Cognitive science indicates that the transfer of knowledge from school to life beyond school is difficult to achieve, and it's most likely to occur when general principles are learned in multiple contexts over an extended period of time.

Most of the following excepts are taken from two reports, one issued by the National Science Foundation (NSF)1 and the other issued by the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences (IES).2

On the importance of learning transfer

"Transfer from school to everyday environments is the ultimate purpose of school-based learning." NSF, p. 78

Learning transfer is difficult to achieve

The journal Educational Psychologist, published by the American Psychological Association, devoted an entire issue to learning transfer, and the lead article observed that a large body of research "finds systematic failures in people's ability to apply their relevant knowledge in new situations," and some researchers have concluded that meaningful transfer of school learning "seldom if ever occurs."3

Harry Bahrick of Ohio Wesleyan University is probably the world's foremost researcher in the field of long-term memory of school learning. He received the American Psychological Association's Distinguished Teaching Award for his international impact on psychological research and education, and his landmark findings have been consistently replicated by other researchers. Based on his findings, Bahrick concluded, "Much of the information acquired in classrooms is lost soon after final examinations are taken."4

General principles

"Effective comprehension and thinking require a coherent understanding of the organizing principles in any subject matter." NRC p. 238

"Superficial coverage of all topics in a subject must be replaced with in-depth coverage of fewer topics that allows key concepts in that discipline to be understood."  NRC p. 20

"Students develop flexible understanding of when, where, why, and how to use their knowledge to solve new problems if they learn how to extract underlying themes and principles from their learning exercises." NRC p. 236

Multiple contexts

"Knowledge that is taught in only a single context is less likely to support flexible transfer than knowledge that is taught in multiple contexts." NRC p. 78

"When a subject is taught in multiple contexts...and includes examples that demonstrate wide application of what is being taught, people are more likely to abstract the relevant features of concepts and to develop a flexible representation of knowledge." IES p. 62

"The transfer literature suggests that the most effective transfer may come from a balance of specific examples and general principles, not from either one alone." IES p. 77

Extended Period of Time

"The conditions most favorable to [overcoming cognitive interference] involve what learning researchers refer to as "distributed" or "spaced" practice....The signature characteristic of distributed practice is that the practice sessions are distributed over a relatively lengthy period of time....If there is one indispensable key to effective learning, it is distributed practice. But in an overstuffed curriculum, there is little opportunity for distributed practice."5

"Spacing effects appear to be large in magnitude....It would appear that whenever it is desired that the learner retain information for many years, it is advisable to utilize spacing of at least several months—and spacing even greater than that would seem more likely to improve retention over the longer term." IES p. 35

"In-depth study in a domain often requires that ideas be carried beyond a single school year before students can make the transition from informal to formal ideas. This will require active coordination of the curriculum across school years." NRC p. 20


1. Bransford, John D., Brown, Ann L., and Cocking, Rodney R. (Eds.), How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Expanded Edition), National Research Council, 2000

2. Pasher, Harold, et. al., Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning: A Practice Guide, 2007, National Center for Education Research, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, Online:, accessed Feb. 17, 2013

3. Day, Samuel B., and Goldstone, Robert L., "The Import of Knowledge Export: Connecting Findings and Theories of Transfer of Learning," Educational Psychologist, American Psychological Association, July, 2012, p. 153

4. Bahrick, Harry P., "Maintenance of Knowledge: Questions About Memory We Forgot to Ask," Journal of Experimental Psychology, Vol. 108, No. 3, 1979, p. 297

5. Dempster, Frank N., "Exposing Our Students to Less Should Help Them Learn More," Phi Delta Kappan, Feb., 1993, Online:, accessed July 20, 2016

© 2001-2016 Michael G. Maxwell, Maxwell Learning LLC