Transfer of Learning

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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. 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). This, however, is usually where the general consensus between various research approaches ends.

Transfer taxonomies

Of the various attempts to delineate transfer, typological and taxonomic approaches belong to the more common ones (see, e.g., Barnett & Ceci, 2002; Butterfield, 1988; Detterman, 1993; Gagné, 1977; Reeves & Weisberg, 1994; Salomon & Perkins, 1989; Singley & Anderson, 1989). Taxonomies are concerned with distinguishing different types of transfer, and therefore less involved with labeling the actual vehicle of transfer, i.e., what is the explanatory mental unit of transfer that is carried over. 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...
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