Learning Transfer
Andrea Lala
Colorado State University
What is Learning Transfer? We hear so much about it as adult educators. There are whole
programs and conferences available to help us learn how to facilitate learning transfer. Earl
Thomas describes learning transfer as “the ability to appropriately apply information and skills
learned in one setting to a similar or different setting.” (Thomas, 2007, p. 5) While this seems
like a simple concept, there are several authors who have argued against the idea of learning
transfer. In the following pages, I will review the augments for and against learning transfer as a
learning concept. In addition, I will discuss learning transfer in the workplace and how I view the
transfer of learning from the training room to the employee’s desk.
Paul Hager and Phil Hodkinson take a very cynical view of learning transfer. They argue
“it is more realistic to view ‘transfer’ as renovation and expansion of previous knowledge via the
experience of dealing with new situations in new settings. Here, learning is more accurately
viewed as an ongoing process rather than a series of distinct acquisition events.” (Hager and
Hodkinson, 2009, p. 620) They go on to suggest, “Learning transfer is an unsatisfactory way of
understanding learning.” (Hager and Hodkinson, 2009, p. 629) They conclude that moving
learning from location to location (or applying learned skills in different settings) is not transfer,
it is learning. While this seems like a logical statement, it is my belief that learning transfer
should be considered in program planning and evaluated so that adult educators can feel
confident that skills have not been learned in isolation and will carry over into the workplace.
Jim Kirkpatrick believes that learning transfer should be measured to show the value of
training programs. He states, “The best demonstration of value occurs when learning translates
into lasting behavior change.” (Kirkpatrick, 2005, p. 19) He studied instances where learning
transfer did not occur and he found that senior and junior-level managers “did little or nothing to
create accountability or support new behaviors.” (Kirkpatrick, 2005, p. 19) He argues that we as
educators, need to balance accountability and support for participants through evaluation of
training programs, improving coaching behaviors through training, and collaborating with our
peers for ideas.
Hager and Hodkinson describe several lenses that describe learning. An understanding of
learning helps to define when transfer happens (or doesn’t in their opinion). Each of these
learning lenses looks at what it learnt, either in a specific context or not. Looking through the
lenses we can see that learning can take place around a skill (outside of the learner), a product
(an idea inside of the learner), or a social skill (outside of the learner in a social situation). (Hager
and Hodkinson, 2009, pps. 622-629) I find it important to recognize that learning can be
centered around skills, ideas or social interactions. These area valuable concepts when looking at
learning, After looking at the lenses they go on to say that learning transfer is a metaphor not a
literal reality.” (Hagar and Hodkinson, 2009, p. 630) I disagree with this statement.
While I can see the reasonableness of this argument, to me learning transfer is reality. As
I plan new programs and facilitate instruction, it is important to understand how the learning will
be applied and used in the workplace. I must be able to understand what success will look like
for my learners. Learning transfer is the outward demonstration of this success and it is how my
learners take what they have learnt and apply it to their own real-world experiences.
I think it comes down to how we plan and prepare learning events and programs. In his
article, Thoughtful Planning Fosters Learning Transfer, Earl Thomas criticizes adult educators
for not planning how learners will apply newly learned skills. He argues that creating a strategy
for learning transfer should be a part of the planning process as instruction is developed.
suggests three points in the learning process to consider learning transfer: before the learning
takes place to determine how and in what context transfer will take place, during the learning
experience to create support systems for the learner to help facilitate learning transfer, and after
the learning event to create experiences for the learner to apply the new skills in their actual
work setting. (Thomas, 2007, p. 5)
Thomas suggests, “Adult educators who practice thoughtful approaches to learning
transfer are more likely to see it occur.” (Thomas, 2005, p. 6) He says that adult educators should
plan for learning transfer by using specific objectives, strategies to support the objectives,
identify the barriers to the achievement of the outcomes, create plans for follow-up, and clearly
state the criteria for success.
During EDAE 629 Program Planning, I developed a program series for Lead LPNs
within the outpatient clinics at the medical center I work for to help develop leadership skills in
the LPNs who have a leadership role within their clinics. As I went through each of the activities
to create the program, I was doing what Thomas suggests. I thoughtfully planned how my
learners will apply the new skills through activities, journal reflection, online discussion and
classroom dialogue. As I am currently implementing the program, I can say that I have taken the
time to consider transfer in the program planning and during the learning. I have not been
reflecting after each learning session, but with Thomas’s encouragement I will do this after this
month’s event.
Thomas also identified several barriers to learning transfer. They include, lack of
foundational knowledge, lack of motivation or confidence by the learner and lack of support by
peers or supervisors to help support the new skill(s). (Thomas, 2007, pps. 5-6) Kirkpatrick also
found that learning transfer is hindered when managers do not create accountability or support
the newly acquired skills or behaviors. (Kirkpatrick, 2005, p. 19) That is why I have always tried
to achieve supervisor buy-in as I develop and implement new programs.
Maurice Taylor found similar factors that influence learning transfer in his study of
workplace learning. He identified lack of reinforcement to apply learning to the job as the main
reason that learning transfer does not occur. In addition he stated “working with time pressures,
insufficient authority, ineffective work processes or inadequate equipment” as environmental
impediments to learning transfer. (Taylor, 2000, p. 4) He infers from this that even if employees
are motivated to change, they may not be able to use the news skills based upon obstacles placed
in their way. Taylor also identifies the “lack of active support by the organizational climate for
the transfer of the program’s content or skills to the workplace.” (Taylor, 2000, p. 4)
In looking at barriers to learning transfer, Taylor reviewed those that are under the
control of the instructor and the student. Instructional barriers that he identified were
organizational, programmatic, lack of support, and learner attitude. Program elements that
contribute to the transfer of learning include: the session length, the time of day the session is
offered, the size of the class, and the location of the class. Student barriers include motivation,
attitude, confidence and time commitments. Taylor also saw the inability to apply the new
learning and practice the new skills as a barrier. (Taylor, 2000, pps. 7-9)
In program planning, I try to accommodate the program elements in my process. I limit
class size where I can, try to keep the location consistent and not move rooms between sessions;
I also consider the time of day for each session so that a session that is very challenging is not
offered late in the day. I think it is also important to encourage our students to apply newly
learned skills. When that doesn’t happen, I have had to retrain students. I have always had the
belief that it is OK to retake a training session if you didn’t “get” the skill in training or didn’t
have a chance to apply it.
Taylor didn’t just identify problems in his article; he also presented some common sense
ideas to help facilitate learning transfer. For both the learner and the instructor he gives
suggestions on how to improve learning transfer. For instructors he suggests that we do the
Identify what is to be transferred
Use a variety contextual teaching techniques, such as real world example,
simulation, and linking learning to the learners experiences
Evaluation of the program once it is complete to understand when and how
transfer occurred. (Taylor, 2000, p. 7)
Reflecting again on the LPN Leadership program I developed in EDAE 629, I found that the
activities and concepts that are used in the instructional design process helped to ensure the
transfer of learning takes place. I must admit that writing objectives and program goals is not my
favorite activity but it will be worth it if my learners are able to apply what we discuss in our
LPN Leadership sessions. Other portions of EDAE 629 were also part of the best practices
identified by Thomas such as trying to create a variety of activities for the learners and the
program evaluations that we conducted.
For the learner, Taylor suggests that programs that are structured around the needs and
wants of the learner are more successful at achieving learning transfer. He also suggests that a
transfer of learning plan be developed between learner and his/her supervisor. This plan helps to
identify what is to be learned, how it is to be learned, and when learning is to take place. This
plan can help motivate learners to apply the new skills and give them guidelines on how to use
these new skills. (Taylor, 2000, pps. 8-9)
To me learning transfer is not a metaphor. It is what I need to accomplish as an instructor,
a program developer, and training manager. I am ultimately responsible to make sure the learners
who participate in the programs we develop and deliver are able to take the skills back to their
desks and apply them. Learners need to know how to recall what was learned in one context and
apply it in another. This is transfer. If I am not able to facilitate this transfer, I am not successful
in my facilitation of learning. What is the point of learning a skill in the training room if you
can’t apply it when you are working with a patient?
Hager, P., & Hodkinson, P. (2009). Moving beyond the metaphor of transfer of learning. British
Educational Research Journal, 35(4), 619-638. doi:10.1080/01411920802642371
Kirkpatrick, J. (2005). Transferring Learning to Behavior. T+D, 59(4), 19-20.
Taylor, M. C. (2000). Transfer of Learning in Workplace Literacy Programs. Adult Basic
Education, 10(1), 3-20.
Thomas, E. (2007). Thoughtful Planning Fosters Learning Transfer. Adult Learning, 18(3-4), 48.