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  • Scott Murphey

Transfer - Near and Far: An important idea for all teachers to understand.

Updated: Nov 25, 2020

I wrote this a while ago as a PD for some teachers at my school.

What teachers should know:

What is Transfer?: In education Transfer of learning or transfer of knowledge or just "transfer" refers to learning in one context and applying it to another, i.e. the capacity to apply acquired knowledge and skills to new situations.

Taken from:

Teachers need to be vigilant about how they ask kids to use knowledge. It is actually ok and very normal for kids to fail at seemingly simple transfer tasks. When giving assessments, teachers should focus on students being able to successfully answer the questions in the way we taught it.

  • Transfer doesn't happen very often or very easily (especially for novices).

  • Near Transfer (easier / similar) = Transfer to very similar concepts.

  • Far Transfer (harder / less similar) = Transfer to less similar concepts.

  • Highly dependent on schemata and background knowledge.

  • More likely if students have lots of factual knowledge along with procedural knowledge in a certain area.

In order to be able to do a far transfer of knowledge, we need to have a lot of previous knowledge about other things. Situational, experiential, or procedural knowledge.

I think about it like this. If I travel to a place that is foreign to me, for example Kenya. I am going to struggle because it is a new place. If I leave and come back to Kenya again I am transferring that knowledge in a near/similar way. I will be able to use what I learned before to help me navigate Kenya. Although I would still have problems. As I return to Kenya each time, I would get better and better going there. If I were then to travel to a new exotic place like China, most of the information from Kenya would not help me. I would be stuck all over again, becasue even though those places both were new there were just too many other differences because that overwhelmed me. The transfer of the understandings from Kenya would be too far. similarities

Now let's say I become a prolific traveler and I am traveling to multiple countries multiple times a year. I do this for years. I will start to build experiential and procedural knowledge about new places. I will more easily see simliarities and be able to navigate totally new places in much easier ways. Even though it might be much different I can transfer knowledge farther because I have this other knowledge of traveling and navigating new places built up inside me that allow me to focus on more important ideas.

It is just like this in schools. In a very simplistic way, if I teach a child 2+3 = 5. Well, my frist near transfer is for them to tell me 2 + 3 = 5. Every step away from that is further and further for that child to transfer. 3 + 2 = 5.. I have now switched the numbers, does that mean something? As I child I will at least pause at this and wonder. 5 = 2 + 3. Wait not the whole thing is backward? Can they do this? Not to mention at this point for many kids they don't have "number sense" we are really just getting them to memorize. Not to mention if I put it in terms of pictures, or god forbid a word problem.

Chole has 2 apples and Abdullah has 3. How many apples do they have altogether? This is a very far transfer, because the reading component can overwhelm students.

In classrooms we should be very careful about how we summatively and formatively assess kids' knowledge. If I want to know if a child can do something like answer a math problem, the first step would be to assess them on a problem you have already done. If they cannot do that, then obviously they won't be able to do a different version of it. If you do give alternative problems for them to do, be careful about the fact that you are asking kids to use other knowledge, focus, and processing that is taking away from their ability to focus on the specific concept you are trying to get them to show.

A few articles I read to get this information are below.

Unfortunately, comprehensive literature reviews reveal that students sometimes transfer solution strategies from one situation to another, but they often do not unless they are given a lot of scaffolding and hints.

Barnett & Ceci, 2002; Brown, Collins, & Duguid,1989;Detterman, 1993;Dalomon & Perkins, 1989; Singly & Anderson, 1989.

Transfer is more likely to occur if students can partially decontextualize skills and develop conditional knowledge about the application. Transfer is likely if learners cast their knowledge in the form of principles and also develop a conceptual understanding of procedures and strategies. Furthermore, transfer is enhanced when students (a) have an accurate conception of the learning process and (b) approach their learning in a mindful way (growth mindset). Finally, transfer is more likely in near transfer situations as opposed to far transfer situations. *** (There is lots of discussion about near and far transfer and what that means and how background knowledge and schema affect them).

Butler, A.C. (2010). "Repeated testing produces superior transfer of learning relative to repeated studying". Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition. 36 (5): 1118–1133.

Students complete problems that have similar structures, but different surface features. This allows them to identify relevant and irrelevant information and to transfer knowledge to different situations and settings.

Brabeck, M., Jeffrey, J. and Fry, S. (2017). Practice for knowledge acquisition (not drill and kill): Designing activities with the goal of transferring knowledge. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from k12/practice-acquisition.aspx

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