How to Teach for Transfer

For most of the us, the goal of teaching isn't to make students to memorize facts but to have them gain skills they can use. The challenge is how to get there. One way to do that is to think about teaching for transfer, the focus of this insights from research post!

Research to Practice: Teaching for Transfer

What does it mean to teach for transfer?

So let me paint a beautiful picture. You teach your student about percentages. The student retains it and the next week can transfer it to a different type of percentage problem. And then something amazing happens. A few weeks later, the student goes to the grocery store and uses their knowledge of percentages to figure out how to calculate the sale price of an item. Doesn’t that just sound so lovely? What about this one? You teach students about making inferences in isolation and then… wait for it… they draw on what you taught and understand inferences in the books they are reading! Woohoo! Here’s a third dream scenario, taken from Dewitz and Graves (2014), “suppose you taught first- graders the silent e rule— that e at the end of a word is often silent and changes the sound of the vowel from short to long—and gave students a number of examples illustrating the rule, including can/cane, tap/tape, bit/bite, and others. At some later time, a student runs across the pair pan/pane, which has not been taught, and without consciously thinking about it applies the silent e rule to come up with the correct pronunciations” (p.150). If your students do this, you are CRUSHING it and teaching for transfer. If this sounds like the dream scenario for you but not quite where your students are at, read on. 

In each of those three scenarios the student was showing that they had transferred their learning. Rather than only learning content at a shallow level, they had understood it at a deep level and they can extend their learning into new contexts (Bransford et al., 2001). Dewitz and Graves (2014) have a great quote on why we care about transference. They write, “As teachers, we hope that what students have learned in today ’ s class will transfer to their work in tomorrow’s and next week’s classes, to situations they face as they progress through school, to their reading a wide variety of materials both in and out of school, and eventually to their succeeding in their social, civic, and professional lives” (p.150). 

Here is a bit of background on transfer

First, for transfer to occur three things need to happen, termed detecting, electing, and connecting. Students need to detect that they are in a situation where their knowledge might be useful. This is more likely to happen if the content as “expansively” framed when they learned it– aka framed as something that was relevant and useful for the student outside of just the one activity in the classroom. Once students detect the transfer opportunity, students then need to elect, to choose, to follow up on that detection. This is more likely to happen if the student sees the content as worthy of their attention and meaningful. Elsewise they might not bother to transfer the new learning. Finally, they need to connect their old learning to the current situation– hopefully successfully. For this to happen, they need to really have understood the content on a pretty deep level (Perkins & Salomon, 2012).

How hard all of this is depends on multiple things. One of the big things it depends on is how different the new situation is from the one where the student learned the content. If the situation is really similar to the original context– think a different math class– it is called “near” transfer and is a bit easier. If the situation is really different than the original context– like the supermarket– it is called “far” transfer and is a bit hard to pull off (Nokes-Malach & Mestre, 2013).

The question is, how do we teach for transfer? What can we do in our day to day instruction to have more stories like the ones I started with and less of the, “I taught it. They never figured out how to use it,” variety? This has been a big area of research so, while everyone agrees that it is HARD, researchers do have tips on what makes transference a bit more likely. So here we go!

How to teach for transfer

  1. Ensure that students really get the content you want transferred. Students can’t transfer what they don’t understand. That understanding needs to be at a deep level– if you want a student to generalize percents from the classroom the produce department, they need to get the concepts and the whys, not just the formulas (Bransford et al., 2001).
  2. Frame the content you are teaching expansively. That means don’t just tell students they are learning content for the class or for a test– talk about how it is broadly useful to them and relevant to their lives. Make it meaningful for students so they see a reason to transfer that knowledge and not just bury it deep in their memory archives. Explain to students how they might be able to use this learning years down the road and push them to connect this new learning to content they have already learned (Engle et al., 2012).
  3. Position students as “authors” of the knowledge, experts who already know a lot about the topic. By positioning students as the experts and getting them to articulate what you already know, you help position them to be active learners and people who might be called to draw on this type of knowledge in future settings (Engle et al., 2012).
  4. Help students see the patterns. Researchers call this schema development (which I also talk about in the entry on research-based approaches to word problems). In order for students to recognize new situations where the knowledge you are teaching might be useful, they have to be able to see past surface level differences between the two situations to the underlying patterns that are similar. Think about the grocery store– everything looks different than the problems in the student’s workbook. To figure out that they need to  whip out their calculator and do some multiplication (or use their brains, but I use my calculator so no judgment here!) they need to be able to see that the patterns are the same, that both draw on the same schema  (Perkins & Salomon, 2012). 
  5. Give students lots of opportunities to practice the content in different contexts. Dewitz and Graves (2014) have a nice example of what this means for a student trying to learn the word courageous: “A student might first learn the word courageous in reading Avi ’ s The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, use it in writing a review of the book, meet it again in her history text, and hear it on the evening news. Since the student has met the word in many contexts, she is likely to be able to deal with it in additional contexts” (p.1520). If the student had just heard the word in class, she probably wouldn’t transfer it as well. If your goal was the transference of percent skills, you might bring them into science, different lessons in math, and in reading (what percent of the book have we read?). The more contexts where students are exposed to content, the better for transference. 
  6. Talk to students about transfer. Make it clear to them that your goal isn’t to teach them content for today but skills and ideas they can draw on in the future (Dewitz & Graves, 2014).
  7. Then model and teach transfer! Model that whole detect-elect-connect process. When a previous learning can be applied in the same subject or a different one, call it out– and talk through how you can use the old learning here (Dewitz & Graves, 2014).


The bottom line

So here is my summary of all of this research. If you want students to be able to use their learning in the future, you need to 1) make sure they get it; 2) help them see how they could use it in the future and why it is useful; and 3) make them practice making connections between old and new learnings so they get into the habit of it. To me, those three things are what is at the heart of all of this research– so good luck and here’s to hoping your students start to take some of your teachings home with them! 



  • Bransford, J., Brown, A., & Cocking, R. (Eds.). (2001). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C.: National Research Council.
  • Dewitz, P. & Graves, M. (2014). Teaching for transfer in the Common Core era. The Reading Teacher, 68(2), 149-158. 
  • Engle, R. A., Lam, D. P., Meyer, X. S., & Nix, S. E. (2012). How does expansive framing promote transfer? Several proposed explanations and a research agenda for investigating them. Educational Psychologist, 47, 215–231. 
  • Nokes-Malach, T. & Mestre, J. (2013). Toward a model of transfer as sense-making. Educational Psychologist, 48(3), 184-207.
  • Perkins, D., & Salomon, G. (2012). Knowledge to go: A motivational and dispositional view of transfer. Educational Psychologist, 47(3), 248-258.