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Teaching Methods with Transfer

Teachers should not assume that transfer will automatically occur after students acquire a sufficient base of information. Significant and efficient transfer occurs only if we teach to achieve it. Hunter (2004), Mestre (2002), Perkins and Salomon (1988), and others have suggested that when teachers understand the factors that affect transfer, they can plan lessons that use the power of positive transfer to help students learn faster, solve problems, and generate creative and artistic products that enrich the learning experience.

To teach for transfer, we need to consider two major factors: the time sequence and the complexity of the transfer link between the learnings. The time sequence refers to the way the teacher will use time and transfer in the learning situation. Transfer can occur from past to present or from present to future.

Transfer From Past to Present

Past Learning → Helps in → Present Learning

In this, the teacher links something from the learner’s past that helps add sense and meaning to the new learning. It is important to select an experience that is clear, unambiguous, and closely relevant (not just related) to the new learning. Some examples are as follows:

  • An English teacher uses West Side Story to introduce Romeo and Juliet so that students transfer their knowledge about street gangs and feuds to help them understand Shakespeare’s plot.
  • A science teacher asks students to recall what they have learned about plant cells to study the similarities and differences in animal cells.
  • A social studies teacher asks students to think of the causes of the U.S. Civil War to see if they can also explain the causes of the Vietnam War.

Transfer From Present to Future

Present Learning → Helps in → Future Learning

The teacher makes the present learning situation as similar as possible to a future situation to which the new learning should transfer. For the transfer to be successful, students must attain a high degree of original (current) learning and be able to recognize the critical attributes and concepts that make the situations similar and different. For example,

  • Students learn the critical attributes of fact and opinion so they can transfer that learning in the future when evaluating advertising, news reports, election campaigns, and the like.
  • Students learn how to read graphs, pie charts, and tables so that in the future they can evaluate data presented to them for analysis and action.
  • Students learn safe personal and interpersonal hygiene practices to protect their health throughout their lives.

Teaching techniques, such as bridging and hugging, are designed to help students make transfer links from past to present and from present to future. They can be used in all subject areas and for learning both cognitive concepts and psycho-motor skills.

Complexity of the Link Between Learnings

The way that transfer occurs during a learning situation can range from a very superficial similarity to a sophisticated, abstract association. For example, when renting a car, it takes just a few minutes to get accustomed to the model, find the windshield wiper and light controls, and drive off. Interpreting a pie chart in the school budget requires the recall of graph analysis skills from a prior mathematics course. The new learning environments are perceived as being similar to others that the learner has practiced, and that similarity automatically triggers the same learned behaviors.

Metaphor, Analogy, and Simile. The transfer connection can also be much more complex, requiring the learner to make an abstract application of knowledge and skills to the new situation. Metaphors, analogies, and similes are useful devices for promoting abstract transfer. The metaphor is the application of a word or phrase to an object or concept that it does not literally denote to suggest a comparison with another object or concept. A person may say, “It’s raining cats and dogs outside. I’m drowned!” Obviously, it is not raining animals, and the person did not drown. He is speaking figuratively, and the metaphor compares things that are essentially dissimilar. An analogy compares partial similarity between two things, such as comparing a heart to a pump. The simile compares two unlike things: She is like a rose.

Metaphors can often convey meaning of abstract material as well and as rapidly as literal language. Metaphors help to explain complex concepts or processes. A geologist explains the movement of glaciers as flowing like batter on a griddle and that the glacier was like an enormous plow upon the land. Comparing life to taking a long trip also is a metaphor. We ask the learner to reflect on how the situations encountered on the road compare to those encountered in life. How can bumps, detours, road signs, billboards, and places we have visited, passed through, or stayed in for a while all compare to life situations? Complex transfer patterns can reach back to the past: How does the thinking strategy I used when I encountered a major detour help me to decide what course to choose in life now? They can also transfer to the future: The planning I used in preparing for the trip should help me prepare for other major decisions I need to make in my life that require extensive planning.

These strategies are rich in imagery and enhance the thinking process by encouraging students to seek out associations and connections that they would not ordinarily make. They gain insights into relationships among ideas that help to forge a more thorough understanding of new learning.

Journal Writing for Transfer

Transfer is more likely to occur when students have an opportunity to reflect on their new learning. This reflection time can occur during closure, and is more likely to take place if the student is given a specific task. Journal writing is a very useful technique for closure because the specific steps help students to make connections to previous knowledge and organize concepts into networks for eventual storage. The strategy takes but a few minutes, but it can have enormous payback in terms of increased understanding and retention of learning.

Transfer and Constructivism

The proper and frequent use of transfer greatly enhances the constructivist approach to learning. Constructivist teachers (Brooks & Brooks, 1999) are those who do the following:

  • Use student responses to alter their instructional strategies and content
  • Foster student dialogue
  • Question student understanding before sharing their own
  • Encourage students to elaborate on their initial responses
  • Allow students time to construct relationships and create metaphors

English Language Learners (ELLs) and Transfer

We discussed earlier in this chapter the influence that transfer has on English language acquisition. Content-area teachers should have a good understanding of the impact of transfer if they are to be successful in teaching English language learners (ELLs). Consider the challenges facing ELLs as they attempt to acquire subject matter content in English-language classrooms. The ELLs’ brains are processing two mental dictionaries, one for their native language and one for English. Depending on the ELLs’ age and English language exposure, their social vocabulary is likely to be larger than their academic one. The amount of cross-language transfer that occurs depends mainly on the degree of similarity between the writing system and grammar of the ELLs’ native language and English. Native Spanish speakers, for instance, will have less of a challenge with English than do native Russian or Chinese speakers whose languages use very different writing systems and rules of grammar.

Regardless of their native tongue, ELLs must acquire and comprehend the academic English they need to translate the content knowledge that they already possess in their native language and then acquire new content information so that all of it can be expressed in correct English. This heavy mental burden is both eased and intensified by the impact of transfer. Furthermore, the ELLs’ culture plays an important role here. Some cultural values and behaviors will transfer easily to North American society; others will not. ELLs are often uncomfortable outside their culture and are reluctant to mix with their native English-speaking peers who may shun them due to differences in manner, dress, and appearance. They may fear a loss of their cultural identity. Successful teachers of ELLs are aware of which cultural values transfer easily and which ones do not. They integrate multiculturalism into the curriculum to engage, affirm, and accept diversity within the classroom and school environment. For more information and strategies on how to work with ELLs, see Sousa (2011).

Technology and Transfer

Technology is rapidly changing the classroom environment. Streaming video provides teachers with thousands of video clips that can illustrate curriculum concepts more dramatically than texts. The Internet offers remarkable opportunities for students to share what they are learning with other students and professionals around the world. When students have difficulty understanding how mathematics, for example, is used in the real world, they can communicate with architects, engineers, scientists, and others who can show the practical applications of mathematics in their work. Another transfer-related activity is to share with students in their own and other countries ideas and opinions about global topics, such as climate change, environmental pollution, and overpopulation, in order to understand the views and perspectives of different societies. Such involvement makes the content meaningful and increases the probability that the new learning will be remembered and available for future use.

Additional Thoughts About Transfer

Transfer can be referred to as the “So what?” phase of learning. The context in which students learn information and skills is often different from the context in which they will apply that learning.

If students do not perceive how the information or skill can be used for the future, they will tend to pay little attention and exert even less effort. A 2009 Gallup poll found that students became more disengaged as they advanced through middle and high school because their teachers did not make them feel their schoolwork was important. The cognitive research supports the notion that transfer occurs more easily if students have processed the initial learning in ways that promote deep, abstract understanding of the material, rather than emphasizing the rote application of superficial similarities. Teachers help students achieve deep, abstract understandings when they involve students in multiple examples that illustrate the critical attributes in as wide a variety as possible.

Of course, there are times when some rote memorization is needed to facilitate transfer. In fact, research in areas such as reading and early mathematical development suggests that both conceptual learning and rote activities (e.g., decoding skills for reading, number facts for early mathematics) are important (Mestre, 2002).

Teaching strategies mentioned elsewhere in this book can enhance transfer. For example, using music and songs, or performing some physical movements when learning a particular concept, allows students to associate these activities with the concept and assist in recall at some future time.

Transfer and High-Stakes Testing. The continuing attention to accountability and high-stakes testing may actually work against efforts to increase the transfer of learnings. Teaching to the high-stakes test might emphasize rote activities in place of strategies that foster the deep understandings needed for transfer. We need to devise tests that assess transfer of knowledge. Computer programs, for instance, can aid in devising assessments that look at deep conceptual processing. Assessments that focus on preparedness for future learning (e.g., solving a relatively complex novel problem) may be more revealing of transfer than those focused strictly on solving superficial problems in an isolated subject area.


Brooks, J. G., & Brooks, M. G. (1999). In search of understanding: The case for constructivist classrooms (2nd ed.) Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Hunter, M. (2004). Mastery teaching. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Mestre, J. (2002). Transfer of learning: Issues and research agenda. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation.

Perkins, D., & Salomon, G. (1988). Teaching for transfer. Educational Leadership, 46, 22–32.

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  1. September 23, 2015 at 9:38 am

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