10 Ways to Improve Transfer of Learning

Whether you’re a student or working professional looking to keep your skills current, the importance of being able to transfer what you learn in one context to an entirely new one cannot be overstated. Of course, the goal of any learning or training is to eventually be able to apply it in real-world situations, but a PayScale survey released last year found that 60 percent of employers don’t believe recent graduates are well-prepared for their jobs.

One possible reason for this is that memory is context dependent, so transferring or recalling something that was learned in a classroom setting to a fast-paced work environment isn’t always easy.

Once you understand how to go about transferring your knowledge to new contexts, however, you could change jobs or even careers and still find ways to apply your prior knowledge to the situations and problems you might face in a new role.

With this in mind, here are some tips for taking what you learn in educational settings and applying it in the workplace and other areas of your life.

1. Focus on the relevance of what you’re learning

Research shows that when learning is relevant, students are able to connect what they’re learning to what they already know and build new neural connections and long-term memory storage.

So if you want your learning to be engaging and to be able to remember it in other contexts, it’s important to establish relevance early on. Think about how you might apply what you’re learning today in your future job or everyday life and then try to tie it to some of your short or long-term goals.
For instance, if one of your long-term goals is to land a job in IT, focusing on how your course will help you reach that goal can make even the most tedious study material seem more engaging, because you understand that it’s important to your future goals.

2. Take time to reflect and self-explain

Before you can transfer knowledge to new contexts, you need to understand the concept inside and out, which is why it’s important to take time for reflection and self-explanation. Research shows that self-explanation can help you to identify any incorrect assumptions, lead to a deeper understanding of the material, and ultimately promote knowledge transfer.

So when you’re learning about something that’s completely new to you, take a moment to think about how you would explain it in your own words, whether this means using simpler words that are easier for you to remember or finding a way to connect the new information to something you already know by using real-world examples.

3. Use a variety of learning media

Another way to facilitate the transfer of learning to new contexts is to use as many different learning media as possible, from text and imagery to video and audio.

Research shows that using pictures, narration, and text can help prevent your cognitive resources from becoming overloaded and improve learning transfer. One study found that learners who used relevant visuals were able to retain more information and scored higher on transfer tests than those who used only text. They also perceived the content as easier to learn when visuals were used.

Even if your course doesn’t have visuals or narration built into it, you can try to find ways to supplement what you’re learning by using a variety of educational resources such as YouTube and TED Talks or iTunes U, EdX, and Coursera.

4. Change things up as often as possible

It’s easy to get stuck in a rut with your learning by studying around the same time, in the same location, and using the same study strategies every day. But when you get used to constantly studying in the same way, it can be difficult to transfer the knowledge you acquire to new environments and situations.

Research shows that organising your learning in a more random way improves retention and transfer after (but not during) the training. So although studying in different environments and conditions may initially make it harder to remember what you’re learning, in the long run it will help you retain the information more effectively.

This concept is known as desirable difficulties, because although introducing certain difficulties into the learning process will initially feel uncomfortable, it also encourages a deeper processing of materials.

5. Identify any gaps in your knowledge

Without a complete understanding of the concept or information you’re learning, transferring it to new contexts will be more difficult. With this in mind, it’s important to identify any gaps in your knowledge and then work on strengthening your weaker areas.

One excellent way to do this is through practice testing, as you’ll be able to see exactly what types of questions you’re consistently getting wrong and what topics you have yet to master. Similarly, practice tests will also show you which topics you have already mastered, which allows you to focus on the areas that need the most work.

6. Establish clear learning goals

Establishing clear learning goals will give you a better understanding of what you’re trying to get out of your learning and how you might later transfer that knowledge and apply it in your work or personal life. If you know what the expected learning outcomes are, you’ll also be able to focus on the right material.

When setting learning goals, it’s better to be specific rather than general so you’ll be able to measure your progress as you go along, but make sure your goals are realistic too. For example, if you’re learning a new language, making it your goal to be fluent within one month is not very realistic. Making it your goal to learn the vocabulary and phrases necessary to go shopping or eat out at a restaurant is more doable, however.

7. Practise generalising

Generalising is the ability to transfer the knowledge or skills you gain in one setting to a new one. It’s all about seeing the bigger picture and looking for more widely applicable rules, ideas, or principles. For example, a child that learns to stack wooden blocks could generalise that skill and later use it to build more elaborate creations using Lego bricks.

So when studying a new topic or concept, think about your past lessons or experiences and look for patterns and relationships. You can then determine whether these generalisations can be supported by other evidence you know of.

8. Make your learning social

If much of your learning happens when you’re alone, it can help to have a chance to discuss it with others. This gives you the opportunity to explain what you’re learning in your own words and apply your knowledge to new situations. Research also shows that collaborative learning promotes engagement and benefits long-term retention.

Even if you’re not learning on the job or in a group setting, you can try online learning tools like Twitter, Blackboard, Edmodo, Quora, and others.

9. Use analogies and metaphors

Analogies and metaphors are great for drawing on your prior knowledge or experience and making associations between seemingly unrelated ideas. So when learning something new and trying to connect it to something you already know, it can help to think of appropriate analogies or metaphors.

Analogies compare two things and show how they are similar, such as “It was as light as a feather” or “He was solid as a rock.” A metaphor is a figure of speech that describes something in a way that isn’t literally true but helps to explain an idea or make a stronger impact, such as “Love is a battlefield.”

10. Find daily opportunities to apply what you’ve learned

Applying what you’ve learned at school to real-world problems takes a lot of practice, so it’s important to look for opportunities to apply what you’re learning in your everyday life.

For example, if you have been studying a new language, make a conscious effort to remember the foreign names of different objects around the house when you get up in the morning. If you just attended a customer service training course, try to employ one of the new strategies you learned about when dealing with customers on your first day back at work.

Not sure how to start applying what you have learned in your job or everyday life? Go back and check your learning goals to remind yourself of what you set out to learn.


Marianne Stenger is a freelance journalist with over four years of experience in writing for publications, online resources and blogs in the education industry. She believes that online education is the way of the future and is passionate about promoting online learning tools and the use of new technologies in the classroom.

You can find her on Google+ , twitter and by email at marianne.stenger @ oc.edu.au.

3 Responses

  1. Thank you. Some very helpful comments.

  2. Miri says:

    This is very informative, thank you. I noticed you put the focus on the learner, not the teacher, which means in order to really learn something the learner must be proactive and can’t expect the teacher to do it all for them. This is the main point of learning, isn’t it?
    Again thanks. Will make sure my students become aware of these wonderful ideas.

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