Educational systems are grounded in the assumption that students will use what they learn in future contexts, whether those contexts are future classrooms, future workplace settings, or future community or civic activities. General education curricula in the United States (sometimes called General Studies programs) often are built on the premise that students will apply what they learn from courses across the arts and sciences to act as informed citizens and to be more well-rounded in their careers. Within disciplines, coursework often is structured hierarchically so that subsequent courses allow students to build on prior learning. Yet what do we know about how students use prior knowledge, how can we study this transfer of learning, and how might we design our courses to facilitate successful transfer?

David N. Perkins and Gavriel Salomon, King Beach, Terttu Tuomi-Gröhn and Yrjö Engeström, and Jan Meyer and Ray Land all have contributed to our understanding of that first question.

In “Teaching for Transfer” and other publications, Perkins and Salomon introduce a number of terms that permeate discussions of transfer of learning:

  • Low road transfer relies on a new context to trigger practiced habits.
  • Forward reaching, high road transfer refers to learners’ “mindful abstraction” of how knowledge might apply to future situations and alternate contexts.
  • Backward reaching, high road transfer occurs when learns identify important characteristics of the current situation and look to the past for relevant experience and applicable prior knowledge.
  • Near transfer refers to carrying knowledge or skills across similar contexts.
  • Far transfer involves carrying knowledge across quite different contexts.

Beach, in contrast, critiques the notion of transfer and instead examines generalization. Rather than merely applying prior knowledge to a new task, generalization emphasizes the active construction of associations. For students to have a consequential transition, they must consciously reflect on their prior knowledge and “struggle” with its application across contexts. A consequential transition, then, “shifts the individual’s sense of self or social position… link[ing] identity with knowledge propagation” (42). Beach identifies four types of consequential transition:

  • Lateral transition is a unidirectional movement from a preparatory activity to a related, developmentally advanced activity.
  • Collateral transitions are multi-directional movements between concurrent activities, such as the daily transition from school to a part-time job.
  • Encompassing transitions occur within social activities that are undergoing change and reflect adaptations to those transformations.
  • Mediational transitions occur in simulations of future activities, mediating the participants’ developmental progress.

Tuomi-Gröhn and Engeström summarize several conceptualizations of transfer, including Beach’s, comparing other theorists’ bases and modes of transfer and, in essence, providing a map of classical, cognitive, situated, sociocultural and activity-theory views of transfer of learning. Ultimately they suggest that learners are intertwined with activity systems, and expansive learning occurs when learners question the existing practice of the collective activity. Testing and reflecting on new practices, and recruiting other participants to the redesigned process, leads to new activity systems. Tuomi-Gröhn and Engeström advocate preparing learners to be boundary-crossers and change agents, exploring workplace activity systems and contributing to them.

Most recently, scholars have turned to the theory of threshold concepts to examine transfer. Jan Meyer and Ray Land describe threshold concepts as transformative; once students understand them, the concepts have the potential to transform how students identify with a discipline because the students begin to recognize the centrality of these concepts to the discipline. Threshold concepts are not simply key ideas, but rather the core of the disciplinary world view. Therefore until students grasp threshold concepts, these concepts could be barriers to transfer.

Building on these foundational understandings of how students apply, adapt, and transform prior knowledge, the upcoming ISSOTL Online 2013 strand on Studying and Designing for Transfer will explore the other two questions posed above:

  • How can we study this transfer of learning — across disciplines and in and outside of classrooms?
  • How might we design our courses to facilitate successful (lateral and collateral) transfer of learning?

Join the discussion, beginning September 9, 2013.


Beach, King. “Consequential Transitions: A Developmental View of Knowledge Propagation Through Social Organizations.” Between School and Work: New Perspectives on Transfer and Boundary-crossing. Ed. Terttu Tuomi-Gröhn and Yrjö Engeström. Bingley, UK: Emerald Group, 2003. 39-61. Print.

Meyer, Jan H. F., and Ray Land. “Introduction.” Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge. Ed. Jan H. F. Meyer and Ray Land. London: Routledge, 2006. 3-18. Print.

Meyer, Jan H. F., Ray Land, and Caroline Baillie, eds. Threshold Concepts and Transformation Learning. Rotterdam, the Netherlands: Sense, 2010. Print.

Perkins, David N., and Gavriel Salomon. “Are Cognitive Skills Context-Bound?” Educational Researcher 18.1 (1989): 16-25. Print.

—. “Teaching for Transfer.” Educational Leadership 46.1 (1988): 22-32. Print.

—. The Science and Art of Transfer. Web. 15 January 2012.

Tuomi-Gröhn, Terttu, and Yrjö Engeström. “Conceptualizing Transfer: From Standard Notions to Developmental Perspectives.” Between School and Work: New Perspectives on Transfer and Boundary-crossing. Ed. Terttu Tuomi-Gröhn and Yrjö Engeström. Bingley, UK: Emerald Group, 2003. 19-38. Print.

Jessie L. Moore (@jessielmoore) is the Associate Director of the Center for Engaged Learning at Elon University and an associate professor of Professional Writing & Rhetoric in the Department of English.

How to Cite this Post:

Moore, Jessie L. 2013, September 6. Studying and Designing for Transfer of Learning. [Blog Post]. Retrieved from