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The big idea here is Transferring knowledge is a continuum.  We need to start on the near end and slowly move outward towards the far end.  Educators and learners too often neglect the importance of the near end of transfer practice.  
What is Transfer of Knowledge?
Transfer is taking an idea or concept we have already learned in one context, and trying to apply that knowledge in another situation or context.  
Transfer highly dependent on two things:  
  • Background knowledge
  • What connections are or need to be made 
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Near vs. Far

Transfer is generally discussed as Near vs. Far transfer. 

Near Transfer:  this is the transfer of information to similar contexts.

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Far Transfer:  is transferring information to novel or different contexts.

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A Continuum

Transferring Knowledge should more accurately be thought of as a continuum.  The beginning of the transfer continuum is the initial learning of something and you slowly build out farther and farther through new knowledge, new connections, and varied experiences.  

When we first learn a new concept, we need to start at the near end of the learning transfer continuum.   This looks like replication and repetition.    This learning generally needs to be focused, and explicit.     

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As we gain a solid understanding of the knowledge or concept, we try to apply it to more distant applications.  At first these applications are still very similar.   Background knowledge needs to be monitored and direct connections between the initial learning and the new context needs to be made explicit.  Students may be able to make connections on their own, but if their background knowledge is insufficient, or their experiences vary too much this could interrupt the transfer.  

Ex. We show the problem 2+3 = 5.  Now we transfer this to a more real life problem of 2 apples + 3 apples.  If a student's background knowledge is insufficient, like they don't know what "apples" are, this is enough to block the transfer of this skill.  

The further we move from the original context the further the transfer.  This involves ever increasing dependence on the right connections and the right background knowledge being in place.  Teachers need to increasingly focus their teaching on pointing out what connections need to be made and what background knowledge is necessary.  

Near to Far

Here is one way we can think about starting with near transfer and how it might move towards far transfer. 

  • Present and example with an explanation of a concept.  

  • Activate and connect previous knowledge that might help. 

  • Have students replicate replicate work first.  This provides a good chance for easy success or highlights what they are still missing.     

  • Similar but different - Varying context slightly.    Provide practice problems for students that are very similar to the context in which you presented the new information, but only varies slightly.  This is important for three reasons: 

    • 1.  This builds students confidence. 

    • 2. Provides recall and repetition for helping to form solid connections to the information.   

    • 3. Gives the educator and learner a chance to really find any missing background knowledge or misunderstandings that might still exist.   

  • Close Spacing recall.  Think of this as the next day or the same week recall activities. 

  • Creation.  Have students create a problem of their own and solve it.   

  • Varying context more broadly.  Once the students have a solid understanding of the learning, present multiple different contexts to them while making sure direct connections are made by the students or by the teacher.

  • Spacing over longer periods of time.  Spiral back to the information over weeks or months. 


Transfer connects to many other ideas I talk about on this site.   Here are a few to think about: 


Abstract vs. Concrete ideas.


Focused vs. Diffuse thinking.

Schema:  Assimilation vs Accommodation

If you want to learn more about Knowledge Transfer:

References I used for this page: 

Cooper, Graham, and John Sweller. "Effects of Schema Acquisition and Rule Automation on Mathematical Problem-Solving Transfer." Journal of Educational Psychology 79, no. 4 (1987): 347.
Ischebeck, A., L. Zamarian, M. Schocke, and M. Delazer. "Flexible Transfer of Knowledge in Mental Arithmetic--an FMRI Study." NeuroImage 44, no. 3 (Feb 1 2009): 1103-12.
Interdomain transfer between isomorphic topics in algebra and physics. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 15:153-166.
Carpenter, S. K. (2012). Testing Enhances the Transfer of Learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(5), 279–283.
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