Approaches to Transfer of Learning and Educational Implications


When pupils go to school, we assume that what they learn there will be useful in other school activities and for their day-to-day lives.

We expect children to transfer what they learn in one school subject to another. For example, in learning mathematics, we expect the children to use the knowledge they’re in the science subjects such as physics, chemistry, and biology.

We also expect the children to use their knowledge of mathematics to solve simple daily transactions in buying and selling etc. the transfer that occurs in the above example is called lateral transfer.

When pupils are taught how to read in primary schools, it is expected that such children will be able to use the reading skills throughout their school life.

This is vertical transfer. It is expected that what children are taught at school will be useful to them when they leave school.

Types of transfer

There are two types of transfer viz;

Positive transfer

We have positive transfer when what is learned in one situation helps one’s performance in another situation. When the knowledge or skills gained in learning a subject help learn a second subject, a positive transfer is said to occur.

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Negative transfer

We have negative transfer when what is learned in one situation hinders or inhibits one’s performance in another situation. That is, when what was previously learned hinders new learning, there is negative transfer.

An example of negative transfer in the classroom is when the pupils are taught a particular writing style or a particular method of multiplication or division by certain teachers and find themselves in problems when different teachers introduce new methods to them.

Factors that aid positive transfer

The similarity between the two subjects

For the positive transfer to occur, there should be some common or similar elements in both the old and new subjects to be learned. The positive transfer will result when similar responses are required by similar or different stimuli.

The ability of the students to perceive or detect similarities, between two subjects

If the learner can detect the similarities between two subjects that are learned, then a positive transfer of learning will occur. This is dependent on the intelligence and readiness of the learner involved. The more intelligent the learner, the easier for him to perceive similarities.

Mastery of the first subject taught

If the student had a good mastery of the first subject, he will be able to transfer what was learned there to a new subject area. The more familiar the learner is with the first subject the greater will be the amount of transfer.

Willingness to apply acquired knowledge in a new situation

For the positive transfer to occur, the learner should be interested and willing to apply the relevant knowledge and skills acquired in one subject to another subject where it is needed.

The goal is set by the learner.

The goal set by the learner when learning the material will help positive transfer to occur. If the goal is to be able to apply the knowledge gained in one subject to another subject then the positive transfer will occur readily.

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The condition of the learner

The condition of the learner during the initial contact with learning material can determine whether a positive transfer will occur or not. When the learner is in a comfortable disposition during the initial contact with the learning material he will be more interested in learning and positive transfer will occur.

The attitude of the teacher

The way the teacher handles the subject, the methods used, and the atmosphere created in the class all can decide whether a transfer will occur or not.

One factor that aids transfer is over-learning.

The first subject should be thoroughly mastered before there can be a positive transfer to the second subject. There should be little time interval for the first subject to settle before the next subject is learned to avoid inhibition.

How teachers can apply transfer of learning in the classroom

 Relate your teaching to other subjects.

Teachers can help transfer to take place by relating what they teach to other subjects or by teaching pupils general rules. For instance, when teaching the properties of bacteria, the teacher can relate the facts to the need for boiling drinking water.

A more important point is for the teacher to help the pupils to find out themselves how the knowledge or skill gained in one subject can be transferred to other subjects. The teacher can do this by ensuring that the student masters thoroughly the first subject.

 Help students develop the right learning.

Students can also be helped to develop the right learning set so that instead of the teacher telling them how one subject applies to another, they can be directed to state how the first subject relates to the present learning.

For instance, the teacher can ask the student a question such as, ”Do you see any connection between the subject learned last week and this subject?”

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Help students gain insights into subjects’ rules and concepts.

The teacher can also help the students in gaining insights into the rules, principles, and concepts in the subject they learn. This can aid the transfer of learning.

When students are given several practices in transfer, they will be able to give various examples of other ways in which the principles, rules, and concepts learned can be applied. By giving students projects they will be able to see the connection between the different subjects.

In the classroom situation, the negative transfer can be prevented if the teacher points out to the students early enough the differences between two situations that appear similar in fact, one situation requires different responses from the first. This will prevent false generalization.

Prevent the habit of negative transfer.

Habit interference which gives rise to negative transfer can also be prevented if the teacher points out to the students before they start learning a new activity. The habit can cause interference and warn them against using it.

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