Near and far transfer of learning

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.”
(From Howard Gardner’s 1999 book, The Disciplined Mind: What All Students Should Understand)

In many respects, learning transfer is the most critical concept in training. However effective instruction might otherwise be, if a learned behaviour or skill does not transfer to relevant functional application contexts and/or is not maintained over time, then the instruction has failed. Understanding the nuances of transfer gives us a head start in designing our training to achieve it.

The concept of near and far transfer of learning has been with us for a long time and is still widely discussed in the literature. The Near/Far model is probably the most commonly known one of over 20 learning transfer models that have been proposed in what has become a field of study within learning theory. Many of these transfer models are based on the work done by Edward Thorndike (1874 – 1949) over 100 years ago. His identical elements theory of transfer states, that the extent to which information learned in one situation will transfer to another situation, is determined by the similarity between the two situations. The more similar the situations are, the greater the amount of information that will transfer. Similarly, if the situations have nothing in common, information learned in one situation will not be of any value in the other situation.

What is near transfer?

In the Near/Far model, near transfer occurs when the training context and trained behaviour are almost identical to the application context and application behaviour. A common example used is that of tying shoelaces. Once we have learned to tie a shoelace, it is highly likely that the skill generalises to tying all shoelaces regardless of length or colour or thickness of the lace, or the design of the shoe. Near transfer involves the study of a problem or task and then practising it to a high level of automaticity. When a nearly similar problem or task is encountered, it is automatically solved or accomplished with little or no conscious thought.

This ability to generalise a skill to solve nearly similar problems has been, and still is crucial to us and our species for survival. It is hard wired into us. If we didn’t have it, we would have to ‘learn’ all over again how to tie a shoelace every time we bought a new pair of shoes. We would have to ‘learn’ to use a tap every time we were confronted with a tap with a new design. We would have to ‘learn’ to open a door every time we encountered a different design of door.

What is far transfer?

And this brings us to the idea that sometimes the application context and application behaviour is different enough that near transfer does not work. Imagine every tap you have seen and used has a knob to turn, and then you encounter for the first time a tap with a push button. What do you do? Imagine every door has a lever handle or a knob to turn, and you encounter a door with neither. Instead it has a push button on the wall beside the door. What do you do? We must learn to expand our skill to include a wider range of contexts, and in doing so, create some higher-level ideas in our mind that will enable us to solve problems that are even further away from what we first learned.

Now we are transferring concepts that guide problem solution rather than directly applicable automated routines. This is called far transfer. Far transfer tasks involve skills and knowledge being applied in situations that change and the application of the skill is executed differently depending on the situation. In far transfer, the learner adapts their actions based on their judgement of the situation.

The importance of the Near/Far model on training design

It is important to realise that near and far transfer occur on a continuum and the transfer is either nearer or father away from the training context and behaviour. It is also important to realise that people vary considerably in their abilities to see, feel, or sense similarities between different problem situations. In any problem-solving situation, some people seem to be innately much more able to do far transfer than are others. Or rather, they see the similarities more easily, and thus for them it is nearer transfer, and thus comes more easily.

Knowing this about transfer of learning, how can you design your learning/training to achieve better transfer?

Further reading How to reboot training for tangible business impact

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