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Why is this important?

Imagine walking into a room and not knowing what the screen, keyboard, and mouse are, or even the table and chair. Without a useful framework of reference or prior experience, we would be trying to learn almost everything for the first time.

Our brains have about 100 billion neurons. When learning takes place, the new information and experience light up neurons, which then fire with other neurons that have previous related knowledge (brain researchers like to say “neurons that fire together wire together”). When this occurs, knowledge becomes transferred from one learning context to another. As instructors, we can be guided by this principle of transfer.

  • In their book, How Learning Works, Susan Ambrose and her colleagues write that learning is helped when previous knowledge is “activated, sufficient, appropriate, and accurate” (14). For English speaker, learning the French word “bizarre” transfers easily, for example, because English has that same word.
  • On the other hand, learning is hindered when previous knowledge is “inactive, insufficient, inappropriate, or inaccurate” (14). Learning how to say, “I’m full” in French does not transfer well from knowledge of English, because the direct translation from English results in “Je suis pleine,” meaning, “I’m pregnant” (as an animal is pregnant).

A teacher can help students with transfer by using in-class activities and discussions to find the skills and ideas students already possess that connect to the new material introduced. Instructors can also glean from students what previous knowledge may lead to misconceptions and mistakes. If students are struggling with skills or information they should already know, it may be because students cannot yet transfer and combine the learning from the specific context of another class.

Try these strategies:

  • Create an interactive environment. Probe the existing knowledge of your students while connecting this knowledge to (or contrasting it with) the new material. Learning Snapshots are excellent tools for this, starting with the Background Knowledge Assessment. Also, try lesson planning using the KWL technique. 
  • Use visual tools to illustrate concepts and encourage students to create concept maps. 
  • Learning will not transfer if it doesn’t stick in the first place, so use sticky strategies (part 1part 2 ) to help students retain the information. 
  • Change or broaden contexts for the skills and information whenever possible. If this is not possible with assignments, discuss how the new knowledge and skills could be applied in future contexts beyond the current class. 
  • Teaching for transfer is interconnected to teaching students how to learn. The more students are active and conscious of their own learning process, the more they can facilitate transfer of any skill or idea.

Learn more

  • Ambrose, Susan A., Bridges, Michael W., DiPietro, Michele, Lovett, Marsha C., and Marie K. Norman. How Learning Works: 7 Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 2010. Print.
  • From Purdue, Transfer of Learning
  • From Harvard, Ten Tools for Teaching for Transfer

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