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Positive Learning Experiences Lead to Transfer-Level Learning

Two female high school students work together on a class projectWhile success in the classroom requires a multi-faceted set of skills, one of the most important is producing positive learning experiences that engage students. An engaged student becomes active in their education and fosters high-level critical thinking. It also helps them to reach “transfer-level learning.”

Transfer-level learning refers to applying lessons from the past and applying them to a current situation. Students learn to creatively incorporate what they already know into various new contexts. For employees, such “transferable skills” make them attractive job candidates.

Such skills boost a student’s academic success and ability to apply classroom learning to real-world situations. Transfer learning also helps students develop stronger social-emotional learning.

Going Beyond Surface Learning

Strong, positive student engagement can lead students from “surface learning” to a deeper understanding of ideas and concepts, eventually leading them to transfer-level learning. It is at this level that students get the most positive learning experiences.

Writing in Ed Tech, Peter DeWitt, a former public school principal turned author and leadership coach, said that educators have agreed for far too long on words such as “time on task,” which he wrote often equates to students taking a passive role in their learning.

“It’s time we focus on student engagement, which allows us to go from surface to deep level learning and on to transfer level learning. It also helps balance the power in the room between adults and students,” DeWitt wrote.

Engaging students and getting them more involved in their learning is part of an educational approach that emphasizes transfer learning and demonstrates an understanding of the different phases of learning.

Speaking at the World Education Summit in 2021, Professor John Hattie, a world-renowned educationist and author, included transfer learning as part of his definition of education: “The process of developing sufficient surface knowledge to then move to deeper understanding such that one can appropriately transfer this learning to new tasks and situations.”

The Three Types of Transfer Learning

How well students apply what they have previously learned to current situations depends on the nature of both situations and whether they are related. Educators typically agree there are three types of transfer learning:

Positive transfer: This refers to knowledge learned in one situation facilitating learning in another circumstance. For example, students who know the fundamentals of math can apply them to a better understanding of physics.

Negative transfer: This refers to situations where learning one task makes learning another more difficult. For example, learning one dialect of the Chinese language (Mandarin) might make learning another (Cantonese) more difficult.

Neural transfer: In this case, previous learning neither helps nor hinders a student from learning another task.

There are also two theories of transfer learning. One, the Theory of Identical Elements, proposes that the difficulty in transferring knowledge from a past situation to a new one is directly related to the similarity of the two tasks. The more similar the situations, the easier the transfer.

The second, Theory of Generalization of Experience, assumes that the general skills learned in the first situation apply to learning in another situation insofar as these general skills apply to both. For example, learning to drive a moped is easier if the learner already knows how to ride a bike.

The Phases of Learning

Hattie described three distinct phases of learning. He argued that all three phases--surface learning, deep learning and transfer of learning—must lead one to another.

Surface learning: This involves learning content and ideas—dates and locations of historical events, for example, and the people involved.

Deep learning: This involves understanding the context of events and the relationship of ideas. For example, the connections between modern Western democracies, the governmental structure of the Roman Empire and the ideas first formed in Greece thousands of years before.

Transfer learning: This involves consolidating what the student learned at the surface and deep level.

Hattie said that a key to successful transfer learning is understanding the similarities or differences between a previous problem and the current one. Finding common patterns is valuable in helping students understand how to transfer knowledge to new contexts.

Fresno Pacific University Student Engagement Course

The road to transfer-level learning begins with student engagement. Fresno Pacific University offers a 100% online course for education, Engage Students to Achieve Results, that teaches educators strategies to increase student engagement and raise their academic performance. Teachers also earn professional development credit.

In the course, teachers analyze the role student engagement, motivation and effort play in learning. They leave the course with the applied skills and instructional strategies that can lead to increased student participation and improved academic performance, including students of poverty and second language learners.

Teachers can apply for the course to earn a Student Engagement Certificate from Fresno State University.