For over two years I’ve been compiling and analyzing the research on learning transfer as it relates to workplace learning and development. Today I am releasing my findings to the public.
Here is the Overview from the Research-to-Practice Report:
Learning transfer—or “training transfer” as it is sometimes called—occurs when people learn concepts and/or skills and later utilize those concepts/skills in work situations.1 Because we invest time, effort, and resources to create learning interventions, we hope to get a return on those investments in the form of some tangible benefit—usually some form of improved work outcome. Transfer, then, is our paramount goal. When we transfer, we are successful. When we don’t transfer, we fail.
To be practical about this, it is not enough to help our learners comprehend concepts or understand skills. It is not enough to get them to remember concepts/skills. It is not enough to inspire our learners to be motivated to use what they’ve learned. These results may be necessary, but they are not sufficient. We learning professionals hold transfer sacrosanct because it is the ultimate standard for success and failure.
This research review was conducted to determine factors that can be leveraged by workplace learning professionals to increase transfer success. This effort was not intended to be an exhaustive scientific review, but rather a quick analysis of recent research reviews, meta-analyses, and selected articles from scientific refereed journals. The goal of this review was to distill validated transfer factors—learning design and learning support elements that increase the likelihood that learning will transfer—and make these insights practical for trainers, learning architects, instructional designers, elearning developers, and learning professionals in general. In targeting this goal, this review aligns with transfer researchers’ recent admonition to ensure the scientific research on learning transfer gets packaged in a format that is usable by those who design and develop learning (Baldwin, Ford, Blume, 2017).
Unfortunately, after reviewing the scientific articles referenced in this report as well as others not cited here, my conclusion is that many of the most common transfer approaches have not yet been researched with sufficient rigor or intensity to enable us to have full certainty about how to engineer transfer success. At the end of this report, I make recommendations on how we can have a stronger research base.
Despite the limitations of the research, this quick review did uncover many testable hypotheses about the factors that may support transfer. Factors are presented here in two categories—those with strong support in the research, and those the research identifies as having possible benefits. I begin by highlighting the overall strength of the research.
Special Thanks for Early Sponsorship
Translating scientific research involves a huge investment in time, and to be honest, I am finding it more and more difficult to carve out time to do translational research. So it is with special gratitude that I want to thank Emma Weber of Lever Transfer of Learning for sponsoring me back in 2017 on some of the early research-translation efforts that got me started in compiling the research for this report. Without Lever’s support, this research would not have been started!
Tidbits from the Report
There are 17 research-supported recommended transfer factors and an additional six possible transfer factors. Here are a subset of the supported transfer factors:
- Transfer occurs most potently to the extent that our learning designs strengthen knowledge and skills.
- Far transfer hardly ever happens. Near transfer—transfer to contexts similar to those practiced during training or other learning efforts—can happen.
- Learners who set goals are more likely to transfer.
- Learners who also utilize triggered action planning will be even more likely to transfer, compared to those who only set goals alone.
- Learners with supervisors who encourage, support, and monitor learning transfer are more likely to successfully transfer.
- The longer the time between training and transfer, the less likely that training-generated knowledge create benefits for transfer.
- The more success learners have in their first attempts to transfer what they’ve learned, the more likely they are to persevere in more transfer-supporting behaviors.
The remaining recommendations can be viewed in the report (available below).
Recommendations to Researchers
While transfer researchers have done a great deal of work in uncovering how transfer works, the research base is not as solid as it should be. For example, much of the transfer research uses learners’ subjective estimates of transfer—rather than actual transfer—as the dependent measure. Transfer researchers themselves recognize the limitations of the research base, but they could be doing more. In the report, I offer several additional recommendations to the improvements they’ve already suggested.
The Research-to-Practice Report
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