Transferring learning into new contexts: Part 2

Written by: Matt Bromley | Published:
Photo: iStock

In the second part of this two-part article, Matt Bromley continues his advice on how we can teach our students to transfer their knowledge and learning from one context to another

In part one of this article (link below), we said that we believe teaching facts is important, but facts learned in isolation are of limited value.

Rather than teach facts by rote, we should teach facts and then teach our students how to apply them in a range of different contexts as well as make myriad connections between them.

The ability to extend what is learned in one context to new contexts is called transfer and it is important because students need to flexibly adapt their knowledge and skills to all manner of new problems and settings. However, this ability to transfer learning is not necessarily automatic – we need to teach it.

Last week, we said that in order to develop transfer, students need to spend sufficient time learning something for the first time. The complex cognitive activity involved in integrating information takes time and each new topic needs complete focus. Attempts to cover too many topics too quickly will hinder students’ learning and subsequent transfer.

What’s more, topics need to be covered in sufficient depth so that students can develop enough background knowledge to make the information meaningful. Students need time to explore underlying concepts and to generate connections to other information they already possess.

We also learned that spending lots of time learning something is not, in itself, enough. Time needs to be spent in a distributed way and engaged in deliberate practice. Let me explain further...

The memory technique known as distributed learning or, more commonly, spaced practice is one of the oldest learning techniques in memory science and yet is also one of the most powerful, reliable, and easy to use. It works to deepen the acquisition of knowledge or skills that call for rote-learning.

Put simply, students learn at least as much – and retain what they have learned for much longer – when they distribute or space their study time than when they concentrate (or cram) it. Scientists say that spaced learning can double the amount we remember later.

The spacing effect is especially useful for learning new material. Why spaced study sessions have such a big impact on learning is still a matter of some debate, but it is probably something to do with the fact that repeating the same task over and over – reading and re-reading a list of words, say – makes our brain progressively less interested in the material. It has just heard, and stored, a word so if the same word is repeated again, then a third time, the brain pays progressively less attention to it.

In other words, studying a new concept immediately after you have learned it does not deepen the memory very much, if at all. Studying it an hour later, or a day later, however, does.

So, if I tell you three times in quick succession that a rainbow created by the sun’s rays reflecting off the moon is called a moonbow, you’d remember it for a while. But if I told you it three times at 10-minute intervals, you’d remember it for much longer.

This is because storage and retrieval are two different things. Just because you’ve studied (stored) the word “moonbow” doesn’t mean it’s retrievable when you read or hear about it later. To build fluency takes more than the time needed to store it. In the first scenario, you had maybe a minute to store the fact. In the second, you had over half an hour.

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

Give students opportunities to engage in distributed learning.

Learning is most effective when students engage in deliberate practice and when students actively monitor their own learning. As Ericsson et al (1993) say, monitoring one’s own learning involves attempts to seek and use feedback about our progress. Feedback was identified as important for successful learning as long ago as 1913 (see Thorndike), but Chi et al (1989, 1994) argue that it should not be regarded as a unidimensional concept.

For example, feedback that signals progress in memorising facts and formulas is different from feedback that signals the state of the students’ understanding. Students need feedback about the degree to which they know when, where, and how to use the knowledge they are learning.

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

Give students opportunities to engage in deliberate practice.

We have talked about the amount of time students need to spend learning something for the first time and how best to spend that time. But in order to secure students’ time investment, they must first be motivated to learn, because a student’s level of motivation can affect the amount of time they are willing to devote to learning.

In Drive, Daniel Pink explores what motivates people. He argues that people tend to be motivated by autonomy – in other words, being accorded control over the way they work; mastery – being good at their jobs and getting better; and purpose – doing a job which is considered meaningful and worthy.

White (1959) says people are motivated to learn if they know it will help improve their ability to solve problems – what White calls “competence motivation”.

Dweck’s work on the growth mindset has taught us that people work best for intrinsic rather than extrinsic rewards. In other words, working hard in order to learn something – not working in order to get a prize – is the best reward. But in order to do this, you need to be learning-oriented not performance-oriented, have a growth mindset not a fixed one.

Whatever they believe the real motivator to be, all these thinkers have one thing in common: they are convinced that, in order to be and remain motivated, students must be given work that provides an appropriate level of challenge – tasks must be difficult but not too difficult. Work that is too easy quickly becomes boring and is performed out of habit; work that is too hard quickly becomes frustrating and is not performed at all.

As well as being challenged by work, students – if they are to remain motivated and invest their time – must understand the purpose of learning. In other words, when they can see the usefulness of what they are learning (when and how they will be able to use that learning for their own and others’ benefit), students will dedicate time to it.

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

Give students work that provides an appropriate level of challenge.

Let’s take stock: in order to develop transfer, we need to make sure our students are motivated to learn then provide them with sufficient time to learn in a distributed, deliberate way. But, as well as learning in a deep, distributed, and deliberate way, our students need to learn new information, not in isolation, but in a range of different contexts.

The context in which a student learns is important for promoting transfer. So once something has been learned for the first time in one context, it is important to teach it again in a different context because knowledge that is taught in only a single context, is not as likely to support flexible transfer at a later stage as knowledge that is taught in multiple contexts.

“With multiple contexts,” Bransford et al say, “students are more likely to abstract the relevant features of concepts and develop a more flexible representation of knowledge.” In other words, as well as learning what facts mean, it is important to understand what facts might mean in a range of different contexts – i.e. how context can affect meaning.

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

Give students information in a variety of different contexts.

These different contexts might take one of two forms. First, we might give students a number of similar cases to study. Students can learn in one context but fail to transfer to other contexts. One way to deal with this lack of flexibility is to ask students to solve a specific case and then provide them with an additional, similar case. According to Gick and Holyoak (1983), this helps students to abstract general principles that lead to more flexible transfer.

A second way to improve flexibility is to let students learn in a specific context and then get them to engage in “what-if” type problem-solving activities that are designed to increase the flexibility of their understanding. A third way is to generalise the learning. For example, ask students to create a solution that applies not simply to a single problem, but to a whole group of similar problems.

Second, we might give students contrasting cases to study because the use of well-chosen contrasting cases can help students learn the conditions under which new knowledge is applicable. Gagné and Gibson, 1947; Garner, 1974; Gibson and Gibson, 1955 – in their work on perceptual learning – say that understanding when, where and why to use new knowledge can be enhanced by using “contrasting cases”. In other words, appropriately arranged contrasts can help students notice new features that previously escaped their attention and can help them learn which features are relevant and irrelevant to a particular concept. Third, we might give students abstract representations of problems because this, too, can facilitate transfer.

The seventh and final strategy is to...

Teach students metacognition.

Transfer can also be improved by helping students to become more aware of themselves as learners, by helping students to actively monitor their learning strategies and resources and assess their readiness for particular tests and performances.

Palincsar and Brown (1984) argue that reciprocal teaching designed to increase reading comprehension can help students acquire specific knowledge and learn a set of strategies for explicating, elaborating, and monitoring the understanding necessary for independent learning and transfer. The three major components of reciprocal teaching, according to Palincsar and Brown, are:

  • Instruction and practice with strategies that enable students to monitor their understanding.
  • Provision, initially by a teacher, of an expert model of metacognitive processes.
  • A social setting that enables joint negotiation for understanding.

Furthermore, it is important to understand – and respond to – how previous knowledge can help or hinder students’ understanding of new information.

We can help students change their original conceptions by building in opportunities for them to make their thinking more visible so that misconceptions can be corrected and so that students can be encouraged to think beyond the specific problem in hand or to think about variations of that problem.

In short, a metacognitive approach to teaching can increase transfer by helping students learn about themselves as learners. One characteristic of being an expert is the ability to monitor and regulate your own understanding in ways that allow you to keep learning adaptive expertise. For students to be able to do this, they need feedback from their teacher. Indeed, frequent formative feedback is critical if our students are to gain an insight into their learning and understanding.

In conclusion

Initial learning is necessary for transfer, and a considerable amount is known about the kinds of learning experiences that support transfer. Information that is anchored in just one specific context can reduce transfer. Abstract representations of information can help promote transfer as can teaching information in a range of different contexts.

Transfer is affected by the degree to which people learn with understanding rather than merely memorise sets of facts or follow a fixed set of procedures. So, to help students to develop transfer, we should:

  • Allow a sufficient amount of time for initial learning to take place.
  • Plan for distributed – or spaced – learning and engage in deliberate practice.
  • Make sure students are motivated to learn by planning work with sufficient challenge.
  • Teach information in multiple, contrasting contexts and/or in abstract form.
  • Teach metacognition so that students become expert at monitoring and regulating their learning.
  • Matt Bromley is an experienced school and college leader, an education writer and consultant. You can find out more at

Part One

This is the second part of a two-part article. The first piece was published on October 1:


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