Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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11. Lessons for Life - Learning and Transfer

Session Content Outline

Key Questions
  • How do people transfer skills and knowledge from one situation to another?
  • How can we teach for transfer?

Learning Objectives
  • Conditions for transfer – Teachers will understand what conditions are needed for knowledge and skills learned in one context to be retrieved and applied to a new situation.
  • Teaching for transfer – Teachers will develop ideas about how to facilitate transfer in their own classrooms and how to build bridges for their students between concepts, activities, and lessons.

Session Outline
  • Transfer is the ability to extend what one has learned in one context to new contexts. In some sense, the whole point of school learning is to be able to transfer what is learned to a wide variety of contexts outside of school.
  • If the ultimate goal of schooling is to help students transfer what they have learned in school to the everyday settings of home, community, and work, we have much to learn from the nonschool environments where people work. Studies conducted in places like U.S. ships, hospital emergency rooms, and dairy farms have found at least three contrasts between schools and everyday settings:
    1. School environments place more emphasis on individual work than most other environments, which tend to emphasize collaboration.
    2. School work tends to involve more "mental work," whereas everyday settings invest more in tools and technologies to solve problems.
    3. Abstract reasoning is emphasized in school, whereas contextualized reasoning is used more often in everyday settings.
  • The overall implication of such studies is that for effective transfer to take place, learning should be organized around the kinds of authentic problems and projects that are more often encountered in nonschool settings.
  • Researchers have found that a number of factors influence a learner's ability to understand or apply new knowledge:
    1. the nature of the initial learning experience
    2. the contexts for both the initial learning and the new situation to which it may apply
    3. the ability of learners to see similarities and differences across situations
    4. learners' metacognitive abilities to reflect on and monitor their own learning
  • For transfer to occur, learning must involve more than simple memorization or applying a fixed set of procedures. Learners must understand a concept or have command of a skill in order to be able to use it themselves.

The Nature of the Initial Learning Experience          
  • An important point about transfer is that the initial knowledge that is intended for transfer needs to be well-grounded. Learning with understanding includes grappling with principles and ideas, and structuring facts around these organizing ideas.
  • Another factor that influences initial learning is the time students are given to explore ideas, offer predictions, process information, and make sense of new tasks and situations.
  • The way in which teachers organize ideas and learning experiences is a third factor that makes a difference in how deeply students understand.
  • A fourth influence on initial learning is motivation. Motivation affects the amount of time people are willing to put into learning.
  • Applying knowledge in real-life contexts can support deeper initial learning. At the same time, knowledge too closely tied to only one specific situation may not transfer to others unless general principles for its use are also understood.

Transferring Knowledge In and Out of Different Contexts
  • Students transfer knowledge into a new learning situation, just as they transfer out newly formed understandings to other settings.
  • Teachers can build on the knowledge students bring to the classroom by providing opportunities to discuss what they already know about a topic, relating problems to familiar contexts, and working with other teachers to build curricula that build across grade levels.
  • At the same time, teachers should be aware of the many ways a student's prior experiences and understandings may impede new learning.
  • One kind of transfer occurs when we learn the parts of a task and then use those parts to do something much more complicated.
  • Another kind of transfer occurs when we have to take what we have learned in one situation and apply it to a new situation at roughly the same level of complexity.
  • We can transfer within a subject matter as well as across subject matter areas.
  • Encouraging the transfer of knowledge out to new, more complex situations might involve asking students to study a particular problem in the classroom and then assigning a project that requires applying these understandings outside the classroom.

Seeing Similarities and Differences Across Contexts
  • Part of the challenge of transfer is knowing when two situations share a fundamental structure and thus should trigger the use of a previously learned concept or principle. Jerome Bruner (1960) suggests that teachers can help students use their knowledge across dissimilar situations when they –
    1. provide a context for the subject matter
    2. capitalize on general principles
    3. encourage the understanding of structures that tie subject matter knowledge together

Metacognition and Transfer
  • Engaging learners in metacognitive activities – helping them become more aware of how to focus on critical ideas or features of problems, generate themes or procedures, and evaluate their own progress – can improve transfer and reduce the need for explicit prompting. Two general metacognitive questions learners can ask themselves to facilitate transfer are:
    1. "How is this problem like others I have solved before?
    2. Does anything here remind me of anything I have learned earlier?" (Gage and Berliner, 1998, p. 301).


John Bransford and Daniel Schwartz propose a conception of transfer that emphasizes individuals' preparation for future learning and takes into account "assessments of people's abilities to learn in knowledge-rich environments" (Bransford & Schwartz, 1999, p.8). According to this view of transfer, learning is a process –

  • that takes place over time
  • is influenced by learners' past experiences and current dispositions
  • can be shaped by feedback and active self-monitoring of understanding
  • and depends on access to resources for continued learning

In other words, transfer in its most powerful general form is the ability to apply a wide range of learning strategies to new learning situations.

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