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.


  1. Taruna
    a great post .


    Siddhartha Bhattacharjee
    comment on my blog

  2. @Sid - Thanks for your comment. I am glad you enjoyed reading my post. I see that you are a learning and training enthusiast! Look forward to reading your blog posts.

  3. Hi, Taruna

    I work with education for business in Brazil and find your ideas very applicable and thoughtful. Thank you for sharing them!

  4. I am learning about Theory of Identical Elements and found the information you provided is very detailed and adds to the information stated in our text book.

  5. Thanks for a great post! Would you mind if i shared this with some new teachers (my own colleagues) in an education class for in-house training? I'll cite you of course! :) We are talking about how their classes should incoporate active learning and consider transfer of learning. Miss LING, Singapore.

  6. Thanks Bhavik Pargee, Moi, and my anonymous friends.

    Miss Ling (Singapore), I am happy to know that you'd like to share my post with your colleagues in a training session. Please go ahead. I am glad to be of any help! If you don't mind me asking, could you share some details about yourself, your colleagues, and your organization. I would love to know who I am impacting - directly and indirectly. It will really motivate me :)

  7. greattt workkk... just loved it

  8. Interesting work. I am curious to know if transfer of learning differ with learning environment such as online learning as oppose to face-to-face learning.

  9. Thanks for your comment. Although the concepts and ideas I have discussed above apply to all types of learning, the specific tools and technologies may differ for online vs face-to-face learning. But it helps to be aware of the learning modality and design instructional activities that capitalize on the strength of the media.

  10. dear taruna,
    i am searching for credible model of question that is useful to measure transfer of training. can u give ur suggestion to me.

  11. Thank to share good information, I read your blog now. It is very informative

  12. awesome work..i'm from from phillipines .it really help me as a teacher on how i should handle my students...thank u..

  13. I am currently doing dissertation research on learning transfer. From my research I found that around 40% of training gets transferred to the workplace. My study is about which practices that help with learning transfer are actually being used in adult learning in business organizations. The practices before, during and after training that you mentioned are significant.

    1. Thanks for your comment John. I am happy to note that you picked 'learning transfer' as an area of research. It is the need for the day. But most people understand and view learning as an isolated activity, which it is not. As much as I don't like to call them 'pre' and 'post', the activities before and after the so called event are sometimes more important and significant.