From Emergency Workers to the Classroom – Transfer of Learning is Imperative

Firefighters and two firetrucks attending to a fire.
Emergency workers constantly transfer knowledge to new contexts. Image by Jon Pauling.

Consider our emergency workers. Each time they are out on a call, the context and situation are new. They must take their skills and learnt strategies and apply them in a situation that potentially they have not experienced before. We can be grateful to the concept of transfer of learning that these emergency crews can take their skills, strategies and knowledge and apply it to new problem-solving situations.

Transfer of learning is an integral part of the learning process. It relies on cognitive accessibility, a term to describe the memory systems’ capacity (both long-term and working memory) to support recall and transfer of skills. When a student has memory systems that are less effective in supporting the transfer of learning, supports are required.

So how can we support our students? Employing techniques designed to enhance students’ memory is one area supported by CAST, the home of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). They suggest using mnemonics, strategic note-taking, visual imagery, and explicitly teaching for transfer as classroom-based strategies. Access CAST’s reference list to locate evidence for a range of strategies to support memory and transfer.

Practical Strategies

For those looking for simple-to-use, immediate action to provide transfer of learning comprehension supports for students, consider the following, adapted from CAST:

1. Support your students’ development of their organisation skills. Strategies include using checklists, graphic organisers, diary/calendar notes, sticky notes and electronic reminders

2. Support your students’ memory of information and strategies through the use of mnemonic strategies. Examples include using visual imagery, incorporating paraphrasing strategies, and employing retrieval practice.

3. Ensure students are provided regular and spaced explicit opportunities for review and practice. Then, guide opportunities in the longer term to revisit key ideas and encourage students’ to link these to new concepts.

4. Enhance students’ note-taking practice by providing scaffolds such as templates, graphic organisers and concept maps.

5. Develop a culture of connecting of valuing connections between new and prior knowledge. One of my skilled colleagues teaches her primary school class to make a specific hand signal when something they learn connects to their own prior knowledge of experience. This supports connection-making and enables the class to engage with the materials without verbally interrupting. Other scaffold methods include using word webs or part-filled concept maps.

6. Employ creativity through analogy, metaphor, drama, music, or film. for example, to embed new ideas in familiar contexts.

7. Provide explicit, supported opportunities to generalise learning to new situations. FOr example, provide opportunities to explore new problem-solving situations that use a particular strategy – this could range from maths to empathy! Also, support students to apply their learning to practical, real-world applications within the learning environment and beyond.

Find more practical suggestions on reducing barriers to learning in the Universal Design for Learning section of the CUDA website.