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How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School
learning. Concepts such as “deliberate practice” emphasize the importance of helping students monitor their learning so that they seek feedback and actively evaluate their strategies and current levels of understanding. Such activities are very different from simply reading and rereading a text.
Learning with understanding is more likely to promote transfer than simply memorizing information from a text or a lecture. Many classroom activities stress the importance of memorization over learning with understanding. Many, as well, focus on facts and details rather than larger themes of causes and consequences of events. The shortfalls of these approaches are not apparent if the only test of learning involves tests of memory, but when the transfer of learning is measured, the advantages of learning with understanding are likely to be revealed.
Knowledge that is taught in a variety of contexts is more likely to support flexible transfer than knowledge that is taught in a single context. Information can become “context-bound” when taught with context-specific examples. When material is taught in multiple contexts, people are more likely to extract the relevant features of the concepts and develop a more flexible representation of knowledge that can be used more generally.
Students develop flexible understanding of when, where, why, and how to use their knowledge to solve new problems if they learn how to extract underlying themes and principles from their learning exercises. Understanding how and when to put knowledge to use—known as conditions of applicability—is an important characteristic of expertise. Learning in multiple contexts most likely affects this aspect of transfer.
Transfer of learning is an active process. Learning and transfer should not be evaluated by “one-shot” tests of transfer. An alternative assessment approach is to consider how learning affects subsequent learning, such as increased speed of learning in a new domain. Often, evidence for positive transfer does not appear until people have had a chance to learn about the new domain—and then transfer occurs and is evident in the learner’s ability to grasp the new information more quickly.
All learning involves transfer from previous experiences. Even initial learning involves transfer that is based on previous experiences and prior knowledge. Transfer is not simply something that may or may not appear after initial learning has occurred. For example, knowledge relevant to a particular task may not automatically be activated by learners and may not serve as a source of positive transfer for learning new information. Effective teachers attempt to support positive transfer by actively identifying the strengths that students bring to a learning situation and building on them, thereby building bridges between students’ knowledge and the learning objectives set out by the teacher.
Sometimes the knowledge that people bring to a new situation impedes subsequent learning because it guides thinking in wrong directions.