Home > Educational Neuroscience > The Power of Transfer

The Power of Transfer

The brain is a dynamic creation that is constantly organizing and reorganizing itself when it receives new stimuli. More networks are formed as raw items merge into new patterns. Just as musicians in an orchestra join the individual sounds of their instruments in new and melodious ways, so does the brain unite disconnected ideas with wonderful harmony. We can add beauty and clarity and can forge isolated ideas into spectacular visions.

Transfer is on process that allows this amazing inventiveness to unfold. It encompasses the ability to learn in one situation and then use that learning, possibly in a modified or generalized form, in other situations. Transfer is the core of problem solving, creative thinking and all other higher mental processes, inventions, and artistic products. It is also one of the ultimate goals of teaching and learning.

The principle of learning, called transfer describes a two part process:

(1) Transfer during learning. This refers to the effect that past learning has on the processing and acquisition of new learning.

(2) Transfer of learning. This refers to the degree to which the learner applies the new learning in future situations. In 1988, Perkins and Salomon offered a low-road/high-road theory of transfer of learning. In their model, low-road transfer refers to a learned and nearly automatic transfer of skills when two tasks are very similar to each other. For example, a child who has learned to tie shoelaces on a pair of sneakers can readily transfer that skill to tying shoelaces on his new pair of dress shoes. Like shoelace tying, steering a car and typing on a keyboard are examples of low-road transfer. High-road transfer, on the other hand, involves careful deliberation and study of the task to determine what past knowledge and skills are appropriate for this situation. Thus, high-road transfer requires more time and more mental effort.

Transfer During Learning

The process goes something like this: Whenever new learning moves into working memory, long-term memory (most likely stimulated by a signal from the hippocampus) simultaneously searches the long-term storage sites for any past learnings that are similar to, or associated with, the new learning. If the experiences exist, the memory networks are activated, and the associated memories are reconsolidated in working memory.

How much past learning affects the learner’s ability to acquire new knowledge or skills in another context describes one phase of the powerful phenomenon called transfer. In other words, the information processing system depends on past learnings to associate with, make sense of, and treat new information. This recycling of past information into the flow not only reinforces and provides additional rehearsal for already-stored information but also aids in assigning meaning to new information. The degree of meaning attributed to new learning will determine the connections that are made between it and other information in long-term storage. Consider the following pieces of information:

1. There are seven days in the week.
2. Force = mass × acceleration.
3. North Korea is an evil country.
4. They also serve who only stand and wait.
5. Jesus is the son of God.
6. There’s a sucker born every minute.

In each instance, the meaning of the information depends on the experience, education, and state of mind of the reader. The third and last statements can arouse passionate agreement or disavowal. The second and fourth statements would be meaningless to a second grader, but not the first statement. The fifth could provoke an endless debate among adherents of different religions.

Meaning often depends on context. The transfer process not only provides interpretation of words, but often includes nuances and shadings that can result in very different meanings. “He is a piece of work!” can be either a compliment or a sarcastic comment, depending on tone and context. These connections and associations give the learner more options to cope with new situations in the future.

Types of Transfer

Positive Transfer. When past learning helps the learner deal with new learning, it is called positive transfer. Suppose a violin player and a trombone player both want to learn to play the viola, an instrument similar to the violin. Who will learn the new instrument more easily? The violin player already possesses the skills and knowledge that will help in learning the viola. The trombone player, on the other hand, may be a very accomplished trombonist but possesses few skills that will help to play the viola. Similarly, Michelangelo, da Vinci, and Edison were able to transfer a great deal of their knowledge and skills to create magnificent works of art and invention. Their prior learnings made greater achievement possible.

Negative Transfer. Sometimes past learning interferes with the learner’s understanding of new learning, resulting in confusion or errors. This process is called negative transfer. If, for example, you have been driving cars with only automatic shift, you will have quite a surprise the first time you drive a standard-shift car. You were accustomed to keeping your left foot idle or using it to brake (not recommended). In either case, the left foot has a very different function in a standard-shift car. If it keeps doing its automatic-shift functions (or does nothing), you will have great difficulty driving the standard-shift car. In other words, the skills that the driver’s brain assigned to the left foot for the automatic-shift car are not the skills it needs to cope with the standard-shift car. The skill it used before is now interfering with the skill needed in the new situation, an example of negative transfer.

During a lesson, students are dealing continually with transfer as they process and practice new information and skills. Because students’ experiences vary, the extent of what transfers also varies. Whether that transfer aids or impedes the acquisition of new learning is a major factor in determining the degree of success each student has in accomplishing the lesson objective.

For example, teachers who teach Romance languages to native English speakers are frequently helped by positive transfer and plagued by negative transfer. Words like rouge in French and mucho in Spanish help to teach red and much, respectively, but when students see the French librairie and are told it is a place where books are found, experience prompts them to think that it means “library.” It really means “bookstore.” (The French word for library is bibliothèque.) Never underestimate the power of transfer. Past learning always influences the acquisition of new learning.

Transfer of Learning

As a pattern seeker, the brain is wired to use past information and skills to solve new problems. This transfer of learning appears to be controlled, in part, by the striatum, a group of neurons located midbrain. In an fMRI study, researchers found that this area was activated when participants encountered a new learning task that required updating information they had previously learned (Dahlin, Neely, Larsson, Bäckman, & Nyberg, 2008). The striatum is important for updating working memory. Apparently, successful transfer requires the engagement of specific and overlapping brain regions. How does it happen in schools?

A review of any curriculum reveals that transfer is an integral component and expectation of the learning process. Every day, teachers deliberately or intuitively refer to past learning to make new learning more understandable and meaningful. For the long term, students are expected to transfer the knowledge and skills they learn in school to their daily routines, jobs, and ventures outside the school. Writing and speaking skills should help them communicate with others, scientific knowledge should inform their decisions on environmental and health issues, and their understanding of history should guide their responses to contemporary problems at personal, social, and cultural levels. Obviously, the more information students can transfer from their schooling to the context of everyday life, the greater the probability that they will be good communicators, informed citizens, critical thinkers, and successful problem solvers.

Yet studies continue to show that students are not successful in recognizing how the skills and knowledge they learned in school apply to new situations they encounter in other classes or outside school. One study found that, although students can spontaneously make inferences from one curriculum area to another, they do not make enough inferences to support fully fledged transfer and, thus, for example, have difficulty transferring computational skills they learned in mathematics class to solving problems in science class (Blanchette & Dunbar, 2002). Another study showed that high school students rejected the notion that they could apply what they learned about writing in their composition courses to the writing they were expected to do in their other courses (Bergmann & Zepernick, 2007).

These studies suggest that the students’ ability to apply knowledge to new situations is
limited. Apparently, we are not doing enough in schools to deliberately make the transfer connections to enhance new learning. The more connections that students can make between past learning and new learning, the more likely they are to determine sense and meaning and thus retain the new learning. Moreover, when these connections can be extended across curriculum areas, they establish a framework of associative networks that will be recalled for future problem solving.

Successful transfer can be enhanced by educators who advocate thematic units and an integrated curriculum. This approach provides more stimulating experiences for students, and helps them see the commonalities among diverse topics, while reinforcing understanding and meaning for future applications. Thematic units, for instance, could focus on the environment (global warming, recycling, air quality), history (the U.S. Civil War, exploring the West, Black History Month), science (sources of electrical power, space exploration, ecosystems), or language arts (tall tales, realistic fiction, poetry) (P. Roberts & Kellough, 2003). Integrated thematic units cut across curriculum areas. The Internet is an excellent source of ideas for integrated units.  Beyond restructuring curriculum, the question now becomes this: How can we select teaching that will ensure transfer? Check back next week to find out.


Bergmann, L.S., & Zepernick, J. (2007). Disciplinarity and transfer: Students’ perceptions of learning to write. WPA: Writing Program Administration, 31 (102), 124-149.

Blanchette, Isabelle, and Kevin Dunbar. “Representational Change and Analogy: How Analogical Inferences Alter Target Representations.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 28.4 (2002): 672-85. Print.

Dahlin, E., A. S. Neely, A. Larsson, L. Backman, and L. Nyberg. “Transfer of Learning After Updating Training Mediated by the Striatum.” Science 320.5882 (2008): 1510-512. Print.
Roberts, Patricia, and Richard D. Kellough. A Guide for Developing Interdisciplinary Thematic Units. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 2003. Print.
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