Learning transfer refers to the degree to which an individual applies previously learned knowledge and skills to new situations. It is the primary reason for formal learning interventions—like courses, as well as informal interventions—explaining how to perform a task at a meeting.
Near and Far Transfer
All types of transfer are not equal. Near transfer occurs when a new situation resembles the situation in which the skill or knowledge was learned. When a technician learns to replace a motherboard in a desktop computer, this skill will be transferable to replacing other circuit boards in the computer. In near transfer, the application of prior learning is likely because the situations are similar. Near transfer knowledge is usually repetitive, such as tasks that reproduce a process or procedure.
The more difficult type of transfer occurs when the learning situation and the new situation are dissimilar. This is known as far transfer, which may involve applying principles, implementing strategies and using judgement to solve problems. For example, after a manager attends a course on dealing with difficult employees, he or she may still not have the skills to handle certain unpredictable situations, such as workplace violence.
Barriers to Learning Transfer
Researchers who study learning transfer say there are many barriers to the application of prior learning to new and different situations. Becoming aware of these barriers can help us understand why it is difficult to design successful learning experiences and help us to overcome the obstacles. Barriers to transfer do not just occur when a person attempts to apply new knowledge and skills in the workplace. They can occur before, during and after a learning intervention (Thomas, 2007). Let’s look at some key barriers to learning transfer in each of these time frames.
- Lack of motivation. When a person has no interest in the content or feels it is a waste of time, he or she will have trouble learning. This is all too common in highly regulated industries where employees are required to take compliance training. It is also common in organizations with a “command and control” philosophy, where training requirements are dictated from the top down. This is why empathy for the audience is a key principle of design thinking. Through empathy we may find the answer to the “what’s in it for me?” question and build on that to try to get learners engaged. See 30 Ways to Motivate Adult Learners.
- Apprehension/lack of confidence. Learners may have fears about their abilities to learn a new skill or tackle a new subject. Defeatist and anxiety-producing emotions are counterproductive to learning. One study investigated the predictive factors for successfully learning how to program a computer. Researchers found that level of comfort was the most reliable factor for predicting success or failure (Wilson & Shrock, 2001).
- Lack of prerequisite knowledge. Although this may be too obvious to list, a lack of foundation knowledge or skills make it difficult to comprehend and retain new information. There is no network of knowledge for analogical thinking nor for connecting new knowledge. Ideally, a learning experience will have many touch points, including a way to indicate the required prerequisites as well as varied forms of remediation and support.
- No opportunities for retrieval practice. Retrieval-based learning involves repeatedly recalling information across multiple sessions during and after a learning experience. This strategy appears to be a key factor for retention and transfer. A simple example is the use of flashcards to remember factual information, such as when healthcare workers memorize medical abbreviations. A more complex context is learning principles and strategies for solving unique problems. Then, role plays and simulations provide opportunities for retrieval practice. See this article to learn more about retrieval practice.
- Negative transfer or interference. Negative transfer occurs when previous experience interferes with learning something new. For example, when a person has learned to drive on one side of the road this skill may interfere with learning to drive on the other side of the road. Or when a person has recently learned French, this knowledge may interfere with learning German. Overcoming interference requires metacognitive strategies and sufficient practice.
- Failure to design for transfer. The failure to design learning experiences that integrate across the boundaries of formal learning and into the workplace is a major barrier to transfer. Complex learning requires some type of systematic follow-up support in the form of discussion, coaching, observation and feedback, scaffolding and performance support, to name a few.
- Lack of opportunity to practice the transfer. Similar to the lack of opportunities for retrieval practice during a learning experience, this principle must be singled out as a barrier to transfer after a learning event. Without opportunities to practice knowledge and skills in new settings, an individual will have no way to modify his or her existing schema (theoretical network-like structures for organizing information). Not only is practice important, but it should occur in non-repetitive and unpredictable situations.
Additional Solutions for Overcoming Barriers
Please see these articles on ways to enhance learning transfer:
- How To Increase Learning Transfer
- How Your Workplace Can Support Learning Transfer
- The Power of Retrieval Practice for Learning
- eLearning For Soft Skills: What works?
- Bouzguenda, K. Enablers and Inhibitors of Learning Transfer from Theory to Practice in Schneider, K. (Ed), Transfer of Learning in Organizations. Springer, 2014.
- Kaiser, L., Kaminski, K., and Foley, J. Learning Transfer in Adult Education: New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education. Wiley, 2013.
- Leberman, S., McDonald, L., Doyle, S. The Transfer of Learning: Participants’ Perspectives of Adult Education and Training. Gower Publishing, Ltd., 2006
- Thomas, E. Thoughtful Planning Fosters Learning Transfer. Adult Learning 18(3-4), 4-8.
- Wilson, B. C., & Shrock, S. Contributing to success in an introductory computer science course: A study of twelve factors. Proceedings of the Thirty-Second SIGCSE Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education. March, 2001.