Knowledge transfer, loosely defined, is the ability for a person to take what they have learned in one context and apply it in another context.
Educational psychologist and noted transfer researcher Robert Haskell bluntly asserts, “The aim of all education … is to apply what we learn in different contexts, and to recognize and extend that learning to completely new situations.”
Yet, as more than a century of research has found, knowledge transfer happens far less frequently in educational contexts than we might expect, or hope.
When a student who we know has been taught a skill in one class or one year fails to recall having learned it, or is unable to use that skill in their next course, it is possible to say that not only had there been a failure of transfer, but a failure of learning itself.
Still, not all hope is lost. Transfer researchers, including those from my own field, Writing Studies, have found that the educational context, the psychological dispositions of the learner and the pedagogical approach of the teacher all can facilitate or inhibit knowledge transfer.
One way to “teach for transfer” is to teach students to abstract from their knowledge. At New College, this means we rely far less on teaching writing as a set of discrete skills and more as a set of heuristics that students can use to figure out unknown writing contexts and transfer (or adapt, or repurpose) their previous writing knowledge to fit the requirements of new writing situation.
In this way, knowledge transfer in writing is also an act of translation: it is “part detective work, part art.” Like my colleagues who work to communicate the meaning behind an author’s words, students work to learn the meaning behind a specific skill or approach. Only then are they more able to successfully take what they have read, or learned, in the original context and translate it into a new one.