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Learning Transfer – What is it and Why Does it Matter?

Note: This is an excerpt from the manuscript of our forthcoming book. If you like these ideas, consider joining our all day virtual workshop on July 6. See details here.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” — Albert Einstein 

We have yet to encounter a teacher whose aims for their students stop at the classroom wall. At the end of each lesson, each unit, each school year, teachers hope their students carry with them an arsenal of new knowledge and skills that will help them better understand and impact the world in which they live. They hope that studying the water cycle will help students care for the environment, that studying government will help them take part in civic life, that studying fractions will help them double a recipe when the time comes. In short, they want students to transfer their learning to the real world.

Transfer of learning is at once incredibly simple and incredibly complex. At its most fundamental level, it simply means applying our past learning to a new situation. Humans are wired to do this. A young child who has been bitten by the neighbor’s chihuahua may cry or retreat to the safety of a parent’s arms when they encounter grandma’s golden retriever. We instinctively use our past experiences to help us navigate new circumstances. Yet, when it comes to school, students struggle mightily when asked to apply Monday’s math lesson to the word problems on Friday’s test. Why does our natural ability to transfer our learning break down when that learning occurs in the classroom?

Perhaps the problem is that most classroom learning is divorced from students’ lived experience. We run through lists of standards or chapters in a textbook, covering required content in a vacuum and rarely asking students to draw out lessons that can be transferred to other aspects of their lives. We plan engaging activities to keep their attention but rarely plan ways for students to use their learning to impact the real world. Therefore, most kids have learned that school learning stays at school. They have not been taught to see the applicability of their learning and, so, their brains have stopped trying to apply it.

The challenge we face as teachers, then, is to break down the paradigm of what school is. We must reorient our classrooms so that learning transfer is the heart of all we do. Surprisingly, this shift is not that hard to make. We don’t have to throw out our current curriculum or restructure the entire school to make it happen. In fact, we’ve found that once teachers understand the building blocks of teaching for transfer, they’re better able to plan and implement exciting, valuable lessons for students and feel more energized and less burnt out.

Unpacking Transfer

Transfer of learning requires the ability to recognize how past learning applies to new situations. So, obviously, the more closely a new situation matches students’ prior learning experiences, the more easily they can transfer what they know. Students who learn to graph a linear equation given in the format y = mx + b will more likely transfer their learning when asked to graph a new equation given in this same format than, say, one in the format Ax + By = C. And we can imagine that students will struggle even more when asked to transfer their graphing abilities when a word problem is posed. Similarly, students who can identify the theme of a story may struggle when asked to apply that skill to a poem. This is because transfer occurs at different levels.

In the 1980s, researchers Perkins and Salomon (1988) coined the terms “low-road transfer” and “high-road transfer” to describe these different levels of transfer. Transferring knowledge or skills from one task to another very similar task is known as low-road transfer. When students are just starting out, low-road transfer tasks can help them gain independence and confidence working with new material. A math teacher might model the process for graphing a linear equation and then pose a very similar equation to allow students to practice graphing on their own. Eventually, though, we want students to engage in high-road transfer, which requires them to apply their learning to tasks that are not similar to the teacher’s model.

The ability to transfer knowledge to highly dissimilar situations is what separates experts from novices in any field. Imagine, for instance, that a professional chef and a novice cook are both presented with a basket of unfamiliar ingredients and instructed to create a meal. Even if the professional chef has never worked with the specific meats, vegetables, and spices given, they can draw on their understanding of flavor, texture, and balance to create a tasty dish. The novice, on the other hand, would be lost without a recipe for guidance.

Research shows that one of the reasons experts are able to engage in this type of transfer is the way knowledge is organized in their brains. While novices tend to see bits of information as separate, unconnected facts, experts see new facts as part of a larger system of ideas that exists in their minds. They mentally organize the concepts in their field into frameworks that help them quickly assimilate new knowledge, retrieve prior knowledge, and interpret problems. (Donovan & Bransford, 2005)

In order for our students to get better at transfer, we must help them organize knowledge the way experts do. This means helping students build conceptual frameworks in their brains, too. Let’s look at how this works.

Experts categorize the basic elements of their disciplines using concepts. Think about concepts as mental file folders. They help our brains organize examples into meaningful groups based on shared attributes. For instance, scientists use the concept ecosystem to understand different communities of life on the planet, such as coral reefs and rainforests. When a scientist learns about a new ecosystem – a desert or tundra – they connect their new learning to the other information in their mental ecosystem “folder.” Instead of starting anew, trying to memorize all the characteristics of life in the desert, they build upon their prior understanding of ecosystems in general.

Concepts alone, though, do not suffice to create true expertise. The real driver of expertise, and transfer, is the ability to see the patterns of interaction among concepts within a discipline. For instance, a scientist must do more than simply recognize that a desert is an ecosystem. They need to use their understanding of how ecosystems are impacted by climate to predict how rising average temperatures might disturb life in the Sahara. The mental “file folders” — concepts like ecosystem and climate — need to be organized in relation to one another to create a conceptual framework in the expert’s brain.

Every field, hobby, or complex skill can be viewed through this model of fundamental elements, called concepts, and the predictable ways those elements interact. Basketball players understand that the goal of offensive plays is to ensure at least one player is “open” (unguarded by an opponent) so they can take a shot. And, reciprocally, they understand that the goal of defense is to prevent the opponent from getting “open.” The fundamental concepts of offense, defense, and “openness” are connected in a web of interaction in players’ brains, which they use to adapt to new situations as a game plays out. If a play breaks down, players can use this understanding to improvise effectively. Musicians understand that dissonant chords, which have harsh sounds, are usually resolved by consonant chords, which have more stable, harmonious sounds, in the typical musical progression. The fundamental concepts of chord, dissonance, consonance, and progression – each its own mental “file folder” — are linked together in a predictable pattern to help the musician sight read a new piece of music or compose a new song.

As teachers, we often assume that our students are creating the right “file folders” in their brains and that they see how each element of our curriculum relates to the others. We assume that as they learn they develop frameworks of knowledge in their minds. This often occurs because a teacher’s expertise in any given subject area creates “blind spots,” meaning they see the content so clearly and understand it so deeply that they forget how that content might appear to their students. They gaze into the night sky and immediately see constellations that give shape and meaning to each star – they see ursa major and Orion’s belt – whereas their students gaze upon the same stars as random points of light. Forgetting what it is like to not see the connections, they teach each star – each standard or topic or bit of information – and assume that kids are creating the right constellations in their minds. Then, when kids struggle with transfer, they wonder what went wrong.

To overcome the expert blind spot and truly teach for transfer, then, we have to make visible the relationships between the concepts in each field and teach students to intentionally draw upon these patterns and structures when interpreting new phenomena. If we do this, we can increase students’ ability to remember information, apply skills, and transfer their learning flexibly and creatively to solve problems in the real world.

Of course, the process of developing expertise is complex and time-intensive. But we’ve found that the fairly straightforward process outlined in Figure 1 below is a powerful tool for teaching for transfer. The three steps – acquire, organize, transfer – can be used to design learning experiences that ensure that students attain the “constellations” as well as the “stars,” and that they can create and apply new patterns when they look out upon an unfamiliar quadrant of the sky.

Figure 1: Learning Transfer Mental Model
Figure 1: Learning Transfer Mental Model

Putting it all together

Consider how this process – acquire, organize, transfer – might transform teaching and learning in a typical social studies classroom. Let’s contrast a more common approach, which we’ll call “teaching the standards,” with the approach we just described, “teaching for transfer.”

In the “teaching the standards approach,” teachers use the content standards or textbook to plan lessons, breaking up larger chunks of content into more digestible pieces. The result is a progression of learning experiences that unfold much like episodes of a television series. Each topic or chapter is treated somewhat in isolation from the others, perhaps with a few pauses to step back and admire the bigger picture. In a modern world history course, the class might spend a few weeks on World War I, examining its causes, course, and impacts. Then, on to the rise of totalitarian dictators and the Great Depression, followed by World War II and the start of the Cold War. Along the way there would be tests and quizzes, perhaps some papers or projects, to assess students’ understanding of each development.

In the “teaching for transfer” approach, teachers approach the content by asking, “What powerful concepts bring coherence and meaning to this content? How do the relationships among these concepts produce transferable insights that will help students navigate the complexities of their world? Where can the lessons learned from this content be applied in the real-world today?” Instead of breaking information down into digestible chunks – episodes to be consumed and remembered – they devise conceptual questions and a series of contexts in which to explore those questions. They seek out a novel real-world situation to use as a means of assessing students’ ability to transfer their learning.

Beginning with World War I, the teachers would pose questions such as, “What is the relationship between sovereignty and power?” and “What is the purpose of congressional approval of military intervention?” Students would answer those questions as they learned about different events in the past, using facts from those events as evidence to support their responses to the questions. Students’ inquiry would allow them to uncover enduring, transferrable ideas. For instance, in studying the period leading up to World War II, students might come to realize that in a democracy, public opinion of wars impacts a leader’s ability to intervene. Students could even complete a research project where they identify current events related to these concepts and present them to the class.

After studying the period from World War I to the Cold War through the lens of concepts like sovereignty, power, freedom, and security, students would be presented with the following images on the unit assessment.


Students would not have studied drones, nor would they have studied Afghanistan or Pakistan. They would be asked to analyze several short news articles both in favor of and against the United States’ use of drone strikes in Pakistan and use their understanding of sovereignty, power, freedom and security to argue in favor of or against the use of drone strikes. Would this assessment gage students’ knowledge of World War I or Hitler’s regime? No, not directly. Teachers would need to confirm students’ understanding of the key details of history through shorter quizzes or other assessments. But this assessment measures what matters: students’ ability to transfer their learning to a novel situation.

Imagine what would happen if students were encountering this type of learning at every grade level and across all disciplines. Instead of viewing school as a series of hoops to jump through – vocabulary lists to memorize, worksheets to complete, tests to study for – students would get the message that the purpose of education is to prepare them to tackle the complex challenges that each of us must navigate in real life. Instead of feeling intimidated by complicated issues like conflict in the Middle East or curing cancer, they would feel empowered to jump right in, form their own opinions, and take action.

The moral of the story? Teaching for transfer is exciting, relevant, and has the power to transform schools into vibrant laboratories of learning and problem solving. And we don’t have to throw out the entire infrastructure of our schools to make it happen.

This article is available and can be accessed in Spanish here.

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Learning Transfer
The Learning Transfer team is a dedicated group of educators whose goal is to help students transfer their learning to new situations. Through synthesizing research and methods from cognitive science, instructional design, and a host of other fields, they hope to change the conversation around curriculum and instruction. They believe that focusing on learning transfer can help transform education and empower students to become better meaning makers and innovators.

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