Most educators are hopeful that their students are able to apply what they have learned in different settings, "from one problem to another within a course, from one course to another, from one school year to the next, and from their years in school to their years in the workplace." (Bransford and Schwartz, 1999). However, researchers have found that people seem to learn things that are very specific (Thorndike and Woodworth, 1901). Further studies have shown that sufficient initial learning is critical in effective transfer, and that concrete examples can enhance initial learning because students see the relevance of new information. But overly contextualized information can impede transfer because information is too tied to the context.
People also forget information easily ("replicative knowing") and people have difficulty applying their knowledge to solve new problems ("applicative knowing") (Broudy, 1977). That is people have difficulty knowing "that" (replicative), and knowing "how" (applicative). What seems to help is people know "with" other concepts / experiences. This is related to Piaget's learning theory of assimilation and accommodation.
Contrasting cases are especially useful for people to "learn with" their experiences. The differences among the contrasting cases help people to notice the pattern that persist among the cases. After the students have a chance to work through some contrasting cases, a lecture that follows results in much greater retention than simply working through the contrasting cases only or have the students summarize what they learned after a lecture.
In order for students to transfer their knowledge from one area to another, they need to "let go" of previously held ideas and behaviors. It is not the same as repeating the same idea / behavior in a new situation. The word "insight", coined by Land, inventor of the Polaroid Land camera, highlights the importance of "letting go" of previous assumptions and strategies rather than simply repeating them (Land, 1982). For Land, insight is "the sudden cessation of stupidity". It is not enough to try to adapt old ideas to new situations. Thus, effective learners revise and actively control their learning when things do not work.
Knowledge transfer also benefits from actively seeking others' ideas and perspectives. Other essential ingredients include: tolerance for ambiguity, courage spans, persistence in the face of difficulty, willingness to learn from others, and sensitivity to the expectations of others. All these help people to be life long learners.
How can students learn to develop these characteristics? Bransford Schwartz suggested lived experiences (spending time in a different country), learning to play a musical instrument, learning to perform on stage, learning to participate in organized sports activities. Learners need to self evaluate in areas such as their commitment to excellence, their need to be in the limelight, their respect for others, their own fears and strategies that may be hampering their progress. Such meta-cognitive reflection are part of "knowing with" new information.
Having students evaluate their own confidence level and then realizing whether their confidence level matches their competence helps them realize whether they are ready to move on to more challenging problems or new problems, or whether they should seek help before they can attempt the problems. Some learners need to know the dangers of confidence when there is little competence. All these prepare the learners to transfer their knowledge to new situations and domain areas.
Bransford, J. and Schwartz, D. (1999). Rethinking Transfer: A Simple Proposal with Multiple Implications. Review of Research in Education, Vol 24, pp 61-100.
Broudy, H.S. (1977). Types of knowledge and purposes of education. In R.C. Anderson, R.J. Spiro and W.E. Montague (Eds.), Schooling and the acquisition of knowledge (pp. 1-17), Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Land, E.H. (1982). Creativity and the ideal framework. in G.I. Nierenberg (Ed.), The Art of Creative Thining. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Thorndike, E. L., and Woodworth, R.S. (1901). The infludence of improvement in one mental function upon the efficacy of other functions. Psychological Review, 8, 247-261.