Science Teaching Series

Internet Resources

I. Developing Scientific Literacy

II. Developing Scientific Reasoning

III. Developing Scientific Understanding

IV. Developing Scientific Problem Solving

V. Developing Scientific Research Skills

VI. Resources for Teaching Science

3 Learning and Transfer


Understanding Versus Memorizing Transfer is affected by the degree to which people learn with understanding rather than merely memorize sets of facts or follow a fixed set of procedures (55). (See academic language - vocabulary)

The ability to understand becomes important for transfer problems, such as: “Imagine trying to design an artificial artery. Would it have to be elastic? Why or why not?” Students who only memorize facts have little basis for approaching this kind of problem solving task (Bransford and Stein, 1993; Bransford et al., 1983). The act of organizing facts about veins and arteries around more general principles such as “how structure is related to function” is consistent with the knowledge organization of experts discussed in Chapter 2. (56)

Time to Learn

Attempts to cover too many topics too quickly may hinder learning and subsequent transfer because students (a) learn only isolated sets of facts that are not organized and connected or (b) are introduced to organizing principles that they cannot grasp because they lack enough specific knowledge to make them meaningful. (58)

The implication is that learning cannot be rushed; the complex cognitive activity of information integration requires time. (58)

Beyond “Time on Task”

It is clear that different ways of using one’s time have different effects on learning and transfer. A considerable amount is known about variables that affect learning. For example, learning is most effective when people engage in “deliberate practice” that includes active monitoring of one’s learning experiences (Ericsson et al., 1993). (58) (metacognition)

 A number of studies converge on the conclusion that transfer is enhanced by helping students see potential transfer implications of what they are learning (60) (see chapter 4, S/T/S)

Motivation to Learn

Humans are motivated to develop competence and to solve problems; they have, as White (1959) put it, “competence motivation.” Although extrinsic rewards and punishments clearly affect behavior (see Chapter 1), people work hard for intrinsic reasons, as well. (60)

In addition, learners’ tendencies to persist in the face of difficulty are strongly affected by whether they are “performance oriented” or “learning oriented” (Dweck, 1989). Students who are learning oriented like new challenges; those who are performance oriented are more worried about making errors than about learning. (61)

Social opportunities also affect motivation. Feeling that one is contributing something to others appears to be especially motivating (Schwartz et al., 1999). For example, young learners are highly motivated to write stories and draw pictures that they can share with others. (61)

Learners of all ages are more motivated when they can see the usefulness of what they are learning and when they can use that information to do something that has an impact on others—especially their local community (McCombs, 1996; Pintrich and Schunk, 1996). (Chapter 4, STS)


How tightly learning is tied to contexts depends on how the knowledge is acquired (Eich, 1985). Research has indicated that transfer across contexts is especially difficult when a subject is taught only in a single context rather than in multiple contexts (Bjork and Richardson-Klavhen, 1989). (62) (Chapter 4, STS)

When a subject is taught in multiple contexts, however, and includes examples that demonstrate wide application of what is being taught, people are more likely to abstract the relevant features of concepts and to develop a flexible representation of knowledge (Gick and Holyoak, 1983). (62)

  1. One way to deal with lack of flexibility is to ask learners to solve a specific case and then provide them with an additional, similar case; the goal is to help them abstract general principles that lead to more flexible transfer (Gick and Holyoak, 1983) (63) (generalization -views of the brain)
  2. A second way to improve flexibility is to let students learn in a specific context and then help them engage in “what-if” problem solving designed to increase the flexibility of their understanding. (63) (
  3. A third way is to generalize the case so that learners are asked to create a solution that applies not simply to a single problem, but to a whole class of related problems. For example, instead of planning a single boat trip, students might run a trip planning company that has to advise people on travel times for different regions of the country. Learners are asked to adopt the goal of learning to “work smart” by creating mathematical models that characterize a variety of travel problems and using these models to create tools, ranging from simple tables and graphs to computer programs. Under these conditions, transfer to novel problems is enhanced (e.g., Bransford et al., 1998). (63) (See Project-Based Learning, section 22.3)

By contrast, the students who received abstract training showed transfer to new problems that involved analogous mathematical relations. Research has also shown that developing a suite of representations enables learners to think flexibly about complex domains (Spiro et al., 1991). (generalization -views of the brain)

Relationships Between Learning and Transfer Conditions

Singley and Anderson (1989) argue that transfer between tasks is a function of the degree to which the tasks share cognitive elements. (65)

Research studies generally provide strong support for the benefits of helping students represent their experiences at levels of abstraction that transcend the specificity of particular contexts and examples (National Research Council, 1994). Examples include algebra (Singley and Anderson, 1989), computer language tasks (Klahr and Carver, 1988), motor skills (e.g., dart throwing, Judd, 1908), analogical reasoning (Gick and Holyoak, 1983), and visual learning (e.g., sexing chicks, Biederman and Shiffrar, 1987). (65) (example - conic sections)

Active Versus Passive Approaches to Transfer

It is important to view transfer as a dynamic process that requires learners to actively choose and evaluate strategies, consider resources, and receive feedback. This active view of transfer is different from more static views, which assume that transfer is adequately reflected by learners’ abilities to solve a set of transfer problems right after they have engaged in an initial learning task.

Studies of transfer from learning one text editor to another illustrate the importance of viewing transfer from a dynamic rather than a static perspective. Researchers have found much greater transfer to a second text editor on the second day of transfer than the first (Singley and Anderson, 1989): this finding suggests that transfer should be viewed as increased speed in learning a new domain—not simply initial performance. Similarly, one educational goal for a course in calculus is how it facilitates learning of physics, but not necessarily its benefit on the first day of physics class. (66)

Transfer and Metacognition

Transfer can be improved by helping students become more aware of themselves as learners who actively monitor their learning strategies and resources and assess their readiness for particular tests and performances. Metacognitive approaches to instruction have been shown to increase the degree to which students will transfer to new situations without the need for explicit prompting. (67)

Alan Schoenfeld (1983, 1985, 1991) teaches heuristic methods for mathematical problem solving to college students. The methods are derived, to some extent, from the problem-solving heuristics of Polya (1957). Schoenfeld’s program adopts methods similar to reciprocal teaching and procedural facilitation. He teaches and demonstrates control or managerial strategies and makes explicit such processes as generating alternative courses of action, evaluating which course one will be able to carry out and whether it can be managed in the time available, and assessing one’s progress. Again, elements of modeling, coaching, and scaffolding, as well as collective problem solving and whole-class and small group discussions, are used. Gradually, students come to ask self-regulatory questions themselves as the teacher fades out. At the end of each of the problem-solving sessions, students and teacher alternate in characterizing major themes by analyzing what they did and why. The recapitulations highlight the generalizable features of the critical decisions and actions and focus on strategic levels rather than on the specific solutions (see also White and Frederickson, 1998) (68)

Because learning involves transfer from previous experiences, one’s existing knowledge can also make it difficult to learn new information. Sometimes new information will seem incomprehensible to students, but this feeling of confusion can at least let them identify the existence of a problem (see, e.g., Bransford and Johnson, 1972; Dooling and Lachman, 1971). A more problematic situation occurs when people construct a coherent (for them) representation of information while deeply misunderstanding the new information.. (70)(Misconceptions)

The fact that learners construct new understandings based on their current knowledge highlights some of the dangers in “teaching by telling.” Lectures and other forms of direct instruction can sometimes be very useful, but only under the right conditions (Schwartz and Bransford, 1998). Often, students construct understandings like those noted above. To counteract these problems, teachers must strive to make students’ thinking visible and find ways to help them reconceptualize faulty conceptions. (71)

Opportunities to engage in problem-based learning during the first year of medical school lead to a greater ability to diagnose and understand medical problems than do opportunities to learn in typical lecture-based medical courses (Hmelo, 1995). Attempts to make schooling more relevant to the subsequent workplace have also guided the use of case-based learning in business schools, law schools, and schools that teach educational leadership (Hallinger et al., 1993; Williams, 1992). (77) (See section 22.3, Problem-based learning)

A major goal of schooling is to prepare students for flexible adaptation to new problems and settings. The ability of students to transfer provides an important index of learning that can help teachers evaluate and improve their instruction. (78)

Students are motivated to spend the time needed to learn complex subjects and to solve problems that they find interesting. Opportunities to use knowledge to create products and benefits for others are particularly motivating for students. (78)

Abstract representations of problems can also facilitate transfer. Transfer between tasks is related to the degree to which they share common elements, although the concept of elements must be defined cognitively. (78)

Finally, a metacognative approach to teaching can increase transfer by helping students learn about themselves as learners in the context of acquiring content knowledge. One characteristic of experts is an ability to monitor and regulate their own understanding in ways that allows them to keep learning adaptive expertise: this is an important model for students to emulate. (78)