What's Transfer, and Why is it so Hard to Achieve? (Part 2)

What's Transfer, and Why is it so Hard to Achieve? (Part 2)

By: Cindy Wooldridge & Yana Weinstein

Last week, we talked about near transfer. This week, we’re going to talk about…slightly-further-away transfer. Obviously, no-one actually calls it that; in the study that we describe, it was referred to as “far” transfer. However, there is no consensus on what constitutes far transfer, which is part of the problem with studying this concept. We will leave it up to the reader to decide where on the transfer continuum the following study lies.

In the study we described last week (1), transfer was obtained when students were tested on the same fact but with a different question. To investigate transfer to a more novel situation, the same author designed scenarios that were conceptually similar to the studied information and could be solved using the same principles, but involved a novel situation. Here is an example:

Original Quiz Question:

A bat has a very different wing structure from a bird. What is the wing structure of a bat like relative to that of a bird?

Image from Pixabay.com

Image from Pixabay.com

Inferential Test Question:

The U.S. Military is looking at bat wings for inspiration in developing a new type of aircraft. How would this new type of aircraft differ from traditional aircrafts like fighter jets?

Image from Pixabay.com

Image from Pixabay.com

In order to answer this question – about a scenario that they had never encountered during the study phase – students would need to do three things:

1) Realize that they could use information about bats and birds to answer the question about aircraft.

2) Recall the answer to the original question (about bats).

3) Apply it to this new question about aircraft.

The two learning conditions in the experiment were restudying and testing: participants either studied passages twice, or studied them once and then took a quiz. Both groups were then later tested on inferential questions, as in the example above.

In this experiment, testing produced a distinct transfer advantage over restudy: participants in the transfer condition scored 68% on the inferential questions, as compared with 44% in the repeated study condition.

Why was such a large advantage of retrieval practice found in this transfer situation? Let’s look again at the set of necessary conditions for obtaining transfer (2).

What’s necessary for transfer to occur?

1) Awareness that this is a situation in which prior knowledge could be useful.

2) Successful retrieval of the prior knowledge.

3) Successful use/application of the prior knowledge to the new situation.

One important feature of the study described above is that students were explicitly instructed to use material from the studied passages on the inferential test questions. As a result, condition #1 above was essentially fulfilled by the experimenter, instead of by the student themselves. Then, condition #2 received a large boost from retrieval practice, leading to much better performance on the inferential questions after retrieval than after restudy. But does retrieval practice increase awareness that a situation can benefit from prior related (but not identical) knowledge? It is not yet clear.

Where does this leave us on our quest for transfer?

1) Unfortunately, we do not know all of the situations that students will need to use the knowledge/skills we teach, but the best way to make them aware of transfer situations is to explicitly teach students when they can use the information. This will make them more likely to recognize situations in which they can apply their knowledge when they come up in the future.

2) In order to promote successful retrieval of information, you can use any of the standard learning strategies. We’ve discussed the value of retrieval practice, spacing, interleaving, etc. Any of these will promote better retrieval for transfer situations as well (as long as condition #1 above is met).

3) In order to learn how to appropriately apply information, students need to actually practice applying information. When teaching students about a situation in which prior knowledge might be useful, have them work in groups or alone to solve the problem of how to apply the information. In this way they get practice applying their knowledge, which also serves as retrieval practice. Double bonus!


(1) Butler (2010). Repeated testing produces superior transfer of learning relative to repeated studying. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition, 36, 1118-1133.

(2) Barnett, S. M., & Ceci, S. J. (2002). When and where do we apply what we learn? A taxonomy for far transfer. Psychological Bulletin, 128, 612-637.