There are several science-backed tips you can follow to improve the chances of a positive transfer. Generally, those who are enthusiastic about their learning and are often to apply it to different settings are more successful at transferring it to other contexts. It has also been shown that people who are optimistic and confident about their ability to transfer their learning are more able to do so.
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The Six Stages of Learning Transfers
Now that we know which types of learning transfers exist, we can use these concepts to refine the way we learn and acquire knowledge in the most efficient manner possible. To aid us in this endeavor, we’ll use Robert Haskell’s taxonomy of learning transfers.
This is basically the six stages in which learning transfers take place. Depending on which stages you reach with particular subjects or skills, you can employ different types of learning transfers to hone your polymathic abilities. These six stages are described below:
Level 1: Non-specific transfer
This stage of learning transfer is called non-specific because everything we learn is acquired as a result of what we’ve learned in the past. For example, we can’t learn calculus if we don’t know anything about math. We first need to understand numbers, use numbers to learn addition and similar operations, then build on that knowledge to learn algebra, trigonometry, geometry, and finally, calculus. Most of our ordinary processes of learning proceed in a similar manner: we learn new things based on what we already know.
Level 2: Application Transfer
This stage of the learning transfer process involves practically applying the knowledge we’ve acquired in the first step. So if we’ve just learned basic addition and subtraction, we can use that to track our daily expenditures.
Level two generally involves the use of specific transfers because we’re still only superficially familiar with the subject we’ve learned, and require practice and application to solidify our new . For this and the previous level, the main task at hand is learning effectively. Once you manage that, you’ll be ready to transfer your knowledge from the next stage onwards.
Level 3: Context Transfer
Context transfer involves the use of your knowledge for a situation that is slightly different from the one in which you initially acquired it. This is the stage where you’re most susceptible to negative transfers, since it is fairly easy to transpose your knowledge in wrong ways through false assumptions.
For example, if you’re accustomed to writing in more academic and formal language, you might be tempted to use the same approach for more informal writing. However, non-academic writing requires linguistic skills that are somewhat different, and persisting with formal language in such contexts can be an example of a negative transfer. On the other hand, if you can successfully simplify your language to make it more accessible, you’ll be ready to proceed to the next stage.
Level 4: Near Transfer
This stage of the learning process is an extension of the previous one. Here you continue to apply your acquired knowledge in situations that are similar to the one where you were originally exposed to it.
So if you were to learn how to drive a car with manual transmission and use that knowledge to drive a truck with manual transmission, you’ve completed a near transfer. Becoming adept at this will be key to transferring your knowledge in more sophisticated ways, since this step ensures that your transferences are positive.
Level 5: Far Transfer
This is where you start getting close to developing polymathy as a result of learning transfers. Far transfers test your ability to take a piece of learning or knowledge and apply it in some context that is entirely dissimilar to the one where you acquired it. Say that while learning math you’ve realized it’s a good strategy to be careful with your steps and consider alternative answers to the question.
If you apply this same strategy while making investments, you’ve completed a far transfer. Once you’re able to master far transfers, you’ll have a much easier time achieving polymathy because this step necessarily demands that you integrate what you’ve learned in ways that are new and innovative.
Level 6: Displacement/Creative Transfer
The final stage of learning transfers takes the integrative skills we acquired in the previous step to the next level. Being successful at creatively transferring your knowledge is the pinnacle of polymathic abilities, and is sure to lead to new discoveries, inventions, and skills that are pathbreaking in their own right.
An example of creative transfer is this. Say you jump in the air and feel yourself being pulled down due to gravitational force. Later, you enter an elevator and feel yourself accelerated upwards at a similar rate as the one that pulled you down while jumping. If you can connect the dots, the upward acceleration from the lift and the downward pull of gravity are actually the same thing. Einstein was the first to discover this phenomenon, and he called it the Principle of Equivalence.
It is transfers of this nature that qualify as displacement. The ability of Einstein and others like him to regularly transfer their knowledge in this manner is the central reason why they have been so successful in their fields. By working your way up the six steps listed here, you could similarly develop abilities that every polymath needs in their arsenal.
The Science Behind Learning Transfer
Now that you know the types of transfers that exist and the various stages of learning transfers, we’ll discuss some scientifically backed techniques that you can utilize to enhance the efficiency of both your learning and your ability to transfer it to other domains. Here they are:
1) Those who develop skills while learning will be more successful at transference
This first tip essentially states that practically applying what you’ve learned is better than simply learning it. For example, say your job involves learning how to operate a certain power tool. You could learn how to use this tool through a more hands-on approach and actually use it, or you could simply read about how to use it and learn that way.
According to research, the former method will be more productive at enabling you to transfer your learning. To implement this tip more generally, try to create as many practical applications from your learning as is possible. If you’re learning math, use it to calculate things in your everyday life. If you’re studying political science, relate it to the news you consume. (Thalheimer 2020: 6)
2) Individuals who learn concepts while studying will be better at transfer
This point is closely related to the former one. Assuming your learning doesn’t involve the acquiring of skills, what you need to do is form concepts that can then be transferred to other contexts. Of course, if you have neither concepts nor skills, then there won’t be anything to transfer. One easy way to form concepts from your studies is to create abstractions out of them so that they are more generally applicable.
So if you’ve learned that being careful and cross-checking alternative answers is useful through math, you can use that as a general rule in writing, investments, etc.
3) Learners who are enthusiastic about applying their knowledge to their work are more likely to be successful
This tip goes back to our concept of the active learner, wherein your experiences and emotional states as an individual are key to your learning abilities. If you’re motivated and enthusiastic about the thing you’re learning, you’re going to find it much easier to be creative with what you know. On the other hand, if you dislike, say, physics, you’ll probably minimize the ways in which you use it.
However, if you’re able to cultivate curiosity and interest in the subject, you’re much more likely to integrate and apply it practically to your daily life, as well as with other subjects you learn. (Thalheimer 2020: 6)
4) Learners who are provided with early opportunities to practically apply their knowledge through work are more successful at transference
This is another slightly obvious tip given how we’re prone to forgetting things soon after we learn them. Motivations to remember and practice can also fade over time, and distractions multiply simultaneously. Hence, you might well find yourself having learned something interesting or useful only to forget it due to the lack of practical application.
By finding relevant uses for your knowledge, you ensure that what you’ve learned stays with you longer. Doing this in the correct ways also results in positive transfers, which eventually allow you to engage in more complex forms of transfer.
5) Focus on near transfers more than far transfers, at least initially
Far transfers, as ingenious as they are when done correctly, are rare and can often result in negative transfers. Near transfers are much more reliable because we’re normally only good at taking knowledge we’ve acquired and transferring it to some context we’ve already experienced or practiced. So if you’ve been learning math, use it to calculate tips at restaurants, the return on your investments, etc. If you try to upend established physics-based principles based on math, you’ll likely fail.
Having said that, far transfers are not entirely beyond reach and can be essential to polymathic abilities. Once you have near transfers practiced and perfected, there is no harm in trying to apply your skills in more diverse and creative ways. If you’re successful, this can only lead to something ground-breaking.
6) The Self-Efficacy Hypothesis
This hypothesis states that if you feel more able to succeed in applying your knowledge in your work or in practical matters, you will actually be more likely to succeed as well. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, this still leaves the question of how one can believe themselves more able to succeed.
The answer to this quandary is two-fold. The first component is confidence or optimism based on competence, while the second is initiating learning application. Some caution is warranted when it comes to belief in your own ability, since in some cases this has been shown to have a negative effect on transference. Too much can be harmful, but a cautious optimism will likely be helpful in your pursuits.
7) The Role of a Learner’s Perceptions
While we’ve covered elements such as perceptions of self-efficacy and enthusiasm as playing a role in effectively transferring knowledge, there are several other important learner perceptions to consider as well. These include a person’s perception of support, positive feedback and outcomes when they apply their learning, of their topics as generally relevant, perceiving themselves to be ready, expectations of job improvement and better performance, etc.
As the list suggests, much of this has to do with the way others perceive you applying your knowledge. If you think your knowledge application will be poorly received, won’t be appreciated, or won’t have any meaningful impact on your life, you’re less likely to successfully transfer your learning. However, if you’re able to improve your perceptions of these factors by staying optimistic, your chances of success increase drastically.