Have you ever had one of those moments where you just KNOW you know the answer or how to solve the problem, but you cannot, for the life of you, find the information in your brain and transfer it to this moment you need it?
From a learning science perspective, transfer is our ability to acquire knowledge and information in one context and apply it to another. As people passionate about developing people, it is crucial that we understand this concept. Transfer is the difference between KNOWING something and our ability to RECALL and USE it when needed.
In essence, regardless of what knowledge we are trying to impart, TRANSFER can make all the difference. For the nerds like me, who are now fascinated and plan to go down the transfer 'rabbit hole' online, I recommend THIS article by Joanne Lobato. It was my first introduction to this concept and served as a great foundation to build my knowledge. For those who just want a quick 101 to reflect on this week, read on.
As mentioned, transfer is our ability to take knowledge from one context and apply it to another. This could mean our ability to transfer knowledge from the classroom context to the workplace, from the counseling office to our personal life or from the sporting field to a team project at school.
For me, the best way I can help you understand transfer is to step you through the transfer process. So, here it goes.
STEP 1: Learn New Knowledge
When we learn something new, there is always a context. If we're in math class, we might learn how to add fractions. If we're in the workplace, we might learn (the hard way!) not to make assumptions about a colleague. If we're listening to a TedTalk, we might learn about servant leadership.
STEP 2: Store New Knowledge
Once we've learned the new knowledge, it is stored in our brain. Our brains have a remarkable capacity to store knowledge. When our brain stored the ability to add fractions, it is was likely stored in our 'school' or 'classroom' file. When our brain learned not to make assumptions about a colleague, it was probably stored in our 'workplace' file. And, when we learned about servant leadership in a TedTalk, it could have gotten stored anywhere depending on what led us to the video in the first place.
STEP 3: Time Goes By
You're probably thinking 'of course Nikki, way to point out the obvious!' But, although obvious, this is a critical step to consider when it comes to transfer. All of the knowledge we attempt to impart in our classes, to our mentees or in the online courses we build is subject to 'the forgetting curve.' We're going to dive into the forgetting curve soon, but in a nutshell, we forget knowledge over time if we do not make an effort to retain it.
STEP 4: A Situation Needs Knowledge
Suddenly time is no longer going by. A situation arises where we need the knowledge. We need to understand if we can combine a room of people that is 2/3 full with a room of people that is a ¼ full (and our phone battery is dead!). We arrive at our soccer practice, EVERYONE is late, and we are furious. Our junior staff left everything till the last minute again and are hunkering down for an all-nighter.
STEP 5: Recall (or NOT)
This pivotal moment is where transfer comes in to play. Does the event planner who learned how to add fractions in math class recall the knowledge and apply it? Does the soccer player remember not to make assumptions before they yell at everyone for being late? Does the manager remember that servant leaders roll up their sleeves and dive into all-nighters with their team?
Whether the event planner, soccer player and manager recall their knowledge or not has nothing to do with whether they learned the lesson or not. It has everything to do with their ability to transfer the knowledge they learned in one context to the context they now NEED it.
Have I convinced you yet that transfer is critically important? I hope so because the crux of the matter is this - WE can make a difference in our students and mentees lives by considering transfer in our practice. Instead of just asking our math class to do the practice problems in the back of the book, we could give them a few real-world problems to solve with their new knowledge. Instead of calling out a subordinate for making one specific assumption about their colleague, we could broaden the conversation to assumptions in general, drawing examples from various contexts. And finally, instead of just adding a TedTalk about servant leadership to our online MBA course, we could follow the video with some reflection questions. Questions requiring the learners to proactively think about different situations where servant leadership could be applied to their lives.
The great news is, that if we take the time to go the extra mile and contribute to someone's ability to transfer knowledge from one context to another, it's a cognitive process they can apply in ALL situations. So the next time you're developing a learning program, planning to have a difficult conversation with a mentee or are teaching your students something new DON'T FORGET about TRANSFER. Designing transfer practice into your lesson will help your students practice transferring the knowledge into different situations so they can recall it when they need it most!
And finally, it would be remiss of me not to practice what I preach. So I leave you with this challenge: think about the last three times you were imparting knowledge to a student or a mentee and write down ONE thing you could have done differently to help them not only LEARN what you were attempting to teach but to TRANSFER it to their life when they need it. Stick that piece of paper on your desk or where ever it is you do your coaching calls so that you can take it into your work developing people.