerns intra-individual, constructivist perspective, and the latter, an inter-individual or inter-organizational perspective.

Most discussions of transfer to date can be developed from a common operational definition, describing it as the process and the effective extent to which past experiences (also referred to as transfer source) affect learning and performance in a present novel situation (transfer target) (Ellis, 1965; Woodworth, 1938). This, however, is usually also where the general consensus between various research approaches ends.

Indeed, there is a wide variety of viewpoints taken on transfer; and therefore research should be reviewed from many different perspectives. These perspectives relate to:

  • a taxonomical approach to transfer research that usually intends to categorize transfer into different types;
  • an application domain-driven approach by focusing on developments and contributions of different disciplines that have traditionally been interested in transfer;
  • the examinination of the psychological scope of transfer models with respect to the psychological functions or faculties that are being regarded; and
  • a concept-driven evaluation, which reveals underlying relationships and differences between theoretical and empirical traditions.


What is Transfer of Learning?

Transfer of Learning, also known as Transfer of Training, is defined as “…when learning in one context or with one set of materials impacts on performance in another context or with other related materials” (Perkins & Salomon, 1994, p. 6452). In other terms, Transfer of Learning occurs when a person uses prior knowledge to complete a new task. This can be found often in a classroom, where a student applies information from an earlier lesson to accomplish a later one. Visit the Oregon Technology in Education Council (OTEC) website to find other real life examples of transfer of learning.



Types of Transfer


Near Transfer

Near Transfer refers to two sets of learning examples that cover similar ideas or conditions. One example of Near Transfer is a final exam that covers all the material presented within that particular course (Perkins & Salomon, 1994, p. 6453).


Far Transfer

Far Transfer, however, relates to a widespread use of prior knowledge. One example of this is the use of addition and subtraction in a wide range of fields, from accounting to engineering (Mestre, 2005, p. xi).



Low-road Transfer

As explained by the OTEC, low-road transfer refers to developing some knowledge/skill to a high level of automaticity. It usually requires a great deal of practice in varying settings. Examples of this include: shoe tying, keyboarding, steering a car, and single-digit arithmetic facts (http://otec.uoregon.edu/learning_theory.htm).



High-road Transfer

The OTEC explains high-road transfer as involving: cognitive understanding; purposeful and conscious analysis; mindfulness; and application of strategies that cut across disciplines. In high-road transfer, there is deliberate mindful abstraction of an idea that can transfer, and then conscious and deliberate application of the idea when faced by a problem where the idea may be useful (http://otec.uoregon.edu/learning_theory.htm).


The University of Delaware's Social Studies Education Project lists other types of transfer including:

  • Positive transfer - when learning in one context enhances a related performance in another context.
  • Negative transfer - when learning in one context undermines a related performance in another context.
  • Forward reaching transfer (a form of "high road" transfer) - one learns something and abstracts it in preparation for application elsewhere.
  • Backward reaching transfer (a form of "high road" transfer) - one finds oneself in a problem situation, abstracts key characteristics from the situation, and reaches backward into one's experience for matches.









Biggs, J. B., & Kirby, J. R. (1980). Cognition, Development, and Instruction. New York, NY: Academic Press.

Browne-Miller, A. (1994). Learning to Learn: Ways to Nurture you Child's Intelligence. New York, NY: Plenum Press.

Mestre, J. P. (2005). Transfer of Learning: From a Modern Multidisciplinary Perspective. Greenwich, Connecticut: Information Age Publishing.

Perkins, D. N., & Salomon, G. (1994). The International Encyclopedia of Education (Second ed., Vol. 11). (T. Husen, & T. N. Postlethwaite, Eds.) Sweden: Pergamon.


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