Posted by Sean Paddy on Jun 19, 2016
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. Let’s look at some key barriers to learning transfer in each of these time frames.
Before Learning
  • 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.
  • 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.
During Learning
  • 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.
  • 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.
After Learning
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.
How To Increase Learning Transfer

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%.
  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. 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. 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. 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). In these situations, learning experience designers can place themselves in the role of community manager.
Get Your Audience Pumped
Motivation is the force that drives people to fulfill a need. If you can tap into a learner’s intrinsic motivation—where an individual is rewarded by the learning itself or an internal goal—you’ve got it made. But in both workplace and academic environments, people are often unmotivated because they are required to take courses in which they have no interest.
That puts designers and developers of learning products in a tough position. We need to work hard at creating experiences that get audiences engaged and motivated. Here are some strategies you can use to motivate adult learners, based on their characteristics.
  1. Create useful and relevant learning experiences. Adult learners appreciate immediate relevancy. It’s a great incentive when training is immediately valuable and helpful to one’s work or personal life.
  2. Focus on practical knowledge and skills. Related to the strategy above, try to concentrate on workplace (or real life) performance, rather than on extraneous facts and theories.
  3. Provide options. Adults usually like choices that promote self-direction. When possible, allow learners to choose the courses they will take within a curriculum or subject category. Even if you provide a suggested order, allow learners to take lessons in a sequence that works for them.
  4. Facilitate exploration. Provide resources, references, videos and podcasts to create an ideal environment for personal exploration. Adults have a breadth of experience. Exploration provides an opportunity to construct knowledge in a way that is meaningful for each learner.
  5. Build community through social technologies for learning. Implement a social media strategy as part of a learning experience. Use social networking applications and services to build groups with a common interest or goal. Sharing knowledge and experience through informal networks is a motivating and natural way to learn.
  6. Accommodate group interactions. Provide opportunities for group discussion, collaboration and group problem solving.
  7. Enable testing out. Allow learners to test out of courses for which they know the content.
  8. Create active learning. As a general rule, most learners are motivated by engaging and active learning events over passive ones. You’ll find specific strategies for making learning active in this list.
  9. Put a face on it. When it fits with your goals, let learners know that there is a real person behind an online learning course. Provide opportunities for this expert to interact with the audience through live or online question and answer sessions.
  10. Challenge through games; entice with immersive environments. When your audience members are involved in the challenge of a game or focused on solving problems in a virtual environment, learning becomes an incidental aspect of winning or finding solutions. Although this usually requires a higher budget than other strategies, look around for pre-programmed games that work with your tool set.
  11. Use a witty character. Humor is a great way to keep learners motivated. Use humorous characters that reflect familiar situations and personalities to arouse interest.
  12. Accommodate busy schedules. Create learning experiences that can be mastered in small segments of time. Make it easy for learners to access individual learning objects for just-in-time answers.
  13. Chunk information. Another reason for organizing information into small chunks is to build confidence, which is motivating. Small bits of information are easier to process, comprehend and retain than large chunks.
  14. Add a dose of suspense. Don’t give away everything at first. Make learners want to find out more by starting out with a suspenseful scenario that learners need to solve. Mystery is a great motivator.
  15. Use creative treatments. Many online courses can be tied to a theme, a dramatic presentation, a compelling narrative or an unusual metaphor that can be carried through the instruction. This adds novelty and interest, which are  motivating forces in learning.
  16. Individualize the learning. During interactive events, use context-sensitive feedback for a more accurate response to the learner’s input. Even better is if you can provide multiple paths through a course so that learners are guided by the choices they make. This type of individualization can help a person build accurate knowledge structures, which improves competence and confidence.
  17. Accommodate individual interests and career goals. Each learner is a unique individual with his or her own goals. Empowering a person to work toward these goals through training is a powerful incentive to learn.
  18. Stimulate the mind. Ask thought-provoking questions and offer problems that don’t have one right answer. Challenge learners to think about exceptions to a rule or to question conventional wisdom. Learners appreciate it when you respect their intelligence.
  19. Let learning occur through mistakes. In our everyday life, we learn from our mistakes. We can simulate this in structured learning experiences by offering context-sensitive feedback during games, reviews and tests.
  20. Offer just-in-time resources: No one can retain all the content in a course. Provide learners with job aids, online support systems, like wikis and micro-blogging technologies to get just-in-time support in the workplace.
  21. Get emotional. When you tap into the emotional dimension of your audience, you can get them hooked and engaged. Add realistic stories, refer to an individual’s cherished memories or say something controversial. Do what it takes to get the audience emotionally involved.
  22. Encourage mastery learning. Help learners gain confidence and competence as they learn. Make sure courses are at the right level for each learner. Provide opportunities for people to retake courses until they have mastered the content. Provide real world practice activities. Ensure remediation presents content in a new way.
  23. Make it visually compelling. It may be hard to make a course look like it was produced by 3D experts, but there are low-budget ways to make it aesthetically appealing. People are hard-wired for pictures, so use visuals to motivate your audience.
  24. Simulate the workplace. Take your cues from the workplace. Uncover the issues or difficulties your audience is experiencing and base scenarios and practice activities on real-world experience. This makes learning meaningful.
  25. Respect the audience. Let your audience know why it’s important to take a particular course. Avoid a cynical or condescending tone and honor the learners. You may be the only advocate they have in this big world.
  26. Get learners to create graphic organizers. Encourage learners to visually represent the content they are learning. This can keep them engaged and help them structure their new knowledge for easy retrieval in the future.
  27. Use good design principles. Make sure your online courses are legible by using a font that can be read by adults of all ages. Ensure graphical text can be easily read too. Keep the screen clear from clutter. It’s demotivating to struggle through a course because of legibility issues.
  28. Ask for feedback. Find a way to let your audience contribute to a course. Let them know they can provide feedback to help you improve it. This might help some learners buy in to the program.
  29. Present the benefits. Sometimes motivating learners is as simple as presenting the benefits of a course. “This course will help you become more productive with your time, probably saving you 20 minutes every day. In one year, that adds up to 121 hours!”
  30. Create an experience, not just a course. What can you do to make a course unforgettable? Create an online and offline learning experience. Market your course to the audience to create buzz, get buy-in from key people, throw a related event, incorporate sophisticated activities to enhance learning, provide personal support for those having difficulty and provide follow-up.

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.
by Connie Malamed
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