Sitemap + Home - Site-Using Tips (options) -  into right frame 

Transfers of Learning

I recommend first reading the summary` of this page.
Based on widely accepted principles of effective learning, we should expect that a transfer of procedural knowledge will be increased by teaching Design Process.  And transfer is important, as emphasized by How People Learn and LearnLabHow People Learn describes it as "the ultimate goal of learning" and thus "a major goal of schooling";  the focus of LearnLab is robust learning (with Long-Term Retention, Transfer, and/or Accelerated Future Learning, which are closely related), as you can see in their Statement of Purpose — "Leverage cognitive theory and cognitive modeling to identify the instructional conditions that cause robust student learning." — and in About PSLC and Instructional Principles.

This page is in two parts:

Part 1 summarizes two general principles — transfer of learning increases when we teach knowledge in multiple contexts, in a form that can be easily generalized — indicating that using Design Process, which helps us teach generalized procedural knowledge in multiple contexts (as in a Wide Spiral Curriculum), might increase the transfer of learning for this procedural knowledge.

Part 2 supplements these principles by looking at other principles for improving transfer by using cognitive-and-metacognitive Strategies for Learning to intentionally remember (from the past) and intentionally learn (for the future), and develop logically organized procedural knowledge, including conditional knowledge.



Part 1 — Two Principles for Promoting Transfer

A major theme in the highly respected book How People Learn is to teach in ways that increase transfers of learning, because "the ultimate goal of learning is to have access to information for a wide set of purposes... [which occurs if students can] transfer what they have learned in school [in a wide range of subjects] to everyday settings of home, community, and workplace. (page 73)"  To achieve this important objective — with a transfer of ideas-and-skills between different subjects in school, and into life outside school — they recommend, based on educational research, that we:

A) teach knowledge in multiple contexts,

B) in a form that can be easily generalized.

Quoting from pages 62-63 of How People Learn, with bold-emphasis and comments-in-[ ]'s added by me:
When a subject is taught in multiple contexts, and includes examples [as in a Wide-Spiral Curriculum] that demonstrate wide application of what is being taught, people are more likely to abstract the relevant features of concepts and to develop a flexible representation of knowledge [so it can be generalized into diverse areas]. ... Transfer is enhanced by instruction that helps students represent problems at higher levels of abstraction.


Design Process should be useful for doing both A and B, because:

A) when we "teach knowledge in multiple contexts" using Design Process — as in a Wide-Spiral Curriculum with Educational Bridges from Life to Design (in all subject areas) to Science and back into Life, which is possible because we use design for "almost everything we do in life" — we can show how the problem-solving strategies in different areas are related to Design Process (because it's used for solving problems in each area) and thus are related to each other.  This logic is analogous to the "transitive" principle of math (stating that if A=D and B=D and C=D, then A=B=C) except that instead of equalities (in mathematics), there are similarities (in problem-solving process).  By using Design Process for Design Activities in each area, we can develop a "coordinated teaching of design-thinking across the curriculum." *

B) Design Process describes problem-solving actions "in a form that can be easily generalized" by using generalized terms: Definition, Generation, Evaluation, and Coordination.  These general terms can be used in all subject areas because in all areas we use process-of-design thinking to Define (overall objectives and specific goal-criteria), Generate (by finding old information & old ideas, inventing new ideas, designing experiments so we can make new predictions & observations), Evaluate (by comparing goals with predictions or observations in Quality Checks, and comparing predictions with observations in Reality Checks), and Coordinate (by asking “what is the best use of my time right now?” and making action-decisions).  The logically organized framework of Design Process, which shows functional interactive relationships between these modes of thinking-and-action, can be an essential part of "instruction that helps students represent problems at higher levels of abstraction."


* In each area, instruction should be coordinated so we teach Design Process in the context of student experiences.  One of the many reasons to combine experience and principles is because (How People Learn, page 77) "the most effective transfer may come from a balance of specific examples [as in design activities] and general principles [in Design Process], not from either one alone."



Part 2 — Metacognitive Learning Strategies to Increase Transfer

Part 2 explains how Strategies for Learning increase Transfers of Learning.  In addition to the direct benefits of these cognitive-and-metacognitive Strategies for Learning to improve "the quality of learning, thinking, and performance," including transfer, "when students use a design process to develop Learning Strategies they are improving design skills that they can use for other design projects in many areas of life."  When teachers "motivate students to develop-and-apply Strategies for Learning," this is one more way of using Design Process to "teach generalized procedural knowledge in multiple contexts," to promote transfer in a Wide-Spiral Curriculum.

Procedural Knowledge and Conceptual Knowledge:  Although in this page the focus is on transfers of procedural knowledge, metacognitive Learning Strategies can also improve learning-and-transfers of conceptual knowledge.


Teaching for Transfer and Learning for Transfer

If a Learning Strategy, with the objective of Learning for Transfer, will help students learn more effectively, then (as part of an effective Teaching Strategy)* a teacher should motivate them to do it, and help them do it better.  Effective strategies for increasing transfer should be learned by students (to "make life better" with Personal Education) and should be taught by teachers, as part of their professional responsibility.  Therefore, both strategies — with objectives of learning & teaching, viewed from the perspectives of students & teachers — are in Part 2.

* Another part of an effective strategy is Teaching for Transfer by designing instruction that will promote a transfer of learning, for both ideas & skills.


Learning from the Past, for the Future — A Framework

A useful theoretical framework, proposed by David Perkins & Gavriel Salomon, analyzes transfer along two dimensions, with

  • backward-reaching transfer (by using knowledge from the past) or forward-looking transfer (by learning for the future), and

  • low-road transfer (when an idea or skill is practiced to a high level of automaticity) or high-road transfer (when we actively search for connections between previous learning and the current situation, using cognition and metacognition).

Because high-road transfer (both backward-reaching & forward-looking) requires cognitive-and-metacognitive effort, it's the main type of transfer that can be improved by using Design Process, although design activities might stimulate motivation that leads to practice and low-road transfer.

MORE — in A Brief Overview of Transfer, I summarize-and-quote an encyclopedia article by Perkins & Salomon, covering definitions, prospects, specialization, conditions, mechanisms, and teaching.


Memory and Transfer

Remembering and Transfering are closely related, differing mainly in the degree of similarity(s) between a previous context and the current context.  The similarity can range from very similar for near transfer (that is mainly recalling from memory) to less similar in far transfer.  Therefore, many learning-and-teaching strategies (but not all) that improve a remembering of knowledge — by storing, retaining, and recalling it — also will improve a transfering of knowledge.


Intentionally Recalling to Produce Transfer Now (by using knowledge from the past):

Reminding and Self-Reminding:  When a teacher guides (by asking questions, providing hints, directing attention) a common purpose is to remind students of what they already know.  A student can do self-reminding with the metacognitive strategy of asking “what have I learned in the past that can help me now?”, trying to intentionally recall ideas or skills that have been useful in similar situations in the past, and thus might be useful now.  In this self-reminding (with self-monitoring that guides and stimulates self-prompting reminders) a student is using a proactive metacognitive strategy instead of depending on external guidance.  How People Learn explains that instruction in developing-and-applying metacognitive strategies "increases the degree to which students will transfer to new situations without the need for [external] explicit prompting." (p 67)

Using Transfer for Teaching:  Constructivist Theories of Learning propose that people build new knowledge on the foundation of existing knowledge, so all learning involves transfer.  Therefore, when teaching any idea or skill a teacher should try to understand the prior knowledge of students, and build on this foundation.  This principle is useful during the analysis-and-planning for a Wide Spiral Curriculum.


The Timeline:   In the past, our present was the future;  and in the future, our present will be the past.   We should learn from the past and for the future.  Both are important, because "the amount of transfer depends on where attention is directed during learning [for the future] or [using knowledge from the past] at transfer." (How People Learn, p 67)   /   Learning (for the future) versus Performing (in the present)?


Intentionally Learning to Produce Transfer Later (by learning for the future):

Learning for the Future:  Students can intentionally learn for transfer, by learning in ways that will make their knowledge (their ideas-and-skills) more easily available for personal use in the future, that will make their intentional recall more effective.   /   And, of course, teachers can intentionally teach for transfer.

Here are some useful strategies for teaching (and learning) in ways that can increase transfers of knowledge:


Reflection and Self-Reflection:  Teachers can use a reflection request — by directing attention to relevant aspects of an experience, or just asking students to think about their experiences — to help them learn more from their experiences.  The main purpose is to promote awareness — which can be awareness with intention to remember * — that helps place knowledge into memory, so this knowledge will be available for applications in the future, for transfer.   /   A student can promote their own self-reflection and intentional learning — when they learn with an intention to remember-and-apply in the future — by using the metacognitive strategy of asking “what can I learn now that will help me in the future?”   /   * An awareness of a current situation almost always increases the “storing” of experiences-and-knowledge in memory, whether or not there is no conscious intention to remember, but awareness with intention to remember is usually more effective.


Conditional Knowledge — "knowing the conditions-of-application when a skill (or idea) can be useful"is described in Coordinating Design by Choosing “what to do next” Design-Actions:  your conditional knowledge is one part of a full procedural knowledge that — in addition to the essential core-knowledge of being able to do procedural skills — includes knowing the functional capabilities of each skill (what it lets you accomplish), and also the condition-clues to look for, during a process of design, to recognize when each skill will be useful.  You can use this full knowledge to find a match between the demands of your current problem-solving situation (WHAT needs doing now) and your capabilities (HOW to get things done) so you can choose productive design-actions that will help you solve the problem.  Improving your conditional knowledge (for each idea & skill) will improve your remembering-and-using of what you are learning.  As described in How People Learn (page 237), "experts know the conditions of applicability of their knowledge, and they are able to access the relevant knowledge with considerable ease."

Teachers should help students understand not just how to use each skill, but also when to use it and why.  When students are motivated, they will take responsibility for their Personal Education by intentionally learning for transfer in the future, by imagining that “if the situation is     or     or     during a process of design, then I can use this skill”, so these situation-cues will remind them to use the skill.*  To build a wider scope-of-transfer for a skill, students (encouraged and guided by teachers) can be more creative-and-flexible when they imagine the design-situations in which the skill might be useful.   /   * Other aspects of Personal Education occur when students use self-reflection (to learn from their past, for their future) and self-guiding (to remember-and-use knowledge from their past) and other metacognitive strategies.


The Benefits of Organized Knowledge

Research shows that learning Conceptual Knowledge in a logically organized framework leads to better understanding, transfering, and using of the knowledge.  A logical organization of Procedural Knowledge should be similarly helpful.

The Educational Value of Organization begins with a simple illustration of this value, by comparing Quiz 1 (22 meaningless letters), Quiz 2 (6 meaningful words), and Quiz 3 (an interesting story).   It ends by asking "Is memory obsolete?"   In-between, quotations from How People Learn include these excerpts about transfer and expertise:

"organizing information into a conceptual framework allows for greater transfer";  experts develop "a deep foundation of factual knowledge... [with] well-organized knowledge structures" and "know the conditions of applicability of their knowledge [have high-quality Conditional Knowledge]... understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application.";  instead of being "relatively routinized [rigid]," adaptive expertise "is flexible and more adaptable to external demands," and adaptive experts are "metacognitive,... able [and willing] to approach new situations flexibly and to learn throughout their lifetimes."  Educators want to "understand how particular kinds of learning experiences [in and out of the classroom] develop adaptive expertise" and "whether some ways of organizing knowledge are better at helping people remain flexible and adaptive to new situations."

All of these important educational objectives — helping students develop "well-organized knowledge structures... in ways that facilitate retrieval and application" and "know the conditions of applicability" and "remain flexible and adaptive to new situations" — are promoted by the framework of Design Process, which is logically organized yet functionally flexible, with "ways of organizing knowledge" that will encourage (but cannot guarantee) developing adaptive expertise in solving problems, by combining technical expertise with a flexible attitude, an ability-and-willingness to improvise.

Relationships Within and Between:  We can use Design Process to help students develop logically organized Procedural Knowledge so they can understand the integrated coordination of thinking skills within each design experience, and also the similarities (and differences) between design experiences in different subject areas to increase the transfer between areas.


Transfers from Life to Design to Science to Life:   The main benefits of Educational Bridges are the transfers that occur when we build four types of bridges:   • from life to design (by connecting previous design-in-life experiences with design-in-school, to build on what students already know);   • from design to science (because when students use Design Process, they already are using the main components of Science Process);   • from science into life (in science and other school subjects, and in everyday life, we should ask “what evidence-and-logic supports your claim?”);   • from design into life (when the problem-solving skills of design are used in “real life” outside the classroom).


Educational Transfer to Prepare for Life:   How People Learn (page 235) states that "a major goal of schooling is to prepare students for flexible adaptation to new problems and settings," in a transfer of school knowledge into life.  In a rapidly changing modern world we cannot prepare students for every challenge they will face.  But we can help them improve their problem-solving abilities so they can adjust to situations by using adaptive expertise to flexibly improvise, and by learning new ideas-and-skills when necessary.  These abilities will be useful for coping with a wide range of challenges.  Expressed in wisdom from ancient China, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day.  Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."