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Science of Learning

Transfer of Learning

“How to navigate the inevitably awkward.”

This post originally appeared on the Data Carpentry website Have you ever experienced déja vu? It’s when you have the feeling that what you’re currently experiencing has already happened. It can be extremely awkward, right? It’s a sensation that leaves you saying to yourself, “I did this already. This happened.” So, what do you do? Do you carry out the scenario as you remember it happening, or change it up? What about your perceived past experience makes you perform differently in the current experience?

Déja vu is a feeling of recollection–the feeling that you lived through an experience already. Studies have shown that similar spatial layouts between the new scene and the scene in your memory may contribute to the experience [1]. This idea of linking past and present experiences can be applied to teaching and learning. One theory, Transfer of Learning, describes how past experiences (transfer tasks) affect performing in new situations (learning tasks).

Transfer of learning depends on how similar the tasks (learning vs. transfer) are:

Near transfer: Transfer of knowledge between similar contexts.
Far transfer: Transfer of knowledge between dissimilar contexts.

For example, when I took my first MATLAB course in college, I relied on my previous high school experience programming in Pascal: near transfer.

When I learned to do clean and jerks in my weightlifting class, I relied on my knowledge of vectors from geometry to visualize where the barbell should go: far transfer.

Now, let’s think about how we teach Data Carpentry lessons. Ultimately, all learning is transfer–when learning new things one builds upon what was previously learnt. Instructors act as facilitators by encouraging learners to recall what they’ve already seen (déja vu). By encouraging learners to transfer knowledge, whether from near or far, we are giving them one more tool to help them learn the skills we teach such that they are able to master working with data easily and efficiently. When we ask learners to recall concepts from their previous studies and connect those concepts to what they’re learning in our lessons, we are encouraging them to store the information in their long-term memory.

Recognizing how transfer of learning can be used to teach our lessons can also improve our ability to assess learner’s skills and confidence. As learning is an active and dynamic process, learners have the ability to improve their learning by participating in dynamic assessment (i.e. the challenges throughout our lessons). These challenges promote metacognition, or, awareness and understanding of one’s thought process.

Think about your own learning. What are some examples of past experiences that have affected your learning or performing in a new situation? In particular, can you think of a time when you were able to transfer knowledge from either near or far? Did that help you learn programming? Teach programming? Share your experience below–you may just help someone.

[1] Cleary; Brown, AS; Sawyer, BD; Nomi, JS; Ajoku, AC; Ryals, AJ; et al. (2012). “Familiarity from the configuration of objects in 3-dimensional space and its relation to déjà vu: A virtual reality investigation”. Consciousness and Cognition. 21 (2): 969–975. DOI: 10.1016/j.concog.2011.12.010. PMID: 22322010.

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