Saturday, October 31, 2009

Transfer of Learning - Theories and Implications

Transfer of learning is the goal of all training and learning interventions. We know that the often the learning context is different from the context of real-life application. However, the training objective is not achieved until the learning transfers from one to context to another. So, what is it that makes learning 'stick' and allows learners to use the learning immediately and in the future?

The Theoretical View: Understanding Transfer of Learning
Before I reflect on the strategies that aid transfer of learning, it is important to discuss some theoretical views on learning transfer.

Transfer of learning is the application of skills and knowledge learned in one context being applied in another context (Cormier & Hagman, 1987). The best known and probably the most influential theory to explain transfer of learning is the near-transfer vs. far-transfer approach suggested by Thorndike in the "Theory of Identical Elements.” Simply put, this theory implied that transfer of learning would take place only if two activities contained similar or common elements. Within this theory, near transfer means that skills and knowledge are applied in the same manner each time the knowledge and skills are used. An example would be procedural training, perhaps using a software application to perform routine tasks – creating documents in MS Word. Far transfer means that skills and knowledge are applied in situations that change. An example of this will be perhaps understanding the economic concepts associated with how the stock market functions and then analysing trends and utilizing information to build a strong portfolio.

It is believed that it is easier for instructional designers to design training that leads to near transfer skills versus far transfer skills. This is because near transfer skills are highly procedural and beyond a certain point, almost mechanical. However, the truth is that most learning situations do not render themselves to this procedural/mechanical approach to solving problems. Solving problems usually involves deep thinking and analysis, and therefore involves teaching far transfer skills.

Post this theory; many new theories have been propounded. From the Wikipedia, here is a table, presenting different types of transfer, as adapted from Schunk (2004, p. 220). All these theories distinguish transfer into different types based on two parameters – the similarity and difference between two learning situations and the cognitive process and mental analysis involved in the learning.

The Practical View: Implications for Designing, Developing, and Delivering Training

As instructional designers the implications of understanding how learning transfer happens is critical to the design, development, and delivery of training. But even with so many theories about how transfer takes places, my interest as an L&D professional is more about - what can I do to make this transfer happen – popularly phrased as how do I teach to transfer?
The way I look at it, facilitating transfer of learning starts to happen at the training conceptualization stage and continues much after the training. Here are some of my thoughts on pre-training, during training, and post-training activities that help in learning transfer:


- Design training with specific objectives around tasks that the learners perform in real-life
- Include relevant case studies and scenarios to help build connections between old and new learning
- Incorporate myths and misconceptions within the training design so that the same can be discussed and clarified during the training process
- Keep it hands-on, as much as possible
- Design performance support tools such as references, checklists, and guidelines that learners can use post training
- Inform learners towards their responsibility related to their own learning and seek commitment

During training:
- Invite experts to speak and discuss about how the learning helped them in real-life
- Seek on-the-job examples from the learners
- Use analogies from your own experience and that of the learners
- Discuss case studies and scenarios asking learners to select an appropriate approach and predict the consequences
- Include opportunities to practice the learning in similar and different situations – use compelling simulations, role-plays etc
- Provide feedback, guidance, and support during the training process
- Allow learners to learn not only from the content but also the environment including their peers
- Include reflection activities that can help learners think and analyze what they have learnt
- Share best practices and tips towards application of training

- Assess learners’ understanding of concepts by allowing them to apply the learning without feedback or guidance
- Ask learners about how and where will they apply the new learning – new situations, new contexts – perhaps drawing out an action plan
- Acquire post-training feedback on the relevance and applicability of training both from learners and line managers
- Ask learners to build a case study around how they applied their learning in new and challenging situations
- Follow-up with learners to identify the challenges in application of training and review the action plans
- Provide coaching and mentoring to help learners overcome the roadblocks in application of learning

Increasingly, transfer of learning is being discussed with a meta-cognitive point of view. So, learning from learning is perhaps more important than learning itself! Sounds strange but what it means is to allow learners to think about learning and therefore construct their own connections between what has been learnt in the past versus what is being learnt in the present. It is about being aware of your learning and taking control of the same. In that sense, when learners manage their own learning and are more self-aware, they increase the accessibility of their learning to be applied in situations that occur in the future and help themselves in transferring their learning! In this context, our role as L&D professionals changes to helping learners learn meta-cognition skills and strategies! Interesting.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Importance of Reflective Practices

I read somewhere that "Reflection is a key to improvement as an educator." So often, we have read and spoken about experiential learning, learning-by-doing, task-based learning etc. However, what is it that really converts this experience into learning? For the uninitiated, it is Reflection.

Without getting into semantics and/or an instructional definition; simply speaking, reflection is an image - a mirror image - that we can see of ourselves and other things around us. Extending this to learning experiences, reflection is the act of looking into (at) yourself and your learning experiences. So, while we learn by 'doing'. We actually learn more by thinking about what we did, how we did it, what was the experience like, can we do it differently the next time, how will we do it in another situation etc. It is therefore clearly an intense mental exercise. Many instructional models highlight that reflection is an integral component of learning. Kolb in his experiential learning model, shares the importance of reflective observation. I am convinced that reflection is an important and practical aspect of training and education. However, I do believe that as trainers and learners, we don’t spend enough time practicing reflection.

Let’s start with the trainer in us. I often observe that as trainers we do not include structured reflective practices in our training. The reasons could be multiple – we don’t know or understand the importance of reflection, we want to finish the curriculum so more time on action, less time on reflection, we don’t know what are reflection activities, we don’t know the design and implementation decisions – what to reflect on, how much, how to etc. This blog certainly can’t do justice to all the above reasons but the bottom-line is – we don’t create opportunities for our learners to reflect – or atleast not as much as required.

So, what do we need to do?
1) Design reflective exercises and activities at the beginning, middle, and end of training.
2) Relate reflection activities to learning outcomes and contextualize the activities to the learning process.
3) Use appropriate forms of reflection – individual vs. group reflection, discussion vs. paper writing etc.
4) Use appropriate structure for reflection – open-ended vs. guided reflection

Moving into the shoes of a learner, we probably don’t spend enough time reflecting about what we have learnt. Again the reasons for not reflecting could be many - we don’t know or understand the importance of reflection, we have other urgent and important tasks at hand, but more so – the act of reflection seems so natural that we believe it is happening by itself and further, when it is happening by itself, it is happening effectively.

So, what do we need to do?
1) Set aside time for reflection. This is probably the most important thing to do! Until reflection is deliberate and conscious, there can be no learning. Realize that most learning does not occur in a formal setting. Therefore, you are personally responsible for creating reflective activities for your own self in informal learning situations.
2) Observe your individual learning experiences – success and failures - and reflect on what you did in both situations and what could you have done differently. Ask yourself key questions about the learning.
3) Use a variety of tools and methods to think about and evaluate your learning – share, discuss, write in an attempt to improve.
4) Build upon your learning to create new knowledge.

So, I guess, if as learners, we are able to improve our own practice of learning using reflective activities, we will certainly impact those learning from us in a much more positive manner!