Transferring learning into new contexts: Part 1

Written by: Matt Bromley | Published:
Photo: iStock

The ability to transfer and apply learning and skills between different contexts is a key part of an effective education, says Matt Bromley. In the first of two articles, he offers advice on how to teach this ability

What is the purpose of education?

What is the purpose of education? Is it to prepare young people for the world of work or is it to instil in them an appreciation of the arts and sciences? Is it to develop character traits – such as resilience and empathy – in order to increase a student’s employability, or is it to indoctrinate young people in our shared culture and history? Is education a means to an end, or learning for learning’s sake?

Thomas Gradgrind, the headmaster in Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times, famously said: “Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

Although, like Gradgrind, I believe that teaching facts is important, I don’t believe that we should teach “nothing but facts” because facts learned in isolation are of limited value. Rather, I think we should teach facts and then teach our students how to apply them in a range of different contexts and make myriad connections between them.

Teaching students how to convey their learning from one context to another is, I believe, the difference between educating someone and simply training them to perform a particular task over and over again.

This ability to extend what has been learned in one context to new contexts is called transfer and helping our students to develop this skill is vital if we want them to be able to transfer what we teach them in one lesson to another lesson on a similar topic, what we teach them in one module to another module on the same course, and what we teach them in, say, year 9 to their GCSEs.

And students’ ability to transfer their learning between different contexts does not just apply to school: students need to be able to transfer what they learn in school into the home and the workplace; indeed, students need to be able to flexibly adapt their knowledge and skills to all manner of new problems and settings.

But this ability to transfer is not necessarily automatic. Rather, we need to teach it.

So we now know that transfer is important, a sign of effective teaching and of genuine learning. And we also know that it is not a skill students will develop automatically. The only question that remains, then, is how do we teach it?

Bransford et al (2000) argue that several critical features of learning can affect a student’s ability to transfer what they have learned. For example, one factor in the development of students’ expertise and ability to transfer what they have learned is the amount of time spent learning something for the first time.

Attempts to cover too many topics too quickly may hinder students’ learning and subsequent transfer because either:

  1. Students learn only isolated sets of facts that are not organised and connected, or
  2. Students are introduced to organising principles that they cannot possibly grasp because they lack sufficient and specific background knowledge to make the information meaningful.

Providing students with opportunities to engage with sufficient, specific information that is relevant to the topic they are learning creates “time for telling”, which enables them to learn much more than students who do not have these opportunities.

Providing students with time to learn also includes providing enough time for them to process information. Pezdek and Miceli (1982) found that on one particular task it took 3rd grade students

in the US 15 seconds to integrate pictorial and verbal information. When given only eight seconds, they couldn’t mentally integrate the information, probably because of the limitations of the short-term memory. In other words, learning cannot be rushed; the complex cognitive activity involved in integrating information takes time.

According to Klausmeier (1985), students – especially in school settings – are often faced with tasks that do not have apparent meaning or logic. It can be difficult for them to learn with understanding at the start; they may need to take time to explore underlying concepts and to generate connections to other information they possess.

So the first piece of practical advice for developing students’ ability to transfer is...

Give students enough time to explore underlying concepts.

However, returning to Bransford, as well as the amount of time spent learning something for the first time, there’s another key factor in the development of students’ expertise and ability to transfer knowledge: how that time is used. Having sufficient time to learn is not, in itself, enough. What students do with that time is just as important because different ways of using one’s time have different effects on learning and transfer.

Bransford says that “while time on task is necessary for learning, it is not sufficient for effective learning. Time spent learning for understanding has different consequences for transfer than time spent simply memorising facts or procedures from textbooks or lectures”.

In other words, simply learning facts by rote is more limiting than learning to understand what those facts mean and/or how they might be connected. I can vouch for this.

On one of my teacher-training courses, I asked delegates to memorise a list of word pairs in order to explore the different ways in which people learn and the relative benefits of each approach.

It is fascinating watching colleagues perform this task: their methods are always writ large upon their faces. Some people stare at the list for the full two minutes allocated to the task, reading and re-reading the words over and over again in the hope that simple repetition will strengthen their powers of recall.

Others spend perhaps half a minute reading the list then turn away or close their eyes for the remaining 90 seconds. Whatever they are doing behind closed eyes, it is clear that they are not simply spending more time on task by reading and re-reading the list; instead, they are applying what they have learned in a different context or making connections between the words.

Some delegates use the “mind palace” approach made famous by Sherlock Holmes in which visual cues are employed in order to memorise information in a particular sequence, perhaps by walking through a familiar location and using objects to trigger memories.

Others create a mnemonic with the words or try to visualise the actual list as if they have taken a photograph of it with their minds which they can refer back to later when the actual list has been removed.

The second tactic – spending a short time learning then making connections between what they have learned rather than just repeating the task – always has more success than the first, because just dedicating time to learning isn’t enough. If we are to help our students to develop the ability to transfer, we have to think carefully about how our students will use that time.

In 1917, a young Columbia University psychologist called Arthur Gates studied how the act of recitation interacts with memory. For centuries, classics students had spent hours learning to recite epic poems and pieces of scripture from memory. Gates wanted to find out if there was an ideal ratio between reading (memorising) and reciting (rehearsal).

In other words, Gates wanted to calculate what proportion of time you should spend studying the text on a page and what proportion you should spend reciting it from memory or doing something different with the information.

To find out if such a ratio existed, Gates enlisted five classes from a local school, ranging from 3rd to 8th grade, for an experiment. He assigned each student a number of Who’s Who entries to memorise and recite. He gave them each nine minutes to study but each group of students was given a different set of instructions on how to use that time.

One group would spend a minute and 48 seconds memorising, and seven minutes and 12 seconds reciting. A second group would split its time exactly in half. And a third group would spend eight minutes of its time memorising, and only a minute rehearsing. So what did he find?

“In general,” Gates concluded, “the best results are obtained by introducing recitation after devoting about 40 per cent of the time to reading. Introducing recitation too early or too late leads to poorer results.” In older students, the percentage was closer to a third. “The superiority of optimal reading and retention over reading alone is about 30 per cent,” he added.

So it is no surprise that my delegates performed better at remembering and reciting word pairs if they spent about a third of their time reading the list then turned away and spent the other two-thirds anchoring their learning in a particular context, or making connections between words in their mind. So the second piece of practical advice for developing students’ ability to transfer is...

Make sure students spend their time learning in a distributed, deliberate way.

Part two

In the second part of this article – which you can find here – we will explore in more detail the importance of distributed learning and deliberate practice and also consider how teaching information either in abstract form or in multiple contexts can help students to transfer their learning to new situations and settings in the future.

  • Matt Bromley is an experienced school and college leader, an education writer and consultant. He is currently the group director of a large further education college and multi-academy trust. You can find out more at You can follow him on Twitter @mj_bromley. His latest book is called TEACH and is available in paperback and ebook from


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