When you are about to get surgery or your airplane is preparing for take off, don’t you desperately hope the surgeon or pilot had training that transfers to the real world? With that same passion, we should try to ensure the training we design and develop is transferable to the workplace or to authentic life situations.
Learning transfer refers to acquiring knowledge or skills in one context that enhances a person’s performance in another context. This is known as positive transfer.
According to educational researchers, a person must be sufficiently engaged in a learning experience in order to correct, modify and refine his or her existing knowledge structures to promote transfer of learning. Here I’ve sifted through some of the research to find strategies we can use to meet this goal.
1. Provide opportunity for reflection and self-explanation
Reflection strategies encourage people to expand on what they are learning and to identify where they have deficiencies in order to correct them. Metacognitive strategies like these encourage people to be aware of their own thinking as they are learning.
To implement this approach, instruct learners to study in a meaningful way so they monitor their comprehension of the content. Provide prompts where learners must give reasons for their decisions or use a reflection questionnaire. Researchers used this approach in simulated aviation training to teach a safety principle and got the highest transfer rates using self-explanation. Still, transfer was less than 70%. (Molesworth et al.)
2. Vary modalities
Adding voice narration to complex simulations—rather than using textual explanations—can improve learning transfer. According to multimedia learning theory, balancing the presentation of material across both visual and verbal channels prevents a learner’s cognitive resources from being overloaded.
In one study, participants viewed a complex computer-network training simulation. The modality of the tutorial (text, narration or narration plus text) was varied between subjects and then learning transfer was measured in a timed activity transfer test. Participants who received the voice-only tutorial performed better on the transfer task compared with students who received the text tutorial. (Mayrath et al.) Keep in mind that narration-only was most effective when explaining an animated and complex simulation. Text with narration might be effective in other contexts.
3. Use a random practice schedule
Research shows that sequencing practice tasks in a random way can increase retention and transfer after but not during training. A typical instructional design pattern would be to present practice material sequenced in separate blocks (practice task 1, practice task 2, practice task 3 etc.). Although this improves performance during training, it is not as effective as using a mixed practice when it comes to a post-test and on-the-job transfer.
One study examined critical thinking and predictive judgment skills in scenario-based exercises. Researchers found that increasing the interference between training tasks by using random sequencing is a way to provide exposure to many different types of problems. (Helsdingen et al.) Most likely, this provides a more realistic simulation of the types of critical thinking and quick judgments required of emergency, military and management jobs.
4. Use relevant visuals rather than text alone
Many studies demonstrate that learning is enhanced with explanatory pictures. Visuals can decrease cognitive load and improve retention and transfer. To benefit from this effect, provide opportunities for learners to attend to the pictures and to integrate visual information with the narration or text. Often, explicit instructions to examine the visuals are helpful.
In one study, learners who took an eLearning course that included relevant visuals achieved higher retention and learning transfer scores than those whose course did not include pictures. In addition, those who saw visuals perceived the content as less difficult. (Schwamborn et al.) Although this particular study used high school students as participants, it’s safe to say that relevant visuals enhance learning for all age groups.
5. Enhance social learning at work
In many careers, the work itself is a learning experience. Learning transfer and work become one process as the individual continuously acquires knowledge and applies it. For these individuals, learning transfer is enhanced and improved through social learning. As workers discuss and problem solve, they apply their knowledge to new situations.
In a study that analyzed the work practices of design engineers and product developers, researchers found that these professionals learn through shared problem solving and shared practices as well as from the experiences and mistakes of others. To implement this approach, create a community of practice with an open atmosphere for discussion (whether online or in person). (Colin) In these situations, learning experience designers can place themselves in the role of community manager.
Apparent changes in performance during training are not necessarily indicative of improved performance on the job. Learning transfer is defined as the ability to apply what has been learned to novel situations and tasks. Appropriate use of any of the five strategies above should improve transfer of learning. To understand what works and what doesn’t, ensure that post-training tests measure application of knowledge and skills to new situations rather than the recall of facts alone. Also observe learners on the job or discuss the effects of training with supervisors to see what improves performance.
- Colin, Kaija. Connecting Work and Learning in Industrial Design and Development in Towards Integration of Work and Learning.
- Haskell, Robert. Transfer of Learning.
- Helsdingen et al. The Effects of Practice Schedule and Critical Thinking Prompts on Learning and Transfer of a Complex Judgment Task, Journal of Educational Psychology 103 (2011) 383–398.
- Mayrath et al. Varying Tutorial Modality and Interface Restriction to Maximize Transfer in a Complex Simulation Environment, Journal of Educational Psychology 103 (2011) 257–268.
- Molesworth et al. Promoting learning, memory, and transfer in a time-constrained, high hazard environment, Accident Analysis and Prevention 43 (2011) 932–938.
- Schwamborn et al. Cognitive load and instructionally supported learning with provided and learner-generated visualizations, Computers in Human Behavior 27 (2011) 89–93.
Connie Malamed says
Nice! Thanks for the summary of what your research found, Ruth. And thanks very much for the references. I hope to look them up next time I find a few minutes.
Ruth Solomon says
In 2016, I wrote my Masters (Human Resource Development) thesis on transfer. I love the subject and I have been in the T & D field for about 35 years. Recently, I have been getting my feet wet in elearning. My research found that behavioral modeling, error-based learning, a realistic training environment, and goal setting had a strong and reliable relationship with transfer of training (Blume et al., 2009; Brown et al., 2013; Grossman & Salas, 2011; Pineda-Herrero et al., 2012).
I have often wondered how this research plays out in elearning. Thanks for the excellent article and references.
Connie Malamed says
Thanks for the link, Krystal.
Krystal L says
Great post! It was very helpful. There’s a recent white paper written by Brandon Hall Research that covers the topic of different learning modalities (mentioned in point 2 of your blog) that you may find helpful. Check it out here: