Learning Transfer


Transfer Learning
Transfer of Learning
Transfer of Practice


Applying what was learned in one setting to a different setting

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … scope of possible actions and interpretations
  • Knowing is … competence
  • Learner is … an extrapolator (individual)
  • Learning is … transfer
  • Teaching is … cuing




Learning Transfer refers to instances of applying what is learned in one setting/task to an identifiably different setting/task. The extent to which it happens depends on such factors as the similarity of the situations, the motivations of the learner, mastery of the content, and prompts and interpretive assistance from a knowledgeable other. Various taxonomies (of types of transfer) a have been described:
  • Surface Learning, Deep Learning, and Transfer Learning (John Hattie, 2010s) – an extension of the Deep vs. Surface Learning hierarchy with the addition of Learning Transfer (i.e., as an even more sophisticated mode of knowing)
  • General & Specific Transfer
    • General Transfer (Transfer by Generalization; Transfer of Principles) – the transfer of learning from one task or situation others with varied structures and demands
    • Specific Transfer – the transfer of learning from one task or situation to another that is clearly similar
  • Horizontal & Vertical Transfer
    • Horizontal Transfer­ – occurs when previously learned knowledge that is not essential to new learnings is nonetheless helpful in that learning
    • Vertical Transfer ­– the development of new knowledge by extending or elaborating of already learned information or skills
  • Near & Far Transfer
    • Far Transfer is Learning Transfer in which the context of application is very different from the context of learning.
    • Near Transfer is Learning Transfer in which the context of application is very similar to the context of learning – and in which the transfer involves little or no conscious thought.
  • Positive & Negative Transfer – when prior learning either facilitates or frustrates subsequent learning
Many perspective on the phenomenon have been proposed. Historical examples include:
  • Identical Elements Theory of Transfer (Edward Thorndike, 1930s) – the postulate that Learning Transfer is likely to be improved when there are more common elements between the learning situation and the transfer context
  • Formal Discipline Theory of Transfer (Doctrine of Formal Discipline; Mental Muscle Approach to Learning) (Thomas Reid, 1700s) – a perspective that rests on the assumption that learning is a matter of exercising and developing specific mental faculties, in a manner analogous to building muscle mass. Consequently, just as exercising specific muscles enables specific skills, it is assumed that exercising specific faculties (e.g., mathematical) enables specific abilities (e.g., reasoning)
Many mechanisms have been proposed that might enable and disable Learning Transfer, including the following:
  • Analogical Transfer (D. Gentner, 1980s) – akin to Analogical Reasoning (see Modes of Reasoning), the act of generating new insight by mapping a new situation onto a familiar one (via, e.g., analogy or metaphor)
  • Error Correction (Stellan Ohlsson, 1996) – a process that can fortuitously contribute to new procedures fitted to novel situations through applying and correcting knowledge appropriate to another situation
  • Knowledge Compilation (John R. Anderson, 1980s) – developed in the context of Cognitive Architectureresearch, the translation and/or dissembling of explicit knowledge into procedures that can be generalized to new situations
In addition to the above, specific issues associated with Learning Transfer have been noted in the context of Problem Solving (i.e., engaging in non-routine exercises using a combination of learned competencies and divergent thinking):
  • Mediational Deficiency – an inability to apply a specific, already-learned problem-solving strategy in a novel context
  • Production Deficiency – an inability to identify an appropriate problem-solving strategy (vs. an inability to apply such a strategy)
  • Utilization Deficiency – an inability to make appropriate use of a mastered problem-solving strategy, most often because of a lapse of working memory


Some contend that it should go without saying that Learning Transfer is desirable outcome of formal education – since the whole point of the enterprise is to equip learners with knowledge and skills that will be useful in other settings. In some ways, then, the emergence and prominence of Learning Transfer in discussions of schooling is an acknowledgment of failed teaching strategies and inadequate theories of learners and learning. An entirely different school of thought is that humans are evolutionarily disposed to not transfer their learning – since, for example, extending one’s understandings of a house cat to a cougar could lead to problems. That is, the big issue may not be teaching strategies, but the notion that formal education is about preparation for adult life and/or the real world.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Edward Thorndike; Robert S. Woodworth

Status as a Theory of Learning

Learning Transfer is not a theory of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Learning Transfer is a theory of teaching. It speaks to the emphases, strategies, and intentions that teachers might employ to support learners’ capacities to perceive the relationships between in-class learning and out-of-class experiences.

Status as a Scientific Theory

There’s abundant evidence that learnings often do not transfer, even in some instances when all of the conditions deemed necessary to support transfer seem to be in place. However, there are no unified theories to account for the extreme diversity among learners that has been observed, nor for informing educators on how to address the phenomenon. Lacking such perspectives, Learning Transfer can be classified as an educational concern, but it cannot be classified a scientific theory.


  • Analogical Transfer
  • Doctrine of Formal Discipline
  • Error Correction
  • Far Transfer
  • Formal Discipline Theory of Transfer (Mental Muscle Approach to Learning)
  • General Transfer (Transfer by Generalization; Transfer of Principles)
  • Horizontal Transfer­
  • Identical Elements Theory of Transfer
  • Knowledge Compilation
  • Mediational Deficiency
  • Near Transfer
  • Positive/Negative Transfer
  • Production Deficiency
  • Specific Transfer
  • Utilization Deficiency
  • Vertical Transfer

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2023). “Learning Transfer” in Discourses on Learning in Education. https://learningdiscourses.com.

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