Transfer of Learning


Information or skills related to one topic can sometimes either help or hinder the acquisition of information or skills related to another topic. When learning from one situation assists learning in another, this is referred to as positive transfer. This positive transfer is most likely to occur when the learner


For example, knowledge about the Revolutionary War may be helpful in understanding the Civil War. Knowledge of French may help a student learn Spanish. Skill at tennis may help a person learn racquetball. Positive transfer plays a major role in encoding (described in this chapter) and in many higher order thinking skills (described in the next chapter).



When learning from one situation interferes with learning in another situation, this is referred to as negative transfer. This negative transfer is most likely to occur when the learner incorrectly believes there are common features, improperly links the information while encoding it, or incorrectly sees some value in using information from one setting in another. For example, knowledge of the Revolutionary War may actually confuse the student about events in the Civil War. Knowledge of French may confuse the student with regard to Spanish. Skill at tennis may cause a person to make mistakes at racquetball. Negative transfer is usually detrimental to learning and has been discussed as part of forgetting in this chapter.

As was pointed out earlier, analogies can often serve a useful purpose by serving as advance organizers to alert students to activate pertinent information to help process incoming information. To the extent that the resulting connections are appropriate, analogies help promote positive transfer. However, a serious problem with analogies is that they usually activate some information that is inappropriate. To the extent that analogies lead to connections with inappropriate information, they can lead to negative transfer.

A misconception is a particularly important type of negative transfer. Misconceptions were introduced in chapter 4 as part of the discussion of constructivism. In terms of chapter 4, a person with a misconception is likely to assimilate new information through faulty structures and consequently make inappropriate accommodations within those structures. In terms of the present chapter, the person is likely to store the information incorrectly in long-term memory or retrieve the improper information from long-term to working memory, and will consequently be likely to deal ineffectively with the information at hand.

Positive transfer is a very important part of learning. In addition to helping learners acquire specific information more easily, positive transfer helps learners function effectively in situations for which they have no previously acquired information. It enables learners to solve problems they have never seen before. This aspect of positive transfer will be discussed in the next chapter. A major goal of education is to facilitate positive transfer and to minimize negative transfer.

In a very real sense, no useful learning takes place unless positive transfer occurs. The only reason for teaching most topics in the classroom is to enable students to use what they learn in settings beyond the school. Knowledge that cannot be activated in new situations in which it is obviously applicable is referred to as inert knowledge. For example, Lochhead (1985) has found that eighty to ninety percent of American college students aren't really able to solve problems that require the application of ninth-grade algebraic principles, even though they can manipulate the symbols and meet standard behavioral objectives. An important goal of education should be to minimize inert knowledge by promoting positive transfer. The following are effective ways to promote positive transfer:


  1. Teach subject matter in meaningful rather than rote contexts. This is a necessary but not sufficient step in promoting positive transfer. As earlier sections of this chapter indicated, information that is not meaningful will not be associated with other information and will be forgotten quickly.

  2. Employ informed instruction. That is, students should learn not only to describe a concept or strategy, but also to understand when and why the concept or strategy is useful (Paris et al., 1982). The scaffolding strategies described in Chapter 12 will often be useful in delivering informed instruction.

  3. Teach subject matter in contexts as similar as possible to those in which it will be employed. To the extent that information is learned in settings similar to those in which it will be applied, learners can use clues from the learning situation to trigger the use of appropriate skills and information when they are later needed.

  4. Provide opportunities to practice employing the subject matter in settings that represent the full range of eventual applications. If all the practice takes place in a single, narrowly defined setting, then it should not be surprising that the learner will fail to apply it in settings that seem to be different. It is important to provide opportunities to practice in settings that represent an accurate sample of the full range of realistic applications that the learner is likely to encounter.

  5. Provide opportunities for distributed practice after the information has been initially learned. Once information has been initially learned, the additional opportunities for practice in a variety of realistic settings described in the preceding guideline should be spread out over a lengthy period of time, rather than combined into a single study session.

  6. Promote positive attitudes toward subject matter, so that students will feel inclined to deal with rather than avoid topics when they are encountered elsewhere. When people need an idea to deal with a new problem or a novel situation, they are more likely to draw upon learning about which they have positive feelings than learning that evokes hostility or resentment. The development of attitudes toward learning is discussed in Chapter 8.



Thinking skills are sets of strategies which we would like students to generalize to new settings. These are discussed in detail in Chapter 7.

The preceding discussion has suggested that in order to be effective, instruction should be integrated with other instruction. Actually, it is desirable but not always essential for new learning to be integrated with other information. Morris, Shaw, & Perney (1990) have described a tutorial program what employed a constructivist approach to tutor children in reading skills. The tutorial approach would probably be considered preferable by most reading teachers, but the regular classroom teachers in this study simply were not going to use that approach. The tutors hardly talked to the classroom teachers at all and certainly made no attempt to integrate their efforts with those of the classroom teachers, but the students showed substantial improvement on standardized tests taken in the classrooms. Likewise, Pogrow's (19xx) HOTS program consistently generates improvements in subject areas, even though the HOTS teacher and the classroom teachers may be mutually unaware of one another's activities.

This kind of incidental transfer probably occurs because the students acquire useful skills that they spontaneously generalize to other situations in which these skills appear to be useful. Transfer is most likely to occur when instruction is integrated, as when the teacher helps students recognize the similarities between one setting and another. However, non-integrated development of useful skills is better than not having those skills at all.




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