Hi, I'm Dr. Mark James
Associate professor of applied linguistics | Curriculum designer and materials developer | Education consultant
I hope this website is helpful for people who are interested in my work on learning transfer and would like to find out more (for example, how this can be applied in their own education and training contexts) or might want to work with me.
As a visitor to this website, I would really like to hear from you! What questions or suggestions do you have about teaching for transfer? There’s a discussion at the bottom of this page to share ideas and make connections to your education and training contexts. And if you might want to work with me to improve learning transfer in your organization’s or company’s education and training programs, please contact me.
Some background information
I’m an education specialist, in particular second language education (for example English as a second language), and this involves a few things …
What is learning transfer and why is it important?
Learning transfer is the application of learning in new situations. For example, if I learn how to do calculations in a mathematics class, I might transfer this learning to a situation outside the class, for example when I am shopping or working at my job. Learning transfer is a main purpose of any education or training program: Individuals should be able to take whatever they learn in the program and apply it outside the program, in the “real world”. Unfortunately, in many cases, this doesn’t happen: Research shows that transfer is influenced by a variety of factors, and learning often doesn’t transfer when and where we hope it will. But, there are practical steps we can take in education and training programs to help.
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Join a conversation
Do you have any examples of teaching for transfer successes or failures? Do you have questions about teaching for transfer in your own class, organization, or company? Do you have other questions or comments about learning transfer? Share those questions and comments here and we can put our heads together about this important topic …
Transferring whatever skill you learned in school or from experience is an excellent opportunity to be used while learning a second language. However, we should not ignore that some transfers might be negative ones! Therefore, if you may share your considered opinion, how can we help our students avoid such negative transfers?
Great question Faris … that’s right that not all transfer is good, because if transfer happens, the impact could be positive, negative, or neutral. For example, I learned to drive a car in Canada, where people drive on the right side of the road. If I transfer that learning when I visit other parts of Canada, it’s positive because it helps me to drive successfully. But if I transfer that learning when I visit a country where people drive on the left side of the road, it’s negative — I’ll cause accidents! So when we are teaching, there are various things we can do. First, we might try to raise students’ awareness of transfer: how it works and what impacts it can have. We might do that by giving students examples, like my driving example. In a second language teaching context, an example that might work well is formality: Informal words and phrases work well in informal situations (positive transfer), but can cause problems in formal situations (negative transfer). Second, we might have students practice distinguishing between positive and negative transfer. For example, we could show students examples of something they have learned being transferred in a variety of situations, and ask students to decide which are positive and which are negative. Third, we might have students practice transferring their learning in a variety of situations. For example, we could have students participate in role play activities (e.g., “You are friends having a conversation ….”, “You are in a shop talking to another customer …”, “You are at school talking to a teacher …”), and afterwards discuss how the situations influenced their learning transfer. Steps like this to raise students’ awareness and give them chances to practice should help.
Thank you for this valuable answer! I will certainly apply these steps!
You’re welcome, glad that helps!
I am wondering how age affects transfer and how to acknowledge this across academic and social/emotional development of young learners. And accommodate my English speaking and ELL learners together.
Great question First Grade Teacher! Age does affect transfer, because age affects how we perceive the world around us, and those perceptions affect transfer. For example, as we get older and have lots more experiences, our brains have more “data” to work with to notice patterns that can lead to transfer. A young child who has seen only a few dogs in the past might see a cat and call it “doggie” — that’s a case of negative transfer, and it’s less likely with an older child or adult who has had more experience with a variety of dogs. So with young learners like first grade students, a key would be to keep exposing them to lots of examples of things, with lots of variety, so they have plenty to work with when they’re looking for patterns. I think that could apply across whatever academic and social/emotional goals we might have for the students. As for teaching ELLs and fluent speakers together, that should work fine because common teaching-for-transfer techniques are pretty flexible. For example, one technique is to try to make a class resemble the target situations that students will find themselves in outside the class, for example by having class activities that simulate situations outside the class (e.g., “Let’s pretend that …”). That’s something that could probably be done with students of any ability levels. Another technique is to encourage students to think about opportunities to transfer what they’re learning, for example by having class activities that involve brainstorming about where they think they can use what they’re learning. That could probably be done with students with a wide variety of ability levels too. Hope that helps!
Great answer thanks! You should come teach my class 😆.
Thank you for the nice invitation! 😊
I like your emphasis on the transfer of the learned skills – “how to do…” as opposed to the factual corpus of a subject area. The pedogogical balance has tended to favour the latter In my field of legal education, and some other professional education fields too, with the skills stuff being postponed to the apprenticeship stages of the students’ careers. Giving students as most law schools do the option of a semester in a Clinic helps the skills transfer/acquisition, and case studies, moots and mock trials are helpful standard components of the curriculum. This ‘learning (transfer) by doing’, ‘trial and error’ is effective but I wonder what other perhaps systematic and prescriptive transfer strategies there might be for the teacher and student in a pre-apprenticeship professional education program?
Thanks for the question LawProf, that’s interesting! I think you’re right that a combination of clinics, case studies, moots, and mock trials could be great for promoting transfer — those kinds of activities fit with some of the main teaching-for-transfer recommendations, like using “simulations” (like mock trials) and “problem-based learning” (like case studies). So my first suggestion would be to see if it’s possible to incorporate those kinds of activities into earlier stages of a legal education program as well. That might mean big changes to a curriculum, but these kinds of activities could also be done in relatively informal flexible ways that don’t require big curricular changes. For example, rather than formal full mock trials, it might be possible to do smaller simulations during regular lectures: At the beginning of a lecture, a lecturer might put students in groups for a few minutes to come up with solutions to a real-world scenario (e.g., “Your legal team has a new client who is facing a difficult problem …”); the lecturer can then go on to present the lecture’s factual content, which would be related somehow to the scenario. And my second suggestion would be that even when the emphasis is on factual content, there are teaching-for-transfer strategies that might be helpful, like asking students to consider where and how they can make use of the factual content. For example, at the end of a lecture, a lecturer could ask students to spend a few minutes (perhaps in small groups) thinking about what the main idea(s) were in this lecture, and where and how they might be able to apply these ideas in their future legal work. A brief class discussion about this would help the lecturer to see the kinds of connections students are making, and this activity would get students in the habit of looking for connections beyond the lecture hall.