One of the most fundamental concepts in learning is transfer, i.e., the ability to apply something learned in one situation to another setting. Transfer is defined operationally as improved performance on one task as a result of something acquired on a previous task. This could be any type of skill (e.g., memory, sensory-motor, problem-solving, reasoning, etc.).

Almost all theories of learning address transfer in one way or another. Behavioral theories (e.g., Thorndike , Hull or Guthrie ) usually discussed transfer in terms of stimulus/response generalization or interference. Mathematical theories of learning (e.g., Atkinson , Estes ) consider transfer as an outcome of sampling probabilities. Cognitive theories (e.g., Ausubel , Bruner , Rumelhart & Norman ) tend to discuss transfer in terms of restructuring of knowledge and the concepts of schema or mental models. Theories of adult learning (e.g., Cross , Knowles , and Rogers ) embrace transfer in the context of experience sharing. Social learning theories (e.g., Bandura , Vygotsky ) deal with transfer through modeling or imitation.

A critical aspect of transfer is whether what is learned can be applied across many settings (i.e., general principles) or whether learning is always context-specific. Many theories such as ACT , GPS , or Soar assume that learning can and does generalize. On the other hand, theories of situated cognition suggest that learning is always embedded in a particular frame of reference. Cognitive flexibility theory (Spiro) emphasizes the use of case studies in order to provide contextually rich learning experiences. Repair theory (VanLehn) proposes that errors often occur when procedures learned in one context are applied to another.

One training domain where transfer has been studied extensively is the use of simulators (see Orlansky, 1986). The primary issue concerning transfer in simulators is fidelity, i.e., the nature and extent of realism needed. Basic skills and literacy training is another domain where transfer is paramount. Sticht has argued for the importance of functional context to promote transfer in this setting. Transfer is also a critical aspect of learning strategies research.


Cormier, S. & Hagman, J. (1987).Transfer of Learning. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Grose, R. & Birney, R. (1963). Transfer of Learning. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand.

Orlansky, J. (1986). The productivity of training. In J. Zeidner (ed.), Human Productivity Enhancement, Vol I. New York: Praeger.