After reading this article you will learn about the importance of transfer of learning.
The main purpose of any learning or education is that a person who acquires some knowledge or skill in a formal and controlled situation like a classroom, or a training situation, will be able to transfer such knowledge and skill to real life situations and adapt himself more effectively.
If this does not happen, then any exercise in learning or any system of education is an utter waste because no individual is going to spend his entire lifetime in the psychologist’s laboratory or a classroom or a training institute to learn on each occasion to solve his problems.
The purpose of any teaching-learning interaction is to bring about a generalisation and application of what has been learnt in specific situations to real life situations and acquire a general capacity to adapt. One often hears a complaint from employers that university graduates who are supposed to be good at learning having secured high marks, are very often found to be useless, inept and incompetent in dealing with actual work situations.
This has been said even about technical graduates in the fields of engineering and technology. Such candidates are found unfit to man jobs for which they have been ostensibly trained or prepared. For a long time a principle known as “formal discipline” was followed. Educators in Europe believed that an individual who masters a classical language like Latin or Greek would be able to learn all other disciplines much better.
The underlying assumption was that learning of these languages would inculcate certain general discipline, attitudes and skills and also approaches to learning which are of a general nature and that this would facilitate their learning in a variety of situations.
Unfortunately when psychology became an experimental science, this theory was unceremoniously thrown out as not having been empirically established. Here it could be said that the psychologists could have undertaken some experimental studies, comparing those who have mastered these languages with those who have not, on a variety of learning tasks. But, unfortunately, early psychologies had more faith in developing the theories of learning by studying cats and rats rather than human beings. Obviously cats and rats could not be taught Greek or Latin.
Nevertheless the problem of transfer of learning did finally attract psychologists. Some of the earliest studies on this problem were carried out by William James on himself as a subject. He tried to study the impact of learning literary material in Latin on learning materials in the English language.
Psychologists have certainly carried out a number of experiments on the phenomenon of transfer. A typical design of such an experiment takes the following form. Two groups of subjects matched on age, education, intelligence and prior learning and also background are selected.
One of them is designated as an experimental group and the other as the control group. At the next phase, the experimental group was required to learn a particular task to a point of criterion previously determined. The control group was not required to learn this.
At the next phase both the groups, experimental and control, were required to learn another task and their performances in terms of amount learnt in a fixed time or number of trials required for complete learning were compared. The assumption here is that any superiority in the performance of the experimental group could be attributed to the effect of transfer from the previous learning.
Several variations were introduced in choosing the original learning task in terms of similarity to the tasks to be learnt subsequently. While the results of the various experiments did not prove anything conclusive, nevertheless they led to an analysis of the phenomenon of transfer of learning in the light of the findings of the above paragraph and also certain other issues.
Some of the points that emerged are mentioned below:
1. Transfer can be positive or negative. Whenever an earlier learning experience leads to better learning of a subsequent task, positive transfer may be said to take place. On the other hand if prior learning is followed by poor learning at a subsequent task, it may be inferred that there has been a negative transfer or interference. Interference may result from a number of factors.
2. Transfer involves generalisation. There can be a stimulus generalisation or a response generalisation. Stimulus generalisation occurs whenever two tasks, the original and the subsequent are similar. Thus, learning a poem first may facilitate the learning of another poem compared to the learning of a prose passage.
Here one should call the attention of the student to the view that the principle of similarity comes into operation. If there is a certain degree of similarity between the first and the second tasks then transfer may take place. However, if the similarity is too high then there can be a negative transfer or interference.
3. Transfer may arise due to response generalisation. If there is a similarity between the responses acquired by two situations then there can be a transfer of response from the first learning to the second learning. Thus, learning to type on an ordinary typewriter can be generalized to typing on a computer.
Here again the factor of interference may occur. Thorndike formulated a principle known as Principle of Identical Elements which held that the amount of transfer is related to the degree of stimulus similarity or response similarity. But this principle as already noted cannot explain all aspects of the problem of transfer because it has been shown that beyond a certain point similarity can actually result in interference.
4. The students while learning about the process of conditioning must have learnt about the process of stimulus generalisation and response generalisation. Transfer has also been categorized as general transfer. Some of the sources of specific transfer essentially relate to similarities in stimuli or response.
General transfer, however, depends on those factors which do not spring from elements of similarity. General transfers will result if the learner picks up general skills and strategies of learning which had nothing to do with the specific elements of similarity.
General transfer is very difficult to identify. However, psychologists have divided general transfers into two categories, warm up learning and learning how to learn. Warm up involves in an experimental set up, adjusting to the experimental conditions through which the stimuli are presented, learning to adopt a convenient posture etc.
These appear rather early in the course of learning and are temporary. On the other hand, learning how to learn and acquiring certain strategies of learning are permanent and occur later. In very early experiments employing a number of pairs of associated words, with no similarity among them, it was found that as the experiment progressed there was a noticeable reduction in the number of trials required, thus providing evidence for a transfer effect that cannot be attributed to similarity. In fact, the subjects appear to have learnt how to learn.