How Do Students Transfer Learning?

Learning transfer is the practice of applying knowledge or meaning from a familiar context to an unfamiliar context. This movement requires re-contextualizing what students know, which first requires that they strip ‘what they know’ of all context, consider it in isolation, then adapt it to work elsewhere. This is a cognitively demanding practice. Of course, this doesn’t happen by admonishing students to transfer their knowledge, but rather is the result of transfer-by-design. This entails continuously providing scaffolded learning opportunities for students to prove understanding, and make deeper meaning, by moving their understanding.

This content can involve merely acquisition goals or both acquisition and transfer goals. It all depends upon our goals for learning that content. And vice versa: just because students are asked to do a complex performance does not mean that any real transfer is demanded. If the task is completely scripted by a teacher – say, memorizing a poem, performing a Chopin Prelude that one has practiced many times, or writing a formulaic 5-paragraph essay – then there is no transfer of learning taking place. Transfer only is demanded and elicited when there is some element of novelty in the task, and thus strategic thought and judgment is required by the performer.

Learning transfer is usually framed in terms of assessment, as it is a kind of marker for understanding. But considered differently, transfer can become a powerful framework to design projects, lessons, units, performance tasks, curriculum maps, self-directed learning projects, and more. It forces the student to consider important questions, including: what do I know? How do I know it? And where and how can I use what I know?

These kinds of questions are central to the self-directed learning model. In short, at the core of transfer is understanding the value of information. We can push this idea further to include the concepts of the adaptation and movement of knowledge. Since transfer is about applying knowledge to new and unfamiliar contexts, we can personalize that transfer by breaking it apart into types of transfer. The net result, done well, is a more personalized, authentic, rigorous, and creative learning experience for students.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *