Knowledge Transfer - The Ultimate Goal

Learning How to Learn:

The goal of education is to teach students to apply prior knowledge, skills, and experience to the new problems, tasks, and situations that they will encounter outside of the classroom. Learning to transfer knowledge from the familiar to the unfamiliar is not an intuitive or automatic skill. It is a higher order level of thinking that must be explicitly taught. Teachers play a seminal role in the extent to which students grasp this essential skill.

Teaching Students to Transfer Knowledge:

Teaching students to transfer knowledge involves identifying students’ prior knowledge, ensuring that students develop a deep understanding of subject content, and teaching students to monitor their learning process. Teachers need both a deep understanding of the content themselves, and an understanding of the typical misconceptions students bring to the learning situation.

Students’ Prior Knowledge:

Students bring prior knowledge and perceptions from their lived experiences to the classroom. When that knowledge is inaccurate it extends thinking in the wrong direction and impedes subsequent, successful learning. Failure to address the misconceptions leaves students handicapped in developing the deeper learning understanding needed for knowledge transfer.

Useable Knowledge:

Students may have the relevant knowledge in which to tackle a new task, but fail to recognize the appropriate conditions related to the task. Teachers must guide students toward connecting the conditions of applicability to unfamiliar contexts. Understanding the overarching structural organization of content area in addition to the content is associated with successful ability to transfer knowledge.

Deep Understanding:

A deep understanding of foundational content requires students to develop a more cognitively challenging level of higher order thinking than "surface" learning of memorizable facts and rules. It takes time to achieve a deep understanding of subject content. Each area differs in its structural organization. A curriculum that emphasizes depth of understanding covers a narrower range of content than the traditional practice of teaching a wide range of content more superficially.

'Chunking' Information

Students need to develop a deep understanding of subject specific content and cross disciplinary, skills in order to utilize knowledge in contexts outside of the classroom. Standards based education has tended to emphasize subject specific content. Cross disciplinary skills are equally important to developing the ability to transfer knowledge. When knowledge is taught in a variety of diverse situations--such as from one course to another-- students are more likely to develop a flexible representation of knowledge and an understanding that they can be applied more generally.

Self- Regulation of Learning

Learning knowledge transfer requires students to develop meta-cognitive abilities to observe themselves in the learning process. In order to become independent problem solvers and critical thinkers, students must learn to monitor and evaluate their learning performance in order to determine their needs for succeeding at the new task.


Teachers often model 'self-talk' as a strategy for teaching students, encountering a new task or problem, to self-monitor their learning progress. 'Thinking out loud', teachers model posing questions to themselves by verbally expressing questions such as, 'What rules that I already know might apply?', 'Do I need feedback from the teacher to understand this problem?' 'Am I using the feedback correctly?'

Adopting the Practice

Externalizing the internal thought process allows students to examine the soundness of their strategies and to determine whether they have the necessary or appropriate knowledge and skillset required to solve the new problem or task. In this way, students begin to internalize the ability to prompt themselves and monitor their own comprehension independently.

Assessment of Knowledge Transfer

In determining the instructional effectiveness of teaching knowledge transfer, educators need to consider the role of assessment, as well as the instrument used to measure effective learning.

Assessment as Feedback

The most effective instructional practice frames assessment as feedback that can increase students’ learning progress [See "Ongoing Assessment"]. Assessment that parallels learning enables teachers to adapt instruction more precisely to student’s needs. Timely feedback presented to the student in an ongoing, understandable way is “formative” in that it shapes the learning process. Teachers and students can practice and assess strategies and skills as they are learning new material, whereas final grades at a term’s end can result in a student attempting to apply problem solving strategies based upon misconceptions in his understanding.

The Appropriate Instrument

Traditional assessments tend to reflect teachers’ preference for teaching content knowledge. These assessments measure “surface” learning and often reflect students’ ability to memorize content, rather than utilizing deep knowledge of the subject to extend their knowledge flexibly to new contexts. Teachers can adapt current measurements to include scoring for a student’s approach to the problem, as well as arriving at the correct answer. Student worksheets can be reviewed for evidence of knowledge transfer. Assessments of students’ ability to grasp new knowledge quickly might be utilized as assessment of knowledge transfer. As with all assessment, multiple types of assessment should be used to ensure validity of this critical ability.

The Ultimate Commitment

The ability to transfer knowledge can expand or limit students’ opportunities in the workplace as well as quality of life. The critical importance of learning this skill mandates educators to explicitly teach learning transfer, as well as to assess the effectiveness of their instruction through valid assessment methods. Teachers need to counter the tendency to focus on a wide range of content and prioritize deep understanding of narrower content. In a 21st Century workforce privileging speed and flexibility, a standards based education must ensure that all students leave public education with the ability to extend their skillsets to the novel contexts they are certain to encounter.


Ambrose, S.A. et al (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research Based Principles for Smart Teaching. Hoboken: Jossey-Bass

Bransford, J.D (2000) et al., Eds. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School. Washington: National Academy Press

Stoll, C. and Giddings, G. (2012) Reawakening the Learner: Creating Learner-Centric, Standards-Driven Schools. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Education

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