How to Increase Learning and Skill Transfer

While you’re learning to be a polymath, perhaps the most difficult task you’ll face is to integrate your knowledge from different disciplines. The concept of learning transfer will make this part of achieving polymathy significantly simpler. 

A learning transfer occurs when you use knowledge or skills acquired in a certain context in an area that is different from the original one. There are several types of learning transfers. Among these are positive and negative transfers. The former is simply a successful learning transfer, whereas a negative transfer occurs when knowledge acquired in one context hinders learning in another. Then there are simple and complex transfers. Simple transfers occur when you transfer learning from one context to another one that is similar to the first, whereas complex transfers involve transference to more disparate contexts. Finally, there are also specific and non-specific transfers. When the context to which you’re transferring your knowledge has clear similarities with the original one, a specific transfer occurs. However, when there are no apparent similarities between the two contexts, a non-specific transfer occurs.

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How to Increase Learning and Skill Transfer

As we’ve discussed before, perhaps the trickiest part of becoming a polymath is integrating all your knowledge from disparate disciplines toward one common task. The contents of this chapter are aimed at making this step of achieving polymathy simpler than it appears.

The main way we’ll do this is through a concept called transfer of learning. Such a transference takes place every time you use something you’ve learned in a particular context for a different context. In a way, we’re constantly using this technique to learn new things without realizing it. We always acquire new knowledge and skills using what we already know.

A simple example of this is when you try to learn math by relating concepts based on their relevance to your business or finances. Similarly, you might learn how to calculate percentages in a math class, and if you’re able to use the same concept to calculate your tip at a restaurant, you’ve successfully transferred your learning from one domain to another.

Unfortunately, learning transfers don’t always occur the way we need them to. We often fail to understand how our knowledge from one context can apply to another, and even end up making the wrong connections. However, once you understand the mechanisms and techniques underlying this process, you’ll be able to easily exploit the way we naturally learn to acquire knowledge and skills efficiently.

The theory on transfer of learning was developed by researchers Edward Thorndike and Robert Woodworth back in 1901. At the time, the dominant paradigm for learning was something called the doctrine of formal discipline. This is fairly similar to the biological view we discussed before in that proponents of this theory hold that the brain is divided into specific faculties like attention, memory, logic, language, and so on.

To improve performance on a particular task, it was thought that a person needed to improve the faculty that their task relied on. So if someone wanted to strengthen their argumentation skills, they needed to become better at logic by practicing math. Similarly, becoming a more capable writer depended on linguistic skills, which could be refined by learning difficult languages like Latin.

Though this theory supposedly traces its origins to Plato in Ancient Greece, it has now been debunked largely as a result of Thorndike and Woodworth’s research. They didn’t believe that general skills like logic could affect all tasks that were meaningfully related to those skills. However, what they did acknowledge was that transfer of learning required some degree of overlap between the domains through which knowledge or skills were being transferred.

This interpretation of the transfer of learning model is called the identical components theory. Though there are as many as six different theories on how exactly learning transfers take this place, the identical components theory remains the most influential of the lot.

According to this theory, transfers of learning cannot take place if the domain to which learning is being transferred has nothing in common with the original one. For example, knowing how to sew probably won’t help you become a faster runner. As such, while the disciplines and skills you learn to become a polymath need to be sufficiently different from each other to result in creative breakthroughs, they cannot be completely unrelated. It is also the case that the greater the resemblance between the two domains, the easier it is to transfer your knowledge.

Another crucial element of learning transfers is the concept of an active learner. Traditionally we think of learning as a one-way process. A teacher, author, or course instructor simply gives us information, steps to follow, tips and tricks to absorb and utilize. While this method is perfectly suitable for acquiring new knowledge, it isn’t the best way to learn and use what you’ve acquired.

For that, and to facilitate transfer of learning, we must bring our individual and social experiences to the table as well, using our pre-existing knowledge while revising, reorganizing, and reinterpreting it. The method of learning must be tailored to your needs, and elements like your approach, your mental state, confidence or anxiety levels, all play a role in how transferable your learning will eventually be.

Being an active learner means being aware of all of these factors and modifying your learning routines accordingly. If you hate doing math but force yourself to push through it, you’re unlikely to be able to think creatively when the time comes to apply your math skills in the real world. However, if you’re passionate about reading, you’re more likely to be able to use what you’ve read in a debate or discussion.

Thus, we must aim to be active, enthusiastic learners wherever possible. Some ways to do this are to constantly try and relate your learning materials with your lived experience. If you play sports, you can use math to calculate different statistics based on which sport you play. Similarly, if you’re a businessman trying to learn law, you can utilize your knowledge of various topics within law through their relevance to your business in matters such as employee contracts, permissions, ethics, and so on.

Another tactic you can use to become an active learner is to develop curiosity for your subject. This ties into the point about relating learning to your life as well. Try to find new and innovative ways in which your topics might be relevant to other aspects of your life. Ask yourself in what ways you can use the knowledge you’re acquiring to your benefit, how you can ensure the skills you’re learning will lead to self-improvement in the long-term, etc.

Not only will this approach improve the rate at which you can transfer your learning, but it will also help you choose and add disciplines and skills to your repertoire and enhance your polymathic abilities.

To further our knowledge of learning transfers and implement it productively in our education, we need to familiarize ourselves with the various types of transfers that have been theorized. While they are important in their own right, these types will also be central to understanding the various stages of a learning transfer as they normally occur. Different theorists classify learning tasks in various ways, but we’ll divide them broadly into two camps.

The first camp includes positive and negative transfers. As the names suggest, positive transfers are those where previously acquired knowledge successfully result in improvements when learning something else. So if you learn how to count and use that to master addition, that’s a positive transfer. A negative transfer is simply the reverse, wherein knowledge acquired in one domain actively hinders learning in another context.

An example of this is trying to learn how to drive right-sided vehicles when one has previously driven only left-sided vehicles. It’s very likely that you’ll find the former much easier if you’d simply learned to drive right-sided vehicles first than after becoming familiar with the latter. (Leberman et al, 2006)

The second camp of transfers includes several types that can be subdivided into binary categories. The first such category is simple vs. complex transfers. Simple transfers occur when acquired knowledge can easily be transferred to another context. A simple example of this is learning how to launch an application or laptop. Once you learn how to launch a particular application, you’ve learned how to start all of them as a result of simple transfer. On the other hand, complex transfers require good judgement to transpose something learned in one context to another.

To illustrate this, let’s assume you’ve grown up learning the imperial system of measurements. You’re traveling from the US to Canada and encounter metric units like kilometers. If you’re able to use those numbers to convert from imperial to metric and calculate how much distance you’ve covered, you’ve successfully used a complex transfer to get the right answer. (Leberman et al, 2006)

The next binary is automatic and mindful transfers. Automatic transfers occur subconsciously, without the need for any active interference in the learning transfer. If you engage in academic writing and publishing, this will automatically improve your writing skills in other contexts as well. You don’t need to consciously employ the refinements you’ve acquired over the course of your academic work.

Conversely, mindful transfers occur when you consciously use knowledge from one area in another. Mindful transfers take place between less closely related subjects, such as using mathematical concepts when creating visual art. Both simple and complex transfers are types of mindful transfers, since they require your active judgement for successful execution. (Leberman et al, 2006)

The last type of binary consists of specific and non-specific transfers. Specific transfers involve situations wherein the learner can clearly identify similarities between knowledge they have already acquired and the new context where they are seeking to apply it.

For example, if you use arguments based on deductive logic for philosophical writings, you can use those same arguments to establish claims in other social science disciplines. The subject changes, but deductive argumentation can be applied in both cases. (Royer 1979)

Non-specific transfers are those where there aren’t any clearly observable similarities between your past and current learning. So say you’ve worked with animals and learned how to build trust with them. If you use your learning with animals to also build trust with humans, you’ve completed a non-specific transfer because it isn’t obvious that trust techniques that work with animals would also work with humans.

Non-specific transfers are the key to developing polymathy. Most people can engage in simple or specific transfers, but the ability to transfer learning between fields and contexts that don’t have any obvious connection is key to the polymath’s potential for boundless success. (Royer 1979)