What is learning transfer?

Reading time: 10m

AuthorNick DaviesChief Commercial Officer (CCO)
Reading Time10 minutes

Picture the scene: you’ve just delivered what you thought was a great learning programme. Learner feedback says that staff loved it, completion rates were through the roof and you’re already getting sign-ups for your next course.

However, a post-training evaluation of results reveals this was one of the least successful training initiatives the company has ever seen. Panicking, you realise that with all the money spent, the return on investment just hasn’t added up. Staff members who attended your course are falling back into their old habits at work, no real change has taken place and the C-suite want to know why.

Where are these new skills? Why aren’t staff members able to perform better after what they claim was a brilliant and engaging course? Where’s the real, measurable impact of learning?

It’s not enough to help learners identify what skills they need or simply to recall information. Having stacks of positive ‘happy sheets’ post-training might feel good, but it’s simply not enough if staff aren’t following this up with the right actions.

It’s time to talk learning transfer.

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What is learning transfer?

In learning and development, you may be tasked with upskilling a particular team or department within your organisation. The ultimate goal might be to drive real behaviour change and boost performance. If you’ve identified that it’s a training issue, you can go ahead and deliver the learning to your employees. However, can you really guarantee that a learned skill or behaviour will be repeated in the workplace?

This all depends on the efficacy of learning transfer.

Howard Garner, in his book ‘The Disciplined Mind: What All Students Should Understand’ says learning transfer occurs when “an individual understands a concept, skill, theory or domain of knowledge to the extent that he or she can apply it appropriately in a new situation.” Learning transfer occurs when learners take the knowledge from a learning intervention and apply it to their day-to-day jobs. If a member of staff has attended a course but can’t later apply what they’ve learned in the workplace, then the learning intervention has essentially failed.

Government statistics reveal that UK employers invested £42 billion in training in 2019, equivalent to a spend of £2,540 per trainee and £1,530 per employee. According to research by Lentum Ltd., Lever Transfer of Learning and the University of Sussex, it was also revealed that 29% of those L&D professionals surveyed don’t actually know whether their learning interventions are benefitting job performance.

Can we really afford to overlook learning transfer?

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Types of learning transfer

There are various types of learning transfer. Some of the most common include:

  • Positive transfer - This occurs when learning in one context positively impacts performance in a related context. For example, learning to play the piano helps when learning other musical instruments.
  • Negative transfer - This occurs when learning in one context negatively affects performance in a related context. For example, learning to drive on the left-hand side of the road in the UK will hinder the ability to drive on the right-hand side in another country.
  • Neutral transfer - This occurs when the learning in one context neither helps nor hinders performance in another context. For example, learning to speak another language does not affect learning how to swim.

However, the two you’re most likely familiar with are ‘near’ and ‘far’ transfer:

  • Near transfer - This occurs when a person applies a learned skill to a context almost identical to that in which the skill was learned. For example, an employee learning how to use a new type of software in the business can then transfer that learning directly to the workplace.

  • Far transfer - This occurs when the learning context and the new context are dissimilar. Far transfer is more challenging in that it involves applying principles and using judgement not required with near transfer. For example, an employee taking a course on dealing with difficult customers will need to take the foundational knowledge from the learning situation, then apply it and make a judgement in order to adapt to various different scenarios in real-life.

    There are many other types of transfer that exist, along with various other ways of distinguishing between them. Many of these models derive from the theories of Edward Thorndike, which suggest that the transfer of learning depends upon the presence of identical elements in the original and new learning situations. The extent to which the knowledge acquired from one context will transfer to another depends upon the similarities between them.

You need to go beyond the idea that real-life application assumes exact replicability—a concept that is akin to rote learning. Instead, you should start pushing for critical thinking of the application of skills and knowledge, too. Challenge people to use their skills and knowledge when faced with unfamiliar situations. The more people are challenged to apply their learning and think about different contexts, the more confident they will become when faced with the unexpected.

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Factors affecting learning transfer

In a study on learning transfer by Sharan B. Merriam and Brendan Leahy, the authors list three variables that affect learning transfer:

Participant characteristics

There is strong evidence to suggest that the variables found within individual learners have an effect on learning transfer. Motivation is one of the variables listed that is said to affect the transfer of learning. Results from a survey by Facteau, Dobbins, Russell, Ladd and Kudisch (1995) revealed a higher level of perceived transfer of training among those participants who reported a great degree of pre-training motivation. Closely aligned with the motivation to learn is self-efficacy, meaning the learner’s belief that they have the skills and ability to apply the learning. Other characteristics include the “big five” personality traits listed by Broad and Newstrom (1992):

  • Conscientiousness
  • Openness to experience
  • Extraversion
  • Emotional stability
  • Agreeableness

Design and content of the training program

Evidence suggests that certain design features of a training programme have an impact on the transfer of learning. This includes using multiple instructional methodologies and post-training relapse prevention (RP), where learners were asked to devise strategies to combat relapsing into old patterns or behaviours and instead employ their newly-acquired skills. According to Krijer and Pol (1995), there are five variables “which strengthen the transfer process” and may prompt you to think about how your own learning design:

  • Use of simulation games
  • Follow-up three months post-training
  • Learning objectives determined by participants
  • A variety of instructional techniques
  • Participant involvement with planning

If you fail to design for learning transfer and employees are not given sufficient opportunities to put their newly acquired knowledge and skills into practice, then you can expect the learning initiatives to have failed in their aims. We’ll be exploring more about the ways to maximise learning transfer in the workplace in a future blog post.

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Work environment

The work environment is an important determinant in the learning transfer process. Factors relating to the work environment include the availability of opportunities for learners to use their new-found skills in the workplace, incentives to drive learning transfer (these could be financial or otherwise), support from managers, coaches and peers, and the organisational climate.

In the Harvard Business School paper ‘The Great Training Robbery’ (2016), a study by Mike Beer and his colleagues in the 1980s found that corporate organisations that began their transformation with the the education of hundreds—sometimes, even thousands—of employees “lagged in their transformations compared to companies that never employed training and education as a strategy for change.” The main cause of this issue?

The organisational and management system—the pattern of roles, responsibilities and relationships shaped by the organisation’s design and leadership that motivates and sustains attitude and behaviour. According to the authors: “The seeds of new individual skills, knowledge and attitudes can only thrive in fertile ground—a changed pattern of roles, responsibilities and relationships that typically emerge from a new organisation design led by the senior team.” These should encourage new behaviours post-learning.

This does not mean always expecting people to get things right first time. Consider the importance of a ‘culture of failure’; one which facilitates learners to take their skills and actively apply them without the fear of getting it wrong first time. Your organisation should aim to support a ‘falling forward’ approach, whereby learners are not afraid to fail because these failures are not destructive. This enables them to apply the learning, receive feedback and re-apply the skills and knowledge acquired. The result?

An on-the-job experience that is also constructive in nature.

In summary...

In the book ‘Transferring Learning to the Workplace, Mary L. Broad defines learning transfer as “...the effective and continuing application by learners—to their performance of jobs or other individual, organisational, or community responsibilities—of knowledge and skills gained in learning activities.

Note the use of the word “performance” with regards to learning transfer. When we consider the purpose of training and learning from a business perspective, the ultimate goal is to increase overall productivity and performance to achieve a defined standard. The learning must be “effective and continuing”, with regular opportunities for retrieval practice and real-world application. in 1885, the German researcher Hermann Ebbinghaus, famously pioneered a series of experiments identifying what is now known as the ‘forgetting curve’, which describes the rate at which new knowledge deteriorates or is forgotten. Regular, continuous opportunities to apply the learning are critical in counteracting this effect.

In the next blog post, we will explore how you can create optimal conditions in your work environment to maximise the impact of learning transfer.

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