Transfer of Learning

The influence of prior knowledge and skills on learning and performance in a new situation.

Main Reference

Lobato, J.(2006). Alternative Perspectives on the Transfer of Learning: History, Issues and Challenges for future research. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 15(4), 431-449
Easy to read and gives a good summary of transfer of learning theories (past and present) and future research suggestions.

Transfer of Learning

The first place that transfer of learning is practiced is in the classroom. The main reason for teaching most topics is to allow students to use what they learn in settings beyond school. It is one of the most important goals in education - allowing students to gain knowledge and skills that they can use in and outside school, both straight away and in the future.

Four characteristics of learning which affect transfer have been identified (Bransford, Brown and Cocking, 1999).
  1. The necessity of initial learning. Just displaying information is not enough to ensure learning, the material has to be understood. Deep organised knowledge improves transfer. Teaching that focuses on how to use knowledge and improve motivation will be beneficial to transfer.
  2. The importance of abstract and contextual knowledge. Transfer of learning can be improved when links are made across several contexts or when solutions and strategies are developed that apply to different situations as they lead to flexible learning.
  3. The conception of learning as an active and dynamic process. Transfer can be improved by assessments that go beyond an individual's current abilities and challenge them.
  4. The notion that all learning is transfer. New Learning builds on previous learning. Teacher's can make transfer possible by activating what students already know and linking old ideas to the new ones being taught.

Types of Transfer

There have been many theories of transfer and these have mainly been built around two aspects (with the exception of Positive and Negative transfer which will be looked at below). The first aspect relates to the overlap of features and knowledge between the previous learning and the new learning situation. The other aspect involves the general assumptions about how transfer relationships are created with regard to mental effort and cognitive process.

The different types of transfer are shown in the table below. (Adapted from Schunk, 2004, p.220 and (+) Cree and Macaulay, 2000 and (++) Ormrod, 2004).

Original and transfer contexts are similar, there is an overlap between them.
Original and transfer contexts are not similar, there is little overlap between them.
What is learned in one situation improves learning in a different situation (+).
What is learned in one situation hinders learning in a different situation (+)
Knowledge of a previous topic is necessary to obtain new knowledge (++).
Knowledge of a previous topic is not necessary but useful to learn a new topic (++).
Intact knowledge transfers to a new task.
Use some aspect of general knowledge to think or learn about a problem.
Low Road
Transfer of well-known skills in almost automatic (unconscious) fashion.
High Road
Transfer involves thought and conscious formulations of links between contexts.
High Road/Forward Reaching
Abstracting situations from a learning context to a possible transfer context.
High Road/Backward Reaching
Abstracting in the transfer context aspects of a previous situation where new skills and knowledge were learned.

Past learning experiences affect learning in new situations. They can either help (positive transfer) or hinder (negative transfer) transfer of learning.

POSITIVE TRANSFER - learning from one situation assists learning in another situation. Positive transfer is most likely to occur when the learner:
No useful learning takes place unless positive transfer occurs. A key aim of education is to make positive transfer possible and minimise negative transfer.

NEGATIVE TRANSFER - when learning from one situation interferes with learning in another situation.
Negative transfer is most likely to occur when the learner:
Misconception is an important type of negative transfer. A person with a misconception is likely to learn new information through faulty structures and consequently make inappropriate accomodations within those structures.


The findings with respect to transfer of learning are mixed, some suggest that transfer of learning exists whereas others have not found any evidence of this. Many different theories have been suggested over the years. Agreement on one theory is required to allow studies to assess whether transfer of learning does exist. The problem seems to be that the various suggestions of theories describe transfer of learning differently and the way they assess it is also different. Therefore, findings of different studies are not comparable.


Cree, V., and Macaulay, C. (2000) Transfer of learning in professional and vocational education. Routledge

Ormrod, J.E. (2004) Human Learning (4th Ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ, USA: Pearson.

Schunk, D. (2004) Learning Theories: An Educational Perspective.(4th Ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ, USA: Pearson

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., and Cocking, R.R. (1999) How people learn: brain, mind experience and school. Washington D.C.: National Academy Press