Chapter 2. The Learning Process

Transfer of Learning

Transfer of learning is broadly defined as the ability to apply knowledge or procedures learned in one context to new contexts. Learning occurs more quickly and the learner develops a deeper understanding of the task if he or she brings some knowledge or skills from previous learning. A positive transfer of learning occurs when the learner practices under a variety of conditions, underscoring again the value of SBT.

A distinction is commonly made between near and far transfer. Near transfer consists of transfer from initial learning that is situated in a given setting to ones that are closely related. Far transfer refers both to the ability to use what was learned in one setting to a different one as well as the ability to solve novel problems that share a common structure with the knowledge initially acquired. There is a third way to talk about transfer called generativity. In this context it means learners have the ability on their own to come up with novel solutions.

During a learning experience, things learned previously usually aid the student, but sometimes previous learning interferes with the current learning task. Consider the learning of two skills. If the learning of skill A helps to learn skill B, positive transfer occurs. If learning skill A hinders the learning of skill B, negative transfer occurs. For example, the practice of slow flight (skill A) helps Beverly learn short-field landings (skill B). However, practice in making a landing approach in an airplane (skill A) may hinder learning to make an approach in a helicopter (skill B). It should be noted that the learning of skill B might affect the retention or proficiency of skill A, either positively or negatively. While these processes may help substantiate the interference theory of forgetting, they are still concerned with the transfer of learning.

It is clear that some degree of transfer is involved in all learning. This is true because, except for certain inherent responses, all new learning is based upon previously learned experience. People interpret new things in terms of what they already know.

Many aspects of teaching profit by this type of transfer, perhaps explaining why students of apparently equal ability have differing success in certain areas. Negative transfer may hinder the learning of some; positive transfer may help others. This points to a need to know a studentís past experience and what has already been learned. In lesson and syllabus development, instructors can plan for transfer by organizing course materials and individual lesson materials in a meaningful sequence. Each phase should help the student learn what is to follow.

The cause of transfer and exactly how it occurs is difficult to determine, but no one disputes the fact that transfer occurs. For the instructor, the significance of transference lies in the fact that the students can be helped to achieve it. The following suggestions are representative of what educational psychologists believe should be done:

  • Plan for transfer as a primary objective. As in all areas of teaching, the chance for success is increased if the instructor deliberately plans to achieve it.
  • Ensure that the students understand that what is learned can be applied to other situations. Prepare them to seek other applications.
  • Maintain high-order learning standards. Overlearning may be appropriate. The more thoroughly the students understand the material, the more likely they are to see its relationship to new situations. Avoid unnecessary rote learning, since it does not foster transfer.
  • Provide meaningful learning experiences that build student confidence in their ability to transfer learning. This suggests activities that challenge them to exercise their imagination and ingenuity in applying their knowledge and skills.
  • Use instructional material that helps form valid concepts and generalizations. Use materials that make relationships clear.
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