Volume 1
February 2003
Transfer of Learning
Professor Y.K. Ip
Department of Biological Sciences
Associate Director, CDTL

The goal of all learning is to make information portable, so that learning travels with the learner to new locations. In the new locations, the learning is transferred and applied in novel, interesting, and innovative ways. This is the phenomenon referred to as the ‘Transfer of Learning’. When transfer of learning occurs, it is in the form of meanings, expectations, generalisations, concepts, or insights that are developed in one learning situation being employed in others (Bigge and Shermis, 1992).

Basically, education that does not achieve considerable transfer is not worth much! In its broadest sense, transfer of learning is basic to the whole notion of schooling. If there is no transfer at all, students will need to be taught specifically every act that they will ever perform in any situation (Bigge and Shermis, 1992). However, we often over-emphasise the transmission of information (by the teacher) and the retention of information (by the student) in our own disciplines that we overlook this very important aspect of learning.

A person is in the best frame of mind for transfer to occur when he/she is aware of acquiring meanings and abilities that are widely applicable in learning and living. He/she must also want to solve new problems, or approach new situations and take risks, in the light of the insights gained through previous experience. For transfer to occur, individuals must generalise (i.e. perceive common factors in different situations, comprehend the factors as applicable and appropriate to both situations and thereby understand how a generalisation can be used); and they must desire to benefit by the sensed commonality (Bigge and Shermis, 1992). Teachers can act as guides and prompters to “shepherd” knowledge and skills from one context to another (Forgarty et al, 1991).

There are always some things that we somehow wish that the students are able to transfer somewhere. To uncover the sources within our curriculum that provide fertile ground for relevant student transfer, we must “selectively abandon” and “judiciously include” curricular components (Costa, 1991). It is the work of a skilled teacher to find the ‘some things’ worth teaching. These would include “knowledge”, “skills”, “concepts”, “attitude”, “principles” and “dispositions” (Forgarty, et al., 1991). A topic worthwhile as a candidate for transfer must have potential significance in other areas: (a) significance within the discipline, (b) societal significance, and (c) student needs, interests and aspirations (Forgarty, et al., 1991).

Perkins and Salomon (1988) introduced two broad mediation strategies for transfer that they call “hugging” and “bridging”. Hugging serves an automatic kind of reflexive transfer. It involves making the learning experience similar to the situations to which one wants transfer to occur. Strategies that belong to this category include Setting Expectations, Matching, Simulating, Modelling, and Problem-Based Learning (Fogarty et al, 1991). Bridging serves reflective transfer. Bridging means helping students to make generalisations, monitor their thinking, and be thoughtful in other ways that foster mindful connection-making. Strategies involved are Anticipating Application, Generalising Concepts, Using Analogies, Parallel Problem Solving, and Metacognitive Reflection (Forgarty et al, 1991).

To facilitate the development of transfer skills, we have to help students to see the ‘somewhere’ of transfer. Within a course, links can be highlighted between previous or subsequent lessons. Within a discipline, it can be targeted at different areas. Or, efforts can be made to show students how materials learnt can be transferred between disciplines. Ultimately, the most important target of transfer is life situations. It would be difficult to justify any achievement of school learning that has no bearing upon students’ future learning and life situations.

By becoming aware of transfer, finding the some things, using the somehows, and targeting and tracking the somewheres, you can make transfer a lot more likely to happen. Teaching for transfer is, not just for a test, but for a lifetime.


Further Reading

Bigge, M.L. & Shermis, S.S. (1991). Learning Theories for Teachers (5th ed.). New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Costa, A.L. (1991). 'Towards a Model of Human Intellectual Functioning'. In Costa, A.L. (Ed.). Developing Minds: A Resource Book for Teaching Thinking, Vol.1. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 137-140.

Forgarty, R.; Perkins, D.; & Barell, J. (1991). The Mindful School: How to Teach for Transfer. Palatine, IL: IRI/Skylight Publishing.

Perkins, D. & Salomon, G. (September 1988). 'Teaching for Transfer'. Educational Leadership, 46(1), 22-32.


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National University of Singapore
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