What is transfer?

Instructors teach students hoping that students learn something and that they can use their newly acquired knowledge in different contexts. Perhaps students will use the knowledge to solve a new problem in their next course or even after they graduate from school. There isn’t much point in learning if they use the knowledge only for one particular problem.  

When students learn something and apply that knowledge in different contexts, we can say that transfer of knowledge happened. The degree of transfer can vary; transferring the knowledge in a similar context is called near transfer and transferring in a totally different situation is called far transfer (1).

As we all know, compared to simply recalling information, transfer is much harder, especially far transfer. But why is that?

Why is transfer hard?

Transfer is hard because to apply the new knowledge or information to different contexts, you first need to identify its abstract underlying structure, not just the new concrete problem in front of you. Otherwise, the information or knowledge is not flexible and cannot be applied in different contexts (2). 

Our minds prefer concrete ideas, rather than abstract ideas. That is why when we explain abstract ideas, we often use concrete examples or analogies (2). We see many apples, oranges, and bananas in kids’ math questions even though those fruits have nothing to do with the deep underlying structure of the math question. Kids have concrete ideas of what those fruits represent and they can better relate to the math question. In my previous blog post, I used a driving analogy to explain the abstract concept of mastery since many people have had the experience of learning how to drive; they have concrete ideas about learning how to drive.

The fact that concrete examples or analogies help understanding can be explained by how understanding happens in our mind. When we try to understand something new, we do that based on what we already know about similar topics (2). We retrive knowledge that is related to new topics from long-term memory and integrate that background knowledge into new topics to help us understand the new information. As Willingham said in his book Why don’t children like school?,  “Understanding is Remembering in Disguise (3).” 

Most of what we know is concrete. As soon as we hear or read something, our mind starts looking in our long-term memory for relevant concrete ideas that help us make sense of the new information. This process of looking for relevant concrete information helps us understand the problem quickly and easily. At the same time, however, the very same process makes it harder for us to see the underlying abstract structure of the problem and this hinders the knowledge transfer (2).

How can you increase the odds of transfer?

Then how can instructors increase the likelihood of knowledge transfer for students?

One effective way to promote transfer is practice: a lot of it. By having a lot of practice solving problems that have the same underlying structure, students will become capable of identifying the underlying deep structure of problems even though the problems might have different surface structures. So when students see problems that look new to them on the surface, they will likely be able to solve the problems since they have worked on similar problems before (4). 

I have written about practice in a couple of my previous blog posts: one in the mastery post and the other in retrieval practice post. 

In the mastery post, I explained that for students to master something, they need a sufficient quantity of high quality practice, that is, deliberate practice that targets specific goals combined with specific feedback. Instructors cannot expect students to be able to transfer the newly acquired skills and knowledge to different contexts automatically. As in the case of learning how to drive, for the transfer of learning to happen, students need sufficient opportunities to practice those skills in various conditions and contexts. 

In the retrieval practice post, I said that retrieval practice not only makes the factual and procedural knowledge more durable so that you can retrieve it later, but also flexible so that you can use it in new contexts. Research shows that retrieval practice actually improves the likelihood of transfer (1)(5). 

In particular, these are the examples of retrieval practice that are proven to be effective for knowledge transfer. 

  1. A variety of questions: Use multiple formats and complexity. Include questions that ask for both basic and advanced knowledge, and use a variety of formats (1). 
  2. Broad retrieval practice: Ask retrieve practice that requires students to retrieve broadly such as braindumps. This kind of practice allows students to think about the material from multiple angles (1).
  3. Feedback: Provide feedback after retrieval practice. According to Pan, S.C. and Agarwal, P.K., explanatory and detailed feedback is especially effective for broad retrieval questions (1).  
  4. Elaborative Interrogation: Ask retrieval practice questions that focus more on why and how rather than just the what of the materials (1).
  5. Spacing: Space out the retrieval practice rather than massed practice a.k.a. cramming (2). For example, if instructors plan to spend 50 minutes in retrieval practice every 2 weeks, it is more effective to spend 5 minutes every day over 2 weeks rather than 50 minutes at once.
  6. Interleaving: Ask related, but dissimilar questions in one study session. That way, students first need to identify the underlying principles or structures before solving the problems (6).

To sum up, transfer of knowledge does occur. However, it does not happen easily. To increase the odds of transfer, students need a lot of practice. Unfortunately, there is no shortcut for knowledge transfer.


  1. Pan, S., Agarwal, P. (2018). Retrieval practice and transfer of learning: Fostering students’ application of knowledge. US SanDiego, NSF. http://pdf.retrievalpractice.org/TransferGuide.pdf
  2. Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why don’t students like school?  San Francisco, Jossey-Bass. 67-80.
  3. Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why don’t students like school?  San Francisco, Jossey-Bass. 68
  4. Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why don’t students like school?  San Francisco, Jossey-Bass. 91-94
  5. Roediger, H.L, Putnam, A.L, Smith, M.A. (2011). Ten benefits of testing and their applications to education practice. Psychology of Learning and Motivation, 55, 14-17.
  6. Brown, P., Roediger, H. L., McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick : the science of successful learning. Cambridge, Massachusetts : The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 4.

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