Improving Learning Transfer in Adult Education

Improving Learning Transfer in Adult Education

Learning transfer, or the transfer of learning, refers to the effect previously learned skills and knowledge have on subsequent learning opportunities in different situations or settings. At all levels, students apply what they have learned to new experiences, problems and tasks. If such transfer of skills and knowledge were not possible, students would have to learn everything from scratch, over and over again. It is the educator’s responsibility to facilitate this process by designing and implementing a positive learning transfer strategy for his or her students.

To begin with, an adult educator must choose to teach material that is regarded as transferable by the students. Ideally, to facilitate transfer, learning should be organized around real-life scenarios, ones that are often found outside of an academic setting. Furthermore, a significant amount of time and effort should be spent helping the students master the selected material before engaging in learning transfer exercises; this is best achieved by spreading the learning of specific material over time instead of cramming it into a single continuous block. In spaced learning, adopting a wide array of methodologies (stories, videos, illustrations, role playing, demonstrations, etc.) works best to teach and reteach course content via these shorter and repeated sessions.

Once the students are comfortable with the topic at hand, the initial transfer of knowledge should occur between likeminded problems or tasks so as to not confuse or frustrate them. Only later on, once the students have a strong command of learning transfer principles, should educators widen the distance between the material initially taught and the new problems to be tackled.

Throughout the learning experience, educators should clearly explain the use and value of learning transfer and provide students with succinct and practical examples of this process at work. Educators should keep in mind that it is much easier for students to transfer a big idea rather than small details. Likewise, visual aids, presenting the material in multiple contexts, using questions as prompts, and dedicating time to problem solving and case-based studies are all efficient and easy-to-grasp ways of introducing students to this concept.

It is also imperative for students to think about how specific knowledge can be applied to different contexts and the processes that allow learning transfer to occur. Self-explanation and reflection are key; these thought processes allow students to create meaning which in turn facilitates knowledge retention and learning transfer. More specifically, reflection assists learning transfer in a myriad of ways. Via reflection, students will process concepts at a deeper level, connect theory to everyday practice, and develop personal meanings by linking future experiences to previously acquired knowledge.

Educators should encourage students to reflect on the material and tasks performed in order to trigger behavioral change and the effective transfer of learning. Educators should serve as their students’ guides throughout the reflection exercise, helping them engage with the material and deal with any emotions that might emerge from this process. Assigning classwork that requires students to find and analyze examples of the material being applied to different contexts is a good way of promoting such reflection. Examples include peer and self-assessment exercises, keeping a journal or portfolio throughout the duration of the course, and structured or small group discussions.

Marios Siathas, General Manager, EIMF