Transfer of Learning

10 October 2016

Transfer of learning is the study of the dependency of human conduct, learning, or performance on prior experience. The notion was originally introduced as transfer of practice by Edward Thorndike and Robert S. Woodworth. They explored how individuals would transfer learning in one context to another context that shared similar characteristics – or more formally how “improvement in one mental function” could influence another related one.

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Their theory implied that transfer of learning depends on the proportion to which the learning task and the transfer task are similar, or where “identical elements are concerned in the influencing and influenced function”, now known as identical element theory. Transfer research has since attracted much attention in numerous domains, producing a wealth of empirical findings and theoretical interpretations.

However, there remains considerable controversy about how transfer of learning should be conceptualized and explained, what its probability occurrence is, what its relation is to learning in general, or whether it may be said to exist at all. Most discussions of transfer to date can be developed from a common operational definition, describing it as the process and the effective extent to which past experiences (also referred to as the transfer source) affect learning and performance in a current novel situation (the transfer target) (Ellis, 1965; Woodworth, 1938).

Hence, a key problem with many transfer taxonomies is that they offer an excessive number of labels for different types of transfer without engaging in a discussion of the underlying concepts that would justify their distinction; i. e. , similarity and the nature of transferred information. This makes it very difficult to appreciate the internal validity of the models. The following table presents different types of transfer, as adapted from Schunk (2004, p. 220). TypeCharacteristics NearOverlap between situations, original and transfer contexts are similar. FarLittle overlap between situations, original and transfer settings are dissimilar.

PositiveWhat is learned in one context enhances learning in a different setting. NegativeWhat is learned in one context hinders or delays learning in a different setting. VerticalKnowledge of a previous topic is essential to acquire new knowledge. HorizontalKnowledge of a previous topic is not essential but helpful to learn a new topic. LiteralIntact knowledge transfers to new task. FiguralUse some aspect of general knowledge to think or learn about a problem. Low RoadTransfer of well-established skills in almost automatic fashion. High RoadTransfer involves abstraction so conscious formulations of connections between contexts.

High Road/Forward ReachingAbstracting situations from a learning context to a potential transfer context. High Road/Backward ReachingAbstracting in the transfer context features of a previous situation where new skills and knowledge were learned. Apart from the effect-based distinction between negative and positive transfer, taxonomies have largely been constructed along two, mostly tacit, dimensions. One concerns the predicted relationship between the primary and secondary learning situation in terms of the categorical overlap of features and knowledge specificity constraints.

The other concerns general assumptions about how transfer relationships are established, in terms of mental effort and cognitive process. The effect-perspective: positive vs. negative transfer Starting by looking at the effect side of transfer – in terms of the common performance criteria, speed and accuracy – transfer theories distinguish between two broad classes that underlie all other classifications: negative andpositive transfer. Negative transfer refers to the impairment of current learning and performance due to the application of non-adaptive or inappropriate information or behavior.

Therefore, negative transfer is a type of interference effect of prior experience causing a slow-down in learning, completion or solving of a new task when compared to the performance of a hypothetical control group with no respective prior experience. Positive transfer, in contrast, emphasizes the beneficial effects of prior experience on current thinking and action. It is important to understand that the positive and negative effects of transfer are not mutually exclusive, and therefore real-life transfer effects are probably mostly a mixture of both.

Positive transfer: transfer of learning or training is said to be positive when the learning or training carried out in one situation proves helpful to learning in another situation. Examples of such transfer are: •the knowledge and skills related to school mathematics help in the learning of statistical computation; •the knowledge and skills acquired in terms of addition and subtraction in mathematics in school may help a child in the acquisition of knowledge and skills regarding multiplication and division; •learning to play badminton may help an individual to play ping pong (table tennis) and lawn tennis.

The situation perspective: specific vs. general, near vs. far transfer The situation-driven perspective on transfer taxonomies is concerned with describing the relation between transfer source (i. e. , the prior experience) and transfer target (i. e. , the novel situation). In other words, the notion of novelty of the target situation per se is worthless without specifying the degree of novelty in relation to something that existed before. Butterfield and Nelson (1991), for example, distinguish between within-task, across-task, and inventive transfer.

The specific vs. general dimension applies not just to the focus on the relation between source and target, i. e. , from where to where is transferred, but also to the question about the transfer process itself, i. e. , what is transferred and how. Reproductive vs. productive transfer (see Robertson, 2001) are good examples of this type of distinction, whereas reproductive transfer refers to the simple application of knowledge to a novel task, productive transfer implies adaptation; i. e. mutation and enhancement of retained information.

A similar dichotomous distinction is the one between knowledge transfer and problem-solving transfer (Mayer & Wittrock, 1996). Knowledge transfer takes place when knowing something after learning task A facilitates or interferes with the learning process or performance in task B. Knowledge used is referred to by many different terms, such as declarative or procedural types (Anderson, 1976), but it means that there are representational elements that suit A and B. Problem solving transfer, on the other hand, is described as somewhat more “fluid knowledge” transfer, so that experience in solving a problem A helps finding a solution to problem B.

This can mean that the two problems share little in terms of specific declarative knowledge entities or procedures, but call for a similar approach, or solution search strategies (e. g. , heuristics and problem solving methods). The issues discussed in problem-solving transfer literature are also closely related to the concepts of strategic and theoretic transfer (Haskell, 2001, p. 31), and cognitive research on analogical reasoning, rule-based thinking and meta-cognition.

Indeed, far transfer can be considered as the prototypical type of transfer, and it is closely related to the study of analogical reasoning (see also Barnett & Ceci, 2002, for a taxonomy of far transfer). Within the problem-solving literature the distinction between specific and general methods is made mostly with reference to Newell and Simon’s (1972) strong vs. weak problem solving methods (Chi, Glaser & Farr, 1988; Ericsson & Smith, 1991; Singley & Anderson, 1989; Sternberg & Frensch, 1991). Another concern that is frequently addressed in transfer taxonomies is the question of conscious effort.

High-road vs. low-road transfer (Mayer & Wittrock, 1996; Salomon & Perkins, 1989) expresses a distinction between such instances of transfer where active retrieval, mapping, and inference processes take place, as opposed to those instances that occur rather spontaneously or automatically. Hence, low-road transfer concerns frequently employed mental representations and automated, proceduralized knowledge, and occurs preferably in near transfer settings. In contrast, high-road transfer is more conception-driven, and requires cognitive and meta-cognitive effort. Traditional fields of transfer research

There are a nearly unlimited number of research fields that share some applied interest into the study of transfer, as it pertains to learning in general. Three fields that contributed in most substantial ways to the progress of transfer research, both from a conception and empirical point of view, are the fields of education science, linguistics, and human-computer interaction (HCI). In fact, most transfer research has been conducted in reference to one of these applied settings, rather than in basic cognitive psychological laboratory conditions. Education science: teaching for transfer

Due to their core concern with learning, educational science and practice are the classic fields of interest regarding transfer research, and probably the prime target for the application of theories. Transfer of learning represents much of the very basis of the educational purpose itself. What is learned inside one classroom about a certain subject should aid in the attainment of related goals in other classroom settings, and beyond that it should be applicable to the student’s developmental tasks outside the school; the need for transfer becomes more accentuated.

This is because the world educators teach in today is different from the world they themselves experienced as students, and differs equally from the one their students will have to cope with in the future. By nature of their applied interest, educationalists’ main concern has been less with the question of how transfer takes place, and much more with under what conditions, or, that it happens at all. The basic conviction that student’s learning and achievement levels depend primarily on learning and achievement prerequisites, has constituted a central part in educational learning theories for quite some time (Gage & Berliner, 1983; Glaser, 984). The major focus in educational transfer studies has, therefore, been on what kind of initial learning enables subsequent transfer: teaching for transfer. Research on learning and transfer has identified key characteristics with implications for educational practice. From Formal Discipline to meta-cognition Educational transfer paradigms have been changing quite radically over the last one hundred years.

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