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Teaching For Transfer

Transfer is more frequently provoked by the environment than done consciously by the learner. Have you ever heard a song that brings back a flood of memories? You could not really control that recall unless something else in the present environment now demanded your immediate attention, such as your crying baby or a ringing fire alarm. So who represents a large portion of the environment for students in school? Yes, the teachers! Teachers are the instruments of transfer for students. If teachers are not aware of that, they can inadvertently provoke negative transfer during learning situations just as easily as they can provoke positive transfer.

Example of Transfer in a Literature Class. The following anecdote illustrates how transfer can impede or promote a lesson objective. I once observed a senior class in British literature in a large urban high school. It was late April, and as the students entered the class, they were discussing the upcoming final examinations, the prom, and preparations for graduation. After the opening bell rang, the teacher admonished the students to pay attention and said, “Today, we are going to start another play by William Shakespeare.” The moans and groans were deafening and abated only after the teacher used every threat short of ripping up their forthcoming diplomas. Judging from their reactions and unsolicited comments, the students’ perceptions of past experiences with Shakespeare were hardly positive. Without realizing it, the teacher had provoked negative transfer; getting the students to focus constructively on the new play now would not be easy.

Later that afternoon, I found myself in a different teacher’s British literature class. A large television monitor and a videocassette recorder in the front of the classroom got the students’ attention as they entered. The teacher asked the students to “watch the television screen and be prepared to discuss what they saw.” What unfolded over the next 15 minutes was a cleverly edited collection of scenes from the movie West Side Story. There was enough story to get the plot and enough music to maintain interest. The students were captivated; some even sang along. As the showdown between Tony and Maria’s brother came on the screen, the teacher stopped the tape. The students complained, wanting to see who won the fight. The teacher noted that this was really an old story set in modern times, and that she had the script of the original play. The characters’ names and the location were different, but the plot was the same. While the students were discussing what they had seen, she distributed Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Many students eagerly flipped through the pages trying to find the outcome of the fight scene! The teacher’s understanding of positive transfer was evident, and she had used it magnificently.

To use transfer effectively, teachers need to purposefully identify factors that facilitate learning (positive transfer) while minimizing or eliminating factors that can cause interference (negative transfer).

Factors Affecting Transfer

How quickly transfer occurs during a learning situation depends on the rate of retrieval. As noted earlier, the rate of retrieval is largely dependent on the storage system that the learner has created and how the learning was originally stored. Designing the filing system in long-term storage is a learned skill and can run the gamut from very loose connections to a highly organized series of networks. Working memory uses a cue that it encodes with the material and files in a network containing similar items.

The cue helps long-term memory locate, identify, and select the material for later retrieval, similar to the way the label on a file folder helps to locate and identify what is in the file. If the learner is recalling a complex concept, information has to come from various storage areas to the frontal lobes for assembly, verification, and decoding into working memory. Many factors in a learning system affect the nature of this transfer process. Researchers have identified the following four of these:

  • The context and degree of original learning
  • Similarity
  • Critical attributes
  • Association

No factor is more important than the others, and they often work together (Hunter, 2004).

Context and Degree of Original Learning

The quality of transfer that occurs during new learning is largely dependent on the quality of the original learning. Most of us can recall easily our Social Security number or even a poem we learned in our early school years. If the original learning was well learned and accurate, its influence on new learning will be more constructive and help the student toward greater achievement. Students who did not learn the scientific method well, for example, will not be very effective in laboratory analysis, and they will not be able to transfer this learning to future success.

If something is worth teaching, it is worth teaching well. Rote learning does not tend to facilitate transfer, but learning with understanding does. Thus, trying to learn too many concepts too quickly may hinder transfer because the learner is simply memorizing isolated facts with little opportunity to organize the material in a meaningful fashion, chunk it, and link it to prior related knowledge.

If we teach students to be conscious of both the new learning and the context into which it fits, we are helping them forge strong associations for future recall. When the new learning is too tightly bound to the context, then learners may fail to transfer that knowledge or skill to different contexts. Should the students perceive, for example, that grammatical correctness matters only in English class, then their writing in other classes gets careless.

Not surprisingly, one study revealed that when students were required to process information more thoroughly for meaning, there was a high degree of transfer to new situations. The researchers found that students who did more thorough processing used the underlying conceptual information when they were asked to generate analogies, but they used superficial information when asked to do simple rote recall of similar information (Blanchette & Dunbar, 2000).

Information is more likely to be remembered if the learner has multiple opportunities to rehearse and use it. But too often, we have time enough only to study a topic until the students reach some low level of mastery and then move on to the next topic. But research on transfer suggests that transfer is improved when students visit important topics often rather than have just one intense exposure.

When using transfer, we ask students to bring learnings from their past forward to today. If the past learning was taught well, it should help the students acquire today’s learning. What is taught today becomes past learning tomorrow. If it is taught well today, the positive transfer will enhance tomorrow’s learning, and so forth. In other words, today’s learning is tomorrow’s transfer.


Transfer can be generated by the similarity of the situation in which something is being learned and the situation to which that learning may transfer. Thus, skills learned in one environment tend to transfer to other environments that are similar. For example, commercial jet pilots are first trained in flight simulators before they sit in the cockpit of the actual plane. All the training and learnings they acquire in the simulator, an exact replica of the actual plane, will transfer to the real flying situation. This positive transfer helps the pilot get accustomed quickly to the actual plane, and it reduces errors. If you have ever rented a car, you realize that it does not take you very long to get accustomed to it and drive away. The environment is similar to your own car, and most of the important components are in familiar places. You may need a few moments, however, to locate the windshield wiper and light switches.

Teachers often use similarity when introducing new material. They may have students learn words with similar spelling patterns, such as beat, heat, meat, and neat. Students may use their skills at finding locations on a road map to help place ordered numbers on a graph grid. However, as we shall discuss shortly, presenting two items of information at the same time that are too similar can cause problems during retention. Other examples of using similarity are fire and tornado drills. Even giving students major tests in the room where they learned the material being tested uses similarity of the environment for positive transfer.

Similarity of sensory modalities is another form of transfer. Using the color red to represent danger can alert us to traffic lights, the location of fire alarm boxes, or hazardous areas. Sensory similarity can also cause error. Students may confuse there, their, and they’re because they sound alike, or they may not be able to pronounce read until they know the word’s context.

The more specific the cue that working memory attaches to a new learning, the easier it is for long-term memory to identify the item being sought. This process leads to an interesting phenomenon regarding long-term storage and retrieval: We store by similarity, but we retrieve by difference. That is, long-term memory most often stores new learnings into a network that contains learnings with similar characteristics or associations, as perceived by the learner. This network identification is one of the connections made in working memory during rehearsal and closure. To retrieve an item, long-term memory identifies how it is different from all the other items in that network.

For example, how would you recognize your best friend in a crowd? It is not because he has two arms, two legs, a head, and a torso. These characteristics make him similar to all the others. Rather, it is his more subtle differences, such as facial features, walk, and voice, that allow you to distinguish him from everyone else. His unique characteristics are called his critical attributes. If your friend is an identical twin, however, you might have difficulty picking him out from his brother if both are in the crowd. Likewise, the high degree of similarity between two concepts, coupled with few differences, makes it difficult for the learner to tell them apart.

The Problem of Items Being Too Similar. Consider the concepts of latitude and longitude. The similarities between these two ideas far outweigh their differences. Both use identical units of measure, deal with all four compass points, are imaginary lines, locate points on the Earth’s surface, and are similar in sound and spelling. Their only real difference is their orientation in space. Teaching them together can be very difficult because their many similarities obscure their singular difference. The problem of similarity can be pervasive because curriculums are often written with the most alike concepts taught together. In fact, a useful task for a committee rewriting a curriculum is to list those concepts that students find the most difficult. Then determine if the difficulty is that two very similar concepts or motor skills are taught together, resulting in confusion. We will look more closely at when this can be a problem and how to deal with it in later posts.

  1. December 30, 2012 at 7:25 pm

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  2. April 24, 2014 at 12:12 pm

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  3. Virginia Alexander
    August 4, 2016 at 3:17 am

    Great post! Very helpful in my current class at Grand Canyon University, TCH 520. We are using your textbook, and now I found your blog which will enhance what I have already learned. Thanks.

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