Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Transfer - why is it ignored? Here's how to fix it...

Transfer is something that is often completely ignored in experience design. But what is the point of having learning experiences of they don’t transfer to actual application and performance? Learning experiences may not only fail to transfer but actually stop transfer.

You must design with transfer in mind and blends or learning journeys must move learning forward towards action, towards doing, towards practice and performance. No matter how much training you deliver, it can be illusory in the sense of not leading to transfer from cognitive change to actual performance, which in turn has impact on the organisation.

Doing and Practice are experiences. In fact without doing or practice it is unlikely to be retained long-term. Your design must move from experiences that match whatever type of learning you need, cognitive, psychomotor and affective, but practice and application experiences also matter. Your design should provide transfer pathways towards mastery, through actual doing and practice in the formal learning as well as practice and extension activities beyond the initial learning experiences.

Note that observable behaviours can be used but this is notoriously difficult, except in very formal apprenticeship-type learner journeys. Behaviour is notoriously difficult to measure and arguably behaviour must result in an impact in the organisation. It is better to go for data on KPIs, as they are commonly found in organisations. Note also that learning in workflow increases transfer as you are using it immediately. The training is proximate to the task. 

Knowledge can lie inert (Renkl et al 1996) and fail to transfer. Research focused on the idea that elements in the learning must be identical to those in the real world if transfer is to succeed (Singley & Anderson 1989). But it was Tulving who focused more on the retrieval of specific ‘cues’ in memory (Tulving & Thompson, 1973), recommending that such cues be designed into the learning experience, along with retrieval and spaced practice. We use this 'cues' technique in WildFire, where AI is used to create online learning, with cues, in minutes not months.

Near and Far transfer

A useful distinction is between ‘Near’ and ‘Far’ transfer Near transfer is where the task is simple and routine, such as learning how to ‘cut and paste’ in a word processor, where the contexts are similar. Far transfer involves troubleshooting or problem solving, using learned knowledge and skills, such as management skills or learning experience design!, as the contexts, where skills are applied, will be very hugely varied. Far transfer is what is often pointed to as a key component in and increasing number of future jobs, as routine tasks are automated.

Near transfer is easy to design for using methods such as varied worked examples, retrieval, deliberate, directed and spaced practice. 

Far transfer is far trickier. You will want to present the training in as realistic a way as possible, so that the cues can be embedded in the training. So, when doing management training, use real imagery or video within a real office. This suggests that we avoid cartoon representations or imagery that does not match the actual environment in which the training is to be applied. Flight simulators provide a good example of congruence between the training and environment. 

Note that it is often necessary to design learning experiences that are not too open and sophisticated, as the novice would suffer from overload and confusion (Caroll, 1992). In software training, for example, you narrow down the options with guided, step-by-step instruction, so as not to overwhelm the learner. The constraints may be loosened as expertise is built. Similarly in language learning, early learning will be of basic vocabulary and grammar, leading to guided and supported use and finally immersion.

Far transfer needs variation in context so that the principles can be applied in new situations as they arise. Variation in worked examples and applications by the learner will give them the flexibility to adapt what they learn to future problems, so support far transfer.

The classroom is often a poor environment for transfer, whereas on-the-job training provides real cues and context. Transfer is therefore strong argument for learning in the workflow, where you learn and do it immediately in the real world. What is needed is something that approximates the old apprenticeship model, now perhaps re-named as Blended Learning. A true Blended Learning experience integrates theory and practice, providing a process for progress, from novice to expert. The process may take weeks or months and not be restricted to a simple one or two day course or online learning experience. Learning needs transfer and transfer takes time. Specific features of an optimal Blended Learning design, may be experiences that allow you to apply what you learn in the real world, working through real case studies, models of expert performance, make changes and see how they affect the outcome, voice or articulate what you do as you do it to others and, of course, learning from mistakes. In other words learning experiences benefit from actual experiences.

Situated learning, where you learn in the job context, allows for actual results to act as a measure of success, if practiced in a safe environment. But pure situated practice can take a long time and is difficult to execute. It may, as Anderson et al. 1996 found, be an exaggeration to think that it is the optimal solution. Marshall 1995 found that a blend or combination of theory and examples works best and some job or workflow training. 

Spaced practice is one way to overcome delayed performance. Interestingly transfer may be increased by delayed feedback. There is ample evidence to show that spaced-practice will increase retention and transfer.

Druckman and Bjork 1994, showed that delaying feedback, allows learners to make mistakes, learn from those mistakes, so be careful in always giving immediate feedback. We do this in WildFire created content, where you get the presented learning experience, do retrieval practice but only at the end of the online module, where you get Red, Amber and Green feedback, are you asked to go back and correct your Red and Amber mistakes. Giving learners room to think, reflect and make mistakes will in crease retention, subsequent retrieval and transfer.

Technology and transfer

Technology also gives us the opportunities to practice and therefore transfer learning. Simulations have long provided powerful practice and transfer. Pilots really do learn how take-off, fly, land and cope with rare emergencies using simulators. So why are simulators not more commonly used in learning? Well, the pilot goes down with the plane. There is not much hyperbolic discounting when your imagination and the reality of your job takes you to 35,000 feet in 300 tons of metal and 600 passengers. 

One common error is to assume that full fidelity is always needed. This may not be possible on cost and it is vital that a distinction be made between ‘physical’ and ‘psychological’ fidelity. Most tasks require careful design around the psychological or cognitive processes in learning. In fact, low fidelity simulations can be as effective as very expensive high fidelity simulations, if the psychological fidelity is strong. Cox et al. 1969, showed that a cardboard box and photograph simulation could be as effective as a high-fidelity simulator. You often see simple, cockpit and control set-ups in pilot training facilities. I know of one trainer who was an expert in buying old junk equipment from planes for training. They had a hanger full of the stuff. It did the job.

Simple and mini-simulations may be useful for limited tasks. Branched scenario training where decision making is needed. This requires the careful selection of scenarios, based on their most likely occurrence in real life. This breathes life into learning as well as increasing the chances of transfer. Variety of scenario should match the variety of probable real life scenarios as much as possible. Probabilistic presentation of scenarios is also possible. I’ve been involved in high-end scenario training around conflict in healthcare that involved a wide range of scenarios from alcohol and drug users in A&E, to violent patients, colleagues and even those visiting patients. Customer service may require a careful selection of customer types. I designed an airport check-in scenario-based simulator that took a carefully calibrated selection of typical customer types; impatient business traveller, large family, nervous single traveller etc. and integrated the interpersonal skills with the software skills on using the check-in system as well as the physical skills of handling luggage and labels.

A LXP (Learning Experience Platform) may nudge and challenge you to do things in the workflow. When learning experiences are delivered, with an understanding of context and at the point of need, they have a far higher chance of transfer, as they are likely to be applied immediately and in a real world context. One can push out to learners, using predictive techniques, knowing that they are likely to need learning or react to them pulling content when they feel they need the support.

VR also offers opportunities for practice and therefore transfer in expensive, rare and dangerous environments. Oil rigs, inside vehicles, emergency incidents, down to the micro-level or out in space. VR can give high-fidelity environments and now, with haptic experience providing the physical feel of handling objects, as well as cable-free headsets, the freedom to move and experience worlds you may at some time encounter.

Technology evolves fast as we have seen how simulations, LXPs and VR can certainly enable transfer.

Making it work

We must be careful with transfer, as Weinbauer-Heidel who wrote What Makes Training Work, a book on transfer, warns us against transfer strategies if the ‘capability’ is NOT there. So often training cannot deliver on practice and application. She also recommends that NO course certificates are issued, unless transfer has been shown. For her, transfer needs to be levered at the personal, training and organisational levels. 

Personally, the learner has to want to follow through to action and transfer and be confident that they can perform. They must be made aware of the value of doing this in practice. This can be done by increasing relevance and proximity to the actual tasks, which is why learning in the workflow gives a powerful boost to transfer.

Training needs to be clear about what is expected in terms of application and doing, not get stuck in and just stop at pure theory. It means designing experiences that are relevant and practical to individuals, with practice included during and after the training.

Organisationally, learners should be expected to practice, with time available and support from line managers. There are many ways to do this, through nudges, challenges, projects, mentoring, deliberate practice schedules, short apprenticeships. Opportunities for practice experiences can be deliberately recommended and created, such as designing a website, using a spreadsheet or handling things in a lab, in safe environment with no bad consequences for the organisation. This is a matter of people to supervise, space and time to practice. In short, training and managers must take the horse to water AND make it drink.

Yet, what does designing a practice experience actually mean? At some point you must let go and had the reins over to the learner. It is a matter of suggesting, structuring or simulating practice and application, not once but repeatedly. We must understand what deliberate practice means, what spaced practice means.

The danger should be obvious, that we focus on shallow media presentation to get fun or engagement but what really matters is an understanding of how the mind of the learner actually learns. Learning is not like other experiences, such as entertainment, we have learned through many decades of research, that it is a complex issue, that needs to be worked on to optimise the learning experience and result in actual transfer and application of learning. 


Renkl, A., Mandl, H. and Gruber, H., 1996. Inert knowledge: Analyses and remedies. Educational Psychologist31(2), pp.115-121.

Singley, M.K. and Anderson, J.R., 1989. The transfer of cognitive skill (No. 9). Harvard University Press.

Tulving, E. and Thompson, D., 1973. Encoding Specificity and retrieval process in episodic process. Journal of Experimental Psychology87, pp.353-373.

Carroll, J.M., 1992. Minimalist documentation. Handbook of human performance technology.

 Anderson, J.R., Reder, L.M. and Simon, H.A., 1996. Situated learning and education. Educational researcher25(4), pp.5-11.

Marshall, S.P., 1995. Schemas in problem solving. Cambridge University Press.

Druckman, D.E. and Bjork, R.A., 1994. Learning, remembering, believing: Enhancing human performance. National Academy Press.

Cox, J.A., Wood Jr, R.O. and Thorne, H.W., 1965. Functional and Appearance Fidelity of Training Devices for Fixed-Procedures Tasks (No. HUMRRO-TR-65-4). GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIV ALEXANDRIA VA HUMAN RESOURCES RESEARCH OFFICE.

Weinbauer-Heidel, I. 2018. What Makes Training Really Work 

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