The Ultimate Aim of Teaching

While co-constructing knowledge, students interact with three different features of content – incidental features, surface features, and deep features (Schwartz & Nasir, 2003).  First, incidental features are characteristics of the context surrounding a concept, not the concept itself.  They can be thought of as distractors.  Second, surface features are characteristics of a concept that might promote deep understanding of the concept but are in no way necessary for understanding it.  They can be thought of as external attributes.  Third, deep features are characteristics of a concept so fundamental to the definition of the concept that they are absolutely necessary to understand it.  They can be thought of as internal attributes.  Overall, successful transfer of learning necessitates that the deep features of a concept be brought to the foreground and, at the same time, the surface and incidental features be forced into the background.

There is no universally accepted definition of transfer of learning.  However, Haskell (2001) offers two comprehensive definitions of the phenomenon as follows: “Transfer of learning is our use of past learning when learning something new and the application of that learning to both similar and new situations” (p. xiii) or “how previous learning influences current and future learning, and how past or current learning is applied or adapted to similar or novel situations” (p. 23).  In other words, the cognitive explanation for transfer of learning is that it occurs as an iterative process when a transfer target activates prior knowledge produced by a transfer source, or multiple transfer sources, to impact the same transfer target.  For transfer of learning to occur, a section of long-term memory must be activated that contains material that is conceptually similar to the new material being learned.  Transfer of learning can result in links being formed in long-term memory as individuals think of new ways to relate knowledge and contexts, which has the potential to retrigger the cycle.

Interest in transfer of learning as a phenomenon relevant to the co-construction of knowledge is motivated by the significant role it plays in formal education.  To be clear, “[t]ransfer of learning is universally accepted as the ultimate aim of teaching” (McKeough, Lupart, & Marini, 1995, p. vii) and “widely considered to be a fundamental goal of education” (Marini & Genereux, 1995, p. 1).  Explained, Tuomi-GrohnEngestrom, and Young (2003) argue that “[s]chools are not able to teach students everything they will need to know for the rest of their lives; they must equip students with the ability to transfer – to use what they have learned to solve new problems successfully or to learn quickly in new situations” (p. 1).  Moreover, Haskell (2001) extends the argument for transfer of learning and claims the following: 

Transfer, then, isn’t so much an instructional and learning technique as a way of thinking, perceiving, and processing information.  Therefore it’s fundamental to all learning.  Without it we couldn’t engage in our everyday thinking and reasoning nor even acquire the most basic of motor skills; transfer is responsible for the simplest of ideas and for the highest achievements of humankind. (p. 23)


Haskell, R. E. (2001). Transfer of learning: Cognition, instruction, and reasoning. San Diego: Academic Press.

Marini, A., & Genereux, R. (1995). The challenge of teaching for transfer. In A. McKeough, J. Lupart, & A. Marini (Eds.), Teaching for transfer: Fostering generalization in learning (pp. 1-19). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

McKeough, A., Lupart, J., & Marini, A. (1995). Preface. In A. McKeough, J. Lupart, & A. Marini (Eds.), Teaching for transfer: Fostering generalization in learning (pp. vii-viii). Mahwah, NJLawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Schwartz, D. L., & Nasir, N. (2003). Transfer of learning. In W. Guthrie (Ed.), Encyclopedia of education (2nd ed., pp. 1449-1452). New York: Macmillan Reference USA.

Tuomi-GrohnT., EngestromY., & Young, M. (2003). From transfer to boundary-crossing between school and work as a tool for developing vocational education: An introduction. In T. Tuomi-Grohn & Y. Engestrom (Eds.), Between school and work: New perspectives on transfer and boundary-crossing (pp. 1-15). OxfordElsevier Science Ltd.

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