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A Model for Transfer of Learning
by David Perkins & Gavriel Salomon

This page — which supplements a summary of their model in Transfer of Learning – Metacognitive Strategies` — is based on an encyclopedia article from 1992 that summarizes-and-extends ideas from earlier papers (1987, 1988) by the authors.  In these papers, David Perkins & Gavriel Salomon propose that transfers of learning can be analyzed along two dimensions: backward-reaching or forward-looking, and low road or high road.

Transfer of Learning was written by Perkins & Salomon in 1992 for the International Encyclopedia of Education (2nd edition).  This excellent article is worth reading carefully, because my summary (which later will be done more thoroughly) omits many useful ideas:


Their abstract begins with definitions: "Transfer of learning occurs when learning in one context enhances (positive transfer) or undermines (negative transfer) a related performance in another context.  Transfer includes near transfer (to closely related contexts and performances) and far transfer (to rather different contexts and performances)."

Then it summarizes their theory: "Transfer happens by way of two rather different mechanisms.  Reflexive or low road transfer involves the triggering of well-practiced routines by stimulus conditions similar to those in the learning context [for a near transfer].  Mindful or high road transfer involves deliberate effortful abstraction and a search for connections [which can promote far transfer to less-similar contexts]."

And it describes implications for education: "Conventional educational practices often fail to establish the conditions either for reflexive or mindful transfer.  However, education can be designed to honor these conditions and achieve transfer."


The main body has an introduction and 6 sections: Transfer Defined, Prospects of Transfer, Transfer and Local Knowledge, Conditions of Transfer, Mechanisms of Transfer, and Teaching for Transfer.

The introduction begins by stating the importance of transfer: "Transfer of learning occurs when learning in one context or with one set of materials impacts on performance in another context or with other related materials. ... Transfer is a key concept in education and learning theory because most formal education aspires to transfer. ... Consequently, the ends of education are not achieved unless transfer occurs. ... Abundant evidence shows that very often the hoped-for transfer from learning experiences does not occur.  Thus, the prospects and conditions of transfer are crucial educational issues."

And the article ends with optimism: "A closer examination of the conditions under which transfer does and does not occur and the mechanisms at work presents a more positive picture [compared with a superficial look at research].  Education can achieve abundant transfer if it is designed to do so."

They recommend instruction that includes both "realistic experiential character... and thoughtful analytic character," to promote both low-road and high-road transfers of learning.


Here are excerpts from Section 5, Mechanisms of Transfer:

    Low road transfer happens when stimulus conditions in the transfer context are sufficiently similar to those in a prior context of learning to trigger well-developed semi-automatic responses. ... These responses need not be mediated by external or mental representations.  A relatively reflexive process, low road transfer figures most often in near transfer. .....
    High road transfer, in contrast, depends on mindful abstraction from the context of learning or application and a deliberate search for connections: What is the general pattern? What is needed? What principles might apply? What is known that might help?  Such transfer is not in general reflexive.  It demands time for exploration and the investment of mental effort.  It can easily accomplish far transfer. .....
    In a particular episode of transfer, the two roads can work together — some connections can occur reflexively while others are sought out.  But in principle the two mechanisms are distinct.