BOX 4.1
Reconceptualizations of the Concept of Transfer

Proposals to reconceptualize the transfer construct are making an important contribution toward advancing theory and research. An analysis of the literature shows that traditionally transfer was very narrowly conceived as the independent and immediate application of knowledge and skills acquired in one situation to another. Accordingly, narrow criteria of successful transfer were adopted. Bransford and Schwartz (1999) called this narrow definition the direct-application theory of transfer. In this framework, the key question is, Can people apply something they learned directly and independently to a new setting? A typical characteristic of this approach to transfer is that the final transfer task (i.e., the experimental task that is used to test whether transfer has taken place) takes the form of sequestered problem solving. That is, while solving the transfer task, subjects do not get opportunities to invoke support from other resources, such as texts or colleagues, or to try things out, receive feedback, or revise their work.

As an alternative to this view, Bransford and Schwartz proposed a broader perspective emphasizing preparation for future learning (PFL) as the major aspect of transfer. Under this framework, the focus in assessing transfer is on subjects’ abilities to learn in novel, resource-rich contexts. This view is much more in line with the now-prevailing notion of learning as an active and constructive process, but emphasizes, in addition, the active nature of transfer itself. Indeed, in this approach a novel context is not conceived as just “given”; using one’s prior knowledge and the available resources, one can modify the situation and its perception. For instance, confronted with a fellow learner’s perspective about a problem situation, one can revise one’s own perception of the problem. In this respect, Bransford and Schwartz also emphasized the important role of metacognitive (or self-regulatory) skills. Such active control of the transfer situation is lacking in the direct-application model. Another benefit of the PFL model of transfer is that it suggests affective and motivational qualities, in addition to cognitive skills, are candidates for transfer.

The PFL approach is convergent with a redefinition of transfer by Hatano and Greeno (1999), who criticized traditional models of transfer for both treating knowledge as a static property of an individual and adopting inappropriately narrow criteria of successful transfer. They considered the conceptualization of transfer as the direct application of acquired elements from one situation to another as incompatible with current perspectives on the contextualized or situated nature of knowledge. That is, the direct-application theory is static, in the sense that it neglects how aspects of thinking that arise from interactions among people, and between people and other material and informational systems, might affect performance in the transfer situation. Hatano and Greeno proposed replacing the term transfer with the term productivity, to refer to the generality of learning (i.e., the degree to which learning in some situation has effects on task-related activities in a variety of other situations). The latter situations can, in accordance with the PFL perspective, involve hints or other kinds of support that facilitate the recall of relevant prior knowledge. Hatano and Greeno rightly claimed that in everyday learning environments, people rarely need to use previously acquired knowledge and skills without also having access to external support (De Corte, 2003).

The committee makes two generalizations about links between instruction and transfer: the role of learning general principles and the value of learning multiple examples. First, instruction that explains general principles supports far transfer better than does instruction that is more specific and focused. Judd (1908), for example, asked fifth- and sixth-grade students to throw darts at a target under water, initially with the target submerged 12 inches under the surface. He found that practice with feedback was effective at helping students hit the target when it was submerged at the 12-inch learning level, but did not help them to hit the target when its depth was varied. Instruction explaining the underlying principles of light refraction led to much better transfer to throwing darts at new depths.

Wertheimer (1959) compared two methods of instructing students to find the area of a parallelogram, one that emphasized structural relationships in parallelograms and one that involved a



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