Transfer of Learning

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"Blind" instruction in which students are not helped to focus on general processes or strategies nor to understand how new concepts and strategies can function as tools for problem solving does not usually lead to transfer to new tasks... [But] as the instruction focuses on helping students become problem solvers who learn to recognize and monitor their approaches to particular tasks, transfer is more likely to occur. (John Bransford, University of Washington.)


Transfer of learning is one of the most important ideas in teaching and learning. As a teacher, you want your students to learn to make effective future use of what you are teaching. The quote from Bransford tells us that we can teach in a manner that increases transfer of learning.

Every student can benefit by learning in a manner that supports integrating their new knowledge and skills into their current knowledge and skills. We want to help prepare student to make effective use of this expanded and integrated capability in dealing with problems, tasks, and decision-making they will encounter in the future.

A different way of saying this is that we want students to learn to think. In some sense thinking is like having an internal conversation. This is certainly not a new idea!

“When the mind is thinking, it is talking to itself.” (Plato; Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the western world; 428/427 BC– 348/347 BC.)

Some Transfer Examples

The ability to learn and to accomplish transfer of learning is built into a healthy human brain. This section contains some transfer of learning examples. As you read these examples, think about the informal and formal education that underlies a person being able to do such transfer of learning.

Throughout the day, you encounter problems and tasks that you accomplish at a subconscious level and/or that you try to accomplish at a conscious level. In each of these situations, you make use of transfer of learning.

Tying Shoes

Many of us still wear shoes that make use of shoelaces. You learned to tie a shoelace bow knot when you were a child. Eventually you learned to tie your shoes quickly and with little thought. As you bought new shoes and/or replaced a broken shoelace, your shoe-tying skills automatically, probably with no conscious thought, transferred to this new shoe-tying problem. You might want to pause here and think about other situations where you have developed automaticity in certain tasks, and this automaticity transfers over time and location.

Do some introspection. Look for some personal examples in which you have learned to a high level of automaticity—examples in which the thought is the deed.

Crossing a Street

Consider the problem of crossing a street. You have crossed lots of streets before. However, in some sense each street crossing is a new problem. The lighting conditions, time of day, weather, road surface, cars parked on the road, traffic signals, amount of oncoming traffic, and so on are not exactly the same as in the situations you have faced before.

However, a number of the general patterns are similar to what you have faced before, and your brain is designed to do subconscious pattern recognition. Moreover, you have memorized some rules, such as Look both ways before starting to cross and Listen for oncoming traffic. Your mind/brain is also quite experienced in judging the speed of oncoming traffic versus the speed of your body.

Thus, your subconscious and conscious mind and body do transfer of learning that helps you to successfully cross the street. But this has taken a lot of education, training, and experience!

Walking (or Driving) to a House Address

Imagine you are walking from your home to meet a friend at a street address you have written on a piece of paper. You have never been to this location before.

You draw on some general knowledge that, in your town, streets are numbered and run sort of east-west, while avenues are named and run sort of north-south. Before you started out you looked at a street map. There, you did a transfer of learning from what you have previously learned about reading street maps. Among other things, you notice that you will need to walk in a northwest direction. You do a transfer of learning from your general knowledge of compass directions and build a mental picture of where you are and where you need to go.

As you walk, you do a number of street crossings, using transfer of learning as illustrated in the previous example. From time to time you come to an intersection and street signs. You read the street signs, using transfer of learning of your reading skills. You interpret the results in the light of your general knowledge about the layout of streets in your town, your information from looking at the map, and so on. This analysis may help you to detect whether you have made a serious error so far in your walking trip.

Perhaps from time to time you read house addresses, and incorporate that information. Eventually you get to the address you are looking for. You walk up to the front door, making use of your stored knowledge that typically houses have a front door and that is the place to seek entrance. You look for a door bell or door knocker....

However, in a modern version of this scenario you enter the address into your GPS and walk (or drive) following the directions provided by the GPS. This is an important example. The GPS technology obviates some of the traditional need for a person to learn to read and follow a printed map.

I think it is fun to argue advantages and disadvantages of printed maps versus GPS. And, of course, this example is just the tip of an iceberg. A GPS is but one of many high tech tools that can help to automate the solving of some important problems and tasks that people routinely encounter.

Typewriter and Keyboard

Writing was developed more than 5,000 years ago, and the commercially available typewriter first became available in 1868. The typewriter represents nearly 5,000 years of progress in developing aids to rapidly and legibly getting text onto paper. Eventually typewriter developers settled on the QWERTY keyboard—a particular arrangement of the keys on a keyboard.

The widespread adoption of this keyboard has facilitated transfer of learning by a person who learned to type. My brain and muscle memory know the placement of the keys, so I very easily transfer my keyboarding skills from one keyboard to another.

If you drive different cars (such as renting a car from time to time) you notice that most of your car driving skills readily transfer from one vehicle to another. However, if you are used to driving on one side of the road and face the challenge of driving on the other side, you may well see that this is indeed a significant challenge.

Tools and Transfer

A GPS is a tool designed to help solve navigational problems. It is but one of many high tech, somewhat "intelligent" tools that have come into routine use in recent years.

Tools can be divided into two major categories—tools designed to aid our physical capabilities and tools designed to aid our mental capabilities. A robot and other "smart" machines may well fall into both categories.

For example, consider the hand tools of a carpenter such as a hammer, saw, and drill. Each incorporates knowledge. A carpenter develops skill in using these tools and also learns when to make use of each.

Tools incorporate some of the knowledge and skills of the tool designers and producers. Thus, as a person learns to make effective use of a tool, there is some transfer of learning from the tool designers and producers to the learner. A carpenter's hand tools incorporate enough knowledge to greatly increase the productivity of a carpenter.

Consider the increased productivity of a carpenter who has both hand tools and electrical power tools such as a electric nail driver, a power saw, and an electric drill. The design of the tool and the power of electricity certainly increase the carpenter's physical abilities.

Personally, I find it quite useful to think about how tools aid in transfer of learning. I use a broad definition of tool. Thus, I believe that reading and writing are certainly among the most important tools that humans have developed.

I find it somewhat amazing that an ordinary person can learn to read and write, and then apply that knowledge and skill in further learning throughout life.

How about a cell phone? A child learns to speak and listen. With a cell phone, the child can speak and listen over great distances. It takes only a modest amount of (usually informal) education to learn to make use of a cell phone. (I have yet to hear of a first grade curriculum that includes learning to talk on a cell phone!)

Brief Summary

In brief summary, transfer of learning is a routine part of our lives. We all do it over and over again as we move through the events and activities of a day.

Some transfer of learning is based on a great deal of informal and formal education and training. Reading and writing provide a good example. However, the examples given above are based on relatively modest transfers of learning. The transfer is from knowledge and skills with which you have had a great deal of experience.

More Complex Transfer Examples

This section provides two more complex and challenging transfer of learning examples.

Small Town and Big City

Perhaps you grew up in a small town, such as I did. An "out of town adventure" takes you to a large city via airplane. You have never previously flown in an airplane. Think about the transfer of knowledge and skills needed to acquire an airplane ticket, get to the airport, check in, go through airport security, find your departure gate, and so on. Perhaps you draw heavily on knowledge gained through watching TV and movies or by talking to friends who have already overcome this travel challenge.

You get to the big city. How do you get from the airport to the hotel where someone has made a reservation for you? You have never taken a taxi or an airport shuttle, or used a metro transportation system. You have never checked into a hotel. You have never made use of room service, etc. But, you are able to solve all of these problems (accomplish all of these tasks) by making a creative transfer of learning based on your current knowledge and skills. Amazing!

What is equally amazing is that all of this is accomplished by drawing upon knowledge and skills that you likely learned outside of school. Remember, learning goes on all the time. You have a great deal of knowledge, skill, and life experiences that you gained outside of school. Your brain has the capabilities to creatively accomplish transfer of learning of your knowledge, skills, and experiences to new, challenging problems and tasks.

In Schools

Suppose that, while you were growing up in the United States and attending high school, you took a science course in which you learned to convert from the American system of measurements to the metric and vice versa.

What might the transfer of learning expectations be for this learning? For example, if you drive from the U.S. into Canada, you will encounter metric distance measurements. The context of the situation will tell you that distances are being indicated. Will you be able to convert these kilometer distances into miles and estimated travel time? Or will the passage of years since you studied the metric system and an unfamiliar setting combine to overwhelm the transfer of learning that would help you here? Many people find it is difficult to make the transfer of learning from the past and/or learning in a classroom to a non-classroom setting.

Indeed, I have heard many science teachers complain that their students learn the metric system in a math class and yet cannot transfer this learning to a science class a few days later.

Or, consider the situation of learning about compound interest and periodic payments in a high school business or math course, and later being involved in having your own credit card or borrowing money to make a major purchase such as a car, furniture, or a house. Many people "get in over their heads" through an almost complete lack of ability to transfer their math class knowledge and their "common sense" to these new financial settings.

For another example, consider the "study skills" you learned in middle school and high school. Did you get a good grounding in study skills and was this learned in a manner to facilitate long-term retention and transfer of learning? How well did this learning serve you in your post-high school education and in learning on the job?

Probably in high school you took one or more math courses in which you learned how to do some geometric ruler and compass constructions (such as bisect an angle or a line segment) and to solve various types of equations (such as a pair of linear equations with two unknowns, or a quadratic equation).

In your day-to-day adult life outside of formal school settings, have you ever encountered a problem situation in which linear equations or quadratic equations seemed relevant? If so, were you able to transfer your previous learning to the new situation?

Three General Types of Transfer of Learning

The general thesis of this document is that education can be improved by explicitly teaching for transfer of learning and by actively engaging learners in activities that increase this transfer.

One approach is to help students become more aware of the three general types of transfer introduced earlier and discussed more fully in this section. In your teaching, make it quite explicit to students when you are teaching for each type of transfer, and when they are using each. Look back at the quote from John Bransford at the beginning of this document. Research strongly supports the idea of making explicit what you are trying to teach and what you want students to be able to do with what they are learning.

Type 1: Traditional

Type 1 (Traditional) is the process of a person making use of his or her learned knowledge and skills in new environments and in new problem-solving and task-accomplishing situations.

It is widely accepted that Type 1 Transfer of Learning is one of the most fundamental and important ideas in learning. Through both informal and formal learning, we gain increased levels of expertise in a very wide range of areas. Some of the knowledge and skills that we gain are later reused—or, modified and reused—in dealing with both old and new problems, tasks, and other types of challenges that we encounter in the future.

We all know how to learn. There are some general theories about how the brain learns, effective study skills, self assessment, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and so on. While details vary considerably from discipline to discipline, these are areas in which considerable transfer of learning between disciplines can occur.

For example, to get better at playing a musical instrument or in an athletic performance, "practice, practice, practice" and have a good teacher/coach! The habit of mind of "practice, practice, practice" is applicable to many different learning settings.

All preservice and inservice teachers have some knowledge about transfer of learning and how to teach for transfer. However, relatively few precollege and college students are explicitly taught about the importance of transfer of learning and how to learn in a manner that enhances and increases transfer of learning.

Type 2: Constructivism and Metacognition

This IAE-pedia entry is a vehicle for transferring some its author's knowledge to readers of the document. However, you know that there is a large difference between reading this document and integrating its contents into your current knowledge and skills base. Type 2 transfer is a process of building on and integrating new knowledge into previous knowledge, and is often called constructivism. It is an important learning theory.

Physically, learning is a chemical and neuron growth process going on at the cellular level in your brain. In recent years, research in brain science (cognitive neuroscience) has provided us with a substantial amount of new information about how a brain actually learns and uses its knowledge.

For example, we have learned a lot about study skills. We know that multitasking while studying is not conducive to learning for long-term retention and use. We have learned better ways to help special needs students to learn. We have learned that Tellin’ Ain’t Teachin’: The Need for Frequent Processing.

We have also learned about metacognition—thinking about one's thinking. This is a very important idea, and Melissa Taylor's article, Teach Kids to Think about Their Thinking–Metacognition, tells us quite young children can learn to make use of the idea. Quoting from Taylor's article:

Confucius said, “A man who has committed a mistake and doesn’t correct it is committing another mistake.”
Or, as Dr. Phil asks his dysfunctional guests, “How’s that working for you?”
When learners become conscious of their thinking, they can become aware of their strengths and the strategies that are useful to their own learning.

The statement by Confucius is particularly insightful. People can learn from their mistakes if they receive and appropriately understand feedback on their mistakes. A key aspect of learning is learning to recognize one's own mistakes, to correct them if this is possible, and to avoid making the same mistake in the future. Schools need to provide an environment in which students feel safe in making mistakes.

Continuing to quote from Melissa's Taylor's article:

John Flavell, researcher of metacognition, believes kids need awareness in three areas:
1. An awareness of knowledge—understanding what they know: surveying, questioning, reading, reciting, and reviewing.
2. An awareness of thinking—understanding cognitive tasks, selecting strategies for the task.
3. An awareness of thinking strategies—understanding approaches to directing learning, self-assessing, self-questioning, and revising.

I think the "revising" part of Flavell's statement is particularly important. A key to good writing is to "revise, revise, revise." Written language allows a person to slow down—reflect and do metacognition—during the communication process.

Type 3: Tools as a Transfer Vehicle

Humans collectively and individually are quite good at creating tools and at learning to make use of these tools. Some tools function at an amplification level. These help a person to do something they already can do, but to do it better. For example, suppose that I know how to use an "ordinary" hammer, and I am about to help shingle a house roof. My co-worker loans me a shingling hammer and gives me a little instruction in its use. With just a little practice I find that, by "amplifying" my work with a special hammer, I am now much better at accomplishing the shingling task.

Using a tool often can help a person to move beyond amplification—to do things that are not possible without the tool. For example, I can get better at running a marathon, but physical training will never allow me to approach the speed I can achieve with the aid of a tool such as a bicycle or an automobile.

Some of the tools beyond the amplification level are quite easy to learn to use, while others can take many years of education, training, and experience. A relatively young child can easily learn how to look through the lens of a microscope or a telescope, or to make use of a phone, in order to accomplish visual and communication tasks that are far beyond the amplification level.

On the other hand, reading, writing, and math can be thought of as tools that take a great deal of time and effort to learn to use effectively. They also move the learner well beyond amplification.

Our educational system is continually faced by the challenges inherent in the steadily growing totality of human knowledge, and in the steadily growing capabilities of tools. What should students learn about how to solve a particular type of problem when (1) historically this problem has been solved using one's brain and "by hand" tools, and (2) the problem can now be solved by using computers and computerized tools?

Two Models or Theories of Transfer of Learning

This section discusses two models (theories) of transfer of learning. They help to unify the field of transfer of learning. The first is named the Near and Far Transfer of Learning Theory. The second is named the Low Road and High Road Transfer of Learning Theory. David Perkins and Gavriel Salomon have written an excellent overview of transfer of learning.

Near and Far Transfer of Learning Theory

The idea of Near and Far Transfer of Learning has been with us for more than a hundred years, and it is still widely discussed in the literature.

The shoe-tying example given earlier in this document illustrates near transfer. The near transfer of learning theory postulates that some problems and tasks are so nearly alike that transfer of learning occurs easily and naturally. A particular problem or task is studied and practiced to a high level of automaticity. When a nearly similar problem or task is encountered, it is automatically solved or accomplished with little or no conscious thought.

A major goal in learning to read is to develop a high level of decoding automaticity. That is, one goal in reading instruction is to have students become very good at near transfer of the decoding component of reading. We want students to be able to do this with both fiction and non-fiction, texts in different subject areas, different fonts, different font sizes, different qualities of paper, and so on. This automaticity allows the conscious mind of a reader to pay attention to the meaning and implications of the material being read. A significant percentage of children are able to achieve this at a personally useful level by the end of the third grade.

Many potential transfer of learning situations do not lend themselves to the automaticity approach of near transfer. These are called far transfer situations.

This is not a very useful definition, partly because people vary considerably in their abilities to see, feel, or sense similarities between different problem situations. In any particular problem-solving situation, some people seem to be innately much more able to do far transfer than are others.

As a simple example, suppose that a boy knows how to tie a bow knot in a pair of shoes he is wearing. Mother tells the boy to put on an apron and tie the strings in a bow knot behind his back. Many children have trouble with this transfer of learning, but some can do it easily. Thus, it can be a far transfer for some and a near transfer for others.

In essence, one's innate abilities to do transfer of learning are a part of innate (think about nature versus nurture) intelligence. This idea is captured in this 2,400 year old quote from Plato:

“When you spoke of a nature gifted or not gifted in any respect, did you mean to say that one man may acquire a thing easily, another with difficulty; a little learning will lead the one to discover a great deal; whereas the other, after much study and application no sooner learns then he forgets.”

The near and far transfer theory can provide some help to teachers in designing and teaching lessons. We know that some students readily accomplish far transfer tasks, while others do not. The difficulty with the theory of near and far transfer is that it does not provide a foundation or a plan for helping a person to become better at far transfer when dealing with novel and complex problems. It does not tell us how to teach to increase far transfer.

Low Road and High Road Transfer of Learning Theory

In recent years, the Low Road and High Road Transfer of Learning Theory, developed by David Perkins and Gavriel Salomon, has proven to be a more fruitful theory than that of Near and Far Transfer. Quoting from this reference:

Low road transfer happens when stimulus conditions in the transfer context are sufficiently similar to those in a prior context of learning to trigger well-developed semi-automatic responses. In keeping with the view of Greeno et al. (in press), these responses need not be mediated by external or mental representations. A relatively reflexive process, low road transfer figures most often in near transfer. For example, when a person moving a household rents a small truck for the first time, the person finds that the familiar steering wheel, shift, and other features evoke useful car-driving responses. Driving the truck is almost automatic, although in small ways a different task.
High road transfer, in contrast, depends on mindful abstraction from the context of learning or application and a deliberate search for connections: What is the general pattern? What is needed? What principles might apply? What is known that might help? Such transfer is not in general reflexive. It demands time for exploration and the investment of mental effort. It can easily accomplish far transfer, bridging between contexts as remote as arteries and electrical networks or strategies of chess play and politics. For instance, a person new to politics but familiar with chess might carry over the chess principle of control of the center, pondering what it would mean to control the political center. [Bold added for emphasis.]

A free IAE book by David Moursund contains an extensive discussion about high road transfer of learning from computer-based games to other settings. It explains how to teach for transfer and provides a number of examples of problem-solving strategies that transfer among disciplines of study.

The following quote is from the first part of the book's appendix:
We all make use of strategies as we attempt to solve problems and accomplish tasks. The research literature in problem solving indicates that most people have a relatively limited repertoire of problem-solving strategies. This research suggests that it is helpful to increase one’s repertoire. Teaching for high-road transfer of learning is an effective method of helping students to increase their repertoire.
[Note to readers. You may want to reread the quote from Bransford at the beginning of this IAE-pedia document.]
However, increasing the size of one’s repertoire of problem-solving strategies is only one part of increasing one’s level of expertise in problem solving. Problem solving in a specific domain requires knowledge that is specific to the domain. Increasing expertise in problem solving in a domain requires substantial cognitive effort. It does little good to memorize a bunch of strategies. One must consciously practice using the strategies and reflect on the results over a large range of problems and a long period of time.
The following alphabetical list contains problem-solving strategies that cut across many problem-solving domains. Most are discussed and illustrated earlier in this book. The teaching of such strategies can be integrated throughout the daily curriculum. For ideas on how to do this teaching, see Chapter 8.
backtracking. Taking back or undoing one or more moves that one has made in playing a game or in attempting to solve a problem. This is especially easy to do when the steps being taken are “virtual” steps, working with a computer representation of the problem and the steps being taken. Backtracking is an important aid to editing and revising one’s writing.
bottleneck. Identify components of a problem-solving task that severely impede progress toward solving the problem. Particularly useful in problems where certain resources such as time or materials are severely restricted or a goal is to minimize their use.
brain aids. Many computer games include built in aids to a player’s brain/mind. Thus, it is now commonplace for a game player to think about having the computer aid in playing the game. There are many articles about the nature and extent of the artificial intelligence (AI) built into various games. In some instances, such uses of AI as an aid to problem solving illustrate or are somewhat parallel to uses of AI to help solve non-game types of problems.
breaking a problem into smaller problems. See divide and conquer.
build on previous work. See reinvent the wheel.
collaboration and cooperation. In many problem-solving situations “two heads are better than one.” Indeed, many problems and tasks require the work of large teams of people together over a period of years.

The above is a small part of the total list. The collaboration and cooperation topic is discussed in the next section.

Collaborative and Cooperative Learning and Problem Solving

There are many ways to provide teaching and learning environments that facilitate increased transfer of learning. Some of these ideas are inherent to the following diagram:

PS Team 2-4-2009.JPEG

In this diagram, think of a team of two or more people working with aids to their physical and mental capabilities to solve a problem or accomplish a task. In this team situation, each person brings different formal and informal education-based knowledge, skills, and experience to the problem or task. Each person brings different types of skills in working with others—including helping others to learn and learning from others.

There is substantial research to support the use of this type of problem-solving team situation in both formal and informal teaching and learning settings. Quoting from Joel Michael's December, 2006, article in Advances in Physiology Education, Where's the Evidence that Active Learning Works?

There are now a great many different approaches to facilitating students learning together (as opposed to learning individually). Labels such as cooperative learning, collaborative learning, peer learning, or problem-based learning each describe a different approach to getting students to learn together.
Johnson et al. have published a meta-analysis of 164 studies of cooperative learning methods; they conclude that there is solid evidence in these studies to support the benefits of cooperative learning.
In the disciplines, there are impressive results that support the power of getting students to work together to learn. In the field of computer-aided instruction, there is a wealth of data showing that two or more students working together at the computer learn more than students working alone (40, 93). In physics, students generate better solutions to problems when they work cooperative than when they work alone (34), and peer instruction, developed by Mazur (51), has been shown to increase student mastery of conceptual reasoning and quantitative problem solving (20). In chemistry, students in cooperative learning groups show increased retention and higher scores on assessments than students learning the same material in conventional ways (21).
While there can be little doubt that students working together learn more, the key issue now is how to implement small group work to achieve maximum learning (17).

Click here to read Maryellen Weimer's article, More evidence that active learning trumps lecturing. Quoting from the article:

It’s a meta-analysis of 225 studies that compare [college level] STEM classes taught using various active learning approaches with classes taught via lecture. “The results indicate that average examination scores improved by about 6% in active learning sessions, and that students in classes with traditional lecturing were 1.5 times more likely to fail than were students in classes with active learning.” Carl Wieman, a Nobel-winning physicist who now does research on teaching and learning, describes the work as a “massive effort” that provides “a much more extensive quantitative analysis of the research on active learning in college and university STEM courses than previously existed.” And what does he make of these results? “The implications of these meta-analysis results for instruction are profound, assuming they are indicative of what could be obtained if active learning methods replaced the lecture instruction that dominates U.S. post secondary STEM instruction.” That’s a long way from the guarded language usually found in commentaries on scientific results.
The findings of the meta-analysis aren’t all that unexpected. Study after study, not just in the STEM fields, but pretty much across the board, have reported findings that favor active learning approaches over lecture. Most of us, especially readers of a blog like this one, don’t need to be convinced. We know that learning is harder from the sidelines. If deep understanding is the objective, then the learner had best get out there and play the game. Watching others problem-solve, think critically, paint watercolors, or start an IV may provide a sense of how it’s done, but that’s not how you learn to perform on the field.

Final Remarks

"An individual understands a concept, skill, theory, or domain of knowledge to the extent that he or she can apply it appropriately in a new situation." (From Howard Gardner's 1999 book, The Disciplined Mind: What All Students Should Understand.)

The Common Core State Standards being used in U.S. K-12 schools strongly emphasize teaching for understanding. See

Howard Gardner's statement quoted above is a good way of saying that we should teach for high road transfer of learning. Quoting the Nike company, "Just do it."

Additional References and Resources

Bartel, Marvin (2005). Teaching for Transfer of Learning. Retrieved 8/28/2016 from

The article focuses on transfer of learning in creative art.

Calais, Gerald J. (2006). Haskell’s Taxonomies of Transfer of Learning: Implications for Classroom Instruction. National Forum of Applied Educational Research Journal. Retrieved 8/28/2016 from

Quoting from the abstract:
Two taxonomies for transfer of learning are described. The first specifies six levels or degrees of transfer. The second employs two categories for classifying kinds of transfer: one is based on five types of knowledge, and the other is based on transfer per se, of which there are fourteen types. The implications of transfer of learning for classroom instruction are discussed.
Quoting from the first part of the article:
Research suggests that transfer of learning differs in kind, occurs at different levels, and influences all learning, memory, problem-solving, and cognitive processes (Mayer, 1987). Although the transfer of basic skills, knowledge, and thinking skills is integral to our educational aspirations and expectations, many students believe that little of what they learned in school benefited them later in life. Not surprisingly, transfer of learning persists as one of the most vexing problems in the classroom (Bevevino, Dengel, & Adams, 1999; Borich & Tombari, 1997; Rossett, 1997). In addressing this critical educational issue, Haskell (2001) developed two taxonomies: one for levels of transfer and one for kinds of transfer.
Level 4: Near transfer. Near transfer occurs when we transfer previous knowledge to new situations closely similar to, yet not identical to, initial situations. Transferring our experiences associated with driving a car with a manual transmission to driving a truck with a manual transmission reflects an example of near procedural transfer.
Level 5: Far transfer. `Far transfer entails the application of learning to situations entirely dissimilar to the initial learning. This level of transfer of learning reflects analogical reasoning. For example, learning about logarithms in algebra and applying this knowledge in assessing the growth of bacteria in microbiology.

Larkin, Shirley (2010). Metacognition in Young Children. London and NY: Routledge. Free online access at Quoting from the introduction to the book:

It is at least conceivable that the ideas currently brewing in this area could someday be parlayed into a method of teaching children (and adults) to make wise and thoughtful life decisions as well as to comprehend and learn better in formal educational settings (Flavell, 1979, p. 910)
What is this area? This area which can help people to understand better, to learn better, to achieve better academic results and for me, the most important part–to make “wise and thoughtful life decisions”? When John Flavell wrote this in 1979 he was giving a name to a process of thinking which we all engage in at sometime, but which we rarely sustain long enough to gain the benefits from. Flavell was referring to the process of reflecting on our own thinking and keeping track of how our thinking is getting us closer to or further away from our goal. The term “metacognition”, which Flavell and his colleague Ann Brown gave to this type of reflection has led to a whole new area of research and the fruits of these studies are now being seen in classrooms across the world.

Moursund, David (3/26/2012). Good Math Lesson Plans. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Download the free PDF file at Download the free Microsoft Word file at

Paraphrasing from the book:
Math is very useful in many different academic disciplines. Math is a general-purpose aid to problem solving—indispensable if the problem situation involves quantities. Thus, it is highly desirable to teach math in a manner that facilitates transfer of learning to other disciplines and to actual and probable problem-solving situations students will encounter.
Low-road transfer of learning is based on automaticity. For example, various number facts can be learned to such a high level of automaticity that they seem as if they are instinctive when one needs them in addressing problems both in and outside of school.
High-road transfer is based on learning general-purpose strategies and learning how to apply these strategies over a wide range of problem situations. For example, many hard problems can be broken into sets of less difficult problems. Solve the less difficult problems, put all the results together in an appropriate manner, and the harder problem is solved. The teaching approach is to recognize when it is appropriate to generalize a strategy being taught in a specific discipline (such as math), give the strategy a name, and explicitly help students to learn to apply the strategy in a variety of disciplines. Divide and conquer (break a big problem into a coherent set of smaller problems) is commonly taught in math, and it is quite useful in problem solving in other disciplines. Two examples: Learning to drive a car, and comparing/contrasting the foreign policy/ military policy of Germany and Japan from 1932-1945.
In summary, every math lesson plan should include a statement of how the new material is transferable to problem solving in other settings, including in non-math disciplines.

Passig, David (2007). Melioration as a Higher Thinking Skill of Future Intelligence. Teachers College Record. Retrieved 8/28/2016 from

Quoting the abstract:
This paper examines the characteristics of the thinking skill we call “melioration” i.e., the competence to borrow a concept from a field of knowledge supposedly far removed from his or her domain, and adapt it to a pressing challenge in an area of personal knowledge or interest. The skill has its source in conscious personal meaning-making, not in the process of deduction. In the unplanned operation of connection and association, one creates a new concept generating a new insight into a phenomenon, which hitherto had not been described in such a way. This paper relates melioration to existing theories of intelligence, taking the position that human cognitive/intellectual functioning is in part the ability to learn or think in the framework of familiar systemic concepts, and in part the ability to learn or think with new systemic concepts that are then available for future application.
Quoting from the article:
Experience has suggested that revolutionary ideas as well as tools are actually the infusion of two or more concepts from quite different realms. People, for example, can take an electric appliance that exists in one context, transfer it to another context in a completely new way, and find unexpected potential uses for it. The skill, through personal and cultural connotations, of being able to merge realms of thought that are quite different from one another, and then generate new concepts or technology, is what we call melioration. In the course of our current search of future-oriented literature for the purpose of reevaluating Bloom’s six categories of skills, we found a new, seventh category. We “stumbled” upon a skill that we could not easily integrate into other skills. We suggest that this construct might stand by itself and seek to “meliorate” as expanded upon in Table 2.

Perkins, David (Fall, 1993). Teaching for Understanding. American Educator: The Professional Journal of the American Federation of Teachers. Retrieved 8/28/2016 from Quoting from the paper:

So with knowledge and skill deserving plenty of concern and getting plenty of attention, why pursue understanding? While there are several reasons, one stands out: Knowledge and skill in themselves do not guarantee understanding. People can acquire knowledge and routine skills without understanding their basis or when to use them. And, by and large, knowledge and skills that are not understood do students little good! What use can students make of the history or mathematics they have learned unless they have understood it?
In the long term, education must aim for active use of knowledge and skill (Perkins, 1992). Students garner knowledge and skill in schools so that they can put them to work--in professional roles--scientist, engineer, designer, doctor, businessperson, writer artist, musician--and in lay roles--citizen, voter, parent--that require appreciation, understanding, and judgment. Yet rote knowledge generally defies active use, and routine skills often serve poorly because students do not understand when to use them. In short, we must teach for understanding in order to realize the long-term payoffs of education.
But maybe there is nothing that needs to be done. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Perhaps students understand quite well the knowledge and skills they are acquiring.
Unfortunately, research says otherwise. For instance, studies of students' understanding of science and mathematics reveal numerous and persistent shortfalls.…

Schwartz, Daniel; Bransford, John; & Sears, David (2005). Efficiency and Innovation in Transfer. Chapter 1 of Transfer of Learning from a Modern Multidisciplinary Perspective. Retrieved 8/28/2016 from

Quoting from this paper:
Is the transfer literature filled with inherently contradictory claims, or is there a framework that can help illuminate how and why the varied positions on transfer are each pieces of the truth that can be reconciled through a broader theoretical foundation? We argue for the latter and use an analogy involving well-known proverbs. Consider “Many hands make light work” versus “Too many cooks spoil the broth”; “Look before you leap” versus “He who hesitates is lost”; “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” versus “Out of sight out of mind.” On the surface they contradict one another (Bransford & Stein, 1993). But if we look below the surface we can begin to see that each seems applicable in certain contexts (e.g. “Many hands make light work” is appropriate when tasks are well defined and can be modularized so that the pursuit of each can proceed independently). Our goal is to provide a framework that helps reconcile seemingly conflicting views about transfer. To develop our ideas, we divide the chapter into five sections that:
  1. Rethink the classic definition of transfer and show how it tends to produce assessments that make people “look dumb” rather than “look smart” (Norman, 1993).
  2. Differentiate “transferring in” to situations from “transferring out” of them.
  3. Discuss studies that show that new ways to think about transferring “in” and “out” can reveal advantages of a variety of interactive instructional techniques that remain hidden when we use more traditional measures.
  4. Propose a tentative learning and performance space that differentiates two dimensions of transfer -- innovation and efficiency -- and provide an example of what research might look like that explores optimal trajectories of learning and development through the innovation-efficiency space.
  5. Summarize our arguments and suggest some possible future directions – including new ways to create learning and assessment environments that complement but go beyond many frequently used assessments tests. (n.d.). Instrumental Enrichment and Metacognition: How to Teach Intelligence. UK: Cambridge Regional College. Retrieved 8/28/2016 from

There has been substantial research on how to teach intelligence. The article summarizes some of the results of this work. Here is an example:
The Israeli educationalist Reuven Feuerstein developed a hugely successful course for learners with very low academic achievement. His students had very low IQs, and started his course with a mental age three years behind other learners. There was a ‘control group’ enabling Feuerstein to measure his students’ progress against the progress of students that were matched for ability but then taught in a more conventional way.
At the end of their two year course Feuerstein’s Instrumental Enrichment students had shown modest gains in terms of increased IQ compared to the control group, though they showed a marked ability to transfer learning from one situation to another. Two years after the programme had ended, the students entered the Israeli army on compulsory service. On a test of general intelligence they were found to be average for the general population, though they had started Feuerstein’s programme three years behind! The control group had not shown this development. [Bold added for emphasis.]
Feuerstein attributed this gain to the students continuing to learn without aid in the two years after the programme. He had taught them to teach themselves. More than this, Feuerstein had taught his students how to teach themselves to become more intelligent! Feuerstein’s methods require special training, and are used all over the world.
Feuerstein developed a programme of great complexity called Instrumental Enrichment, which requires special training for a teacher to use. However it is worth looking closely at his general strategy. This was not to teach the metacognitive skills directly by explaining ‘how to do it’. This is a common approach in teaching thinking skills and study skills, used for example by Edward de Bono. Instead, he used a guided discovery approach where students had to construct for themselves the higher level thinking required. A similar process is used in Graham Gibbs' study skills programme described elsewhere. Roughly speaking his procedure was:
  • Set Real Tasks: He asked students to do something real, that required information, planning, doing, and explaining your solution etc.
  • Require Reflection on Metacognitive Strategies. When the task was done, he asked his students to reflect on how they did it. What had made them successful? What hindered them or caused difficulty?
  • Establish Learning Points in the Students' Own Language. He asked students for very general advice on how to succeed with such tasks. This includes asking the students to name the strategies they used. The teacher then used the students’ names for these strategies.
  • Bridging: Students are then asked to ‘bridge’ from this learning to other applications. That is, they were asked ‘where else might you be able to apply this principle?’ The learners are encouraged to see the application of the thinking processes that they have just described and named, in other contexts.

Thomas, Ruth, et al. (1992). Teaching for Transfer of Learning. ERIC. Retrieved 8/28/2016 from

The full text of this document is available on the Web. Quoting from the abstract:
A study identified four principles, based on transfer of learning research and cognitive theory, for guiding curricular decisions, instructional development, and teaching practices in ways that support transferable learning. The principles were as follows: (1) emphasize intermediate-level knowledge in curricular decisions; (2) create in the learning situation fidelity to transfer situations; (3) reflect the complexities of knowledge and its application in diverse, multidimensional contexts, problems, and situations; and (4) stimulate and challenge students to transfer their knowledge during learning and support their efforts to do so on their own. The basis for each principle and ways of incorporating it in educational practice were identified. The research tested the applicability of the principles by using them to create a parent education learning environment. A case analysis approach to instruction was formulated to help parents develop flexible knowledge and appropriately complex understanding. Strategies used to stimulate learner-directed knowledge transfer during learning included a scaffolding approach to teaching and reflective dialog among parents. The learning environment was field tested in 5 sites with 31 parents. Not only did parents' learning reflect characteristics identified as enhancing "high road" transfer but parents engaged in high road learning transfer as well.


This page was developed by David Moursund.