The Science of Learning

Context Dependent Learning and Transference

This is a post about how learning can be applied outside of the constraints within which it is learned. I wrote about the problem of transference in learning a couple of weeks ago. Today I’m going to give you the science behind the problem.

In a 1975 paper, Godden and Baddeley reported a brilliant experiment demonstrating state-dependent or context-dependent learning. A group of divers learned a list of words, either on dry land or at the bottom of a swimming pool. The divers were able to recall the underwater wordlist better underwater and the dry land list better out of the pool. Context-dependent learning.

I remember learning about this study and its implications early on in my undergraduate years. I was really excited because this meant that if I studied for my exams in the same environment that I was going to take the exams I would recall the material better. I’m not sure it worked in practice, but theoretically, it should have.

What does this have to do with the transference problem that has plagued formal education from the beginning? The transference problem is the inability of a learner to be able to take the information that they have learned and apply it in the context of other situations, contexts or states. This ability is one of the core goals of any learning. The ability to be able to recognize that the learning that they have done in one context applies in another context as well. Taking advantage of context-dependent learning in order to maximize my exam performance meant that what I learned would likely be non-transferable to other states or contexts.

A great deal of our formal learning takes place in classrooms. Artificial environments that are blended together into a schema that means that they all become the same in our memory. Not that we can’t recall individual classrooms, but they become meshed together and what we learn in them is often dependent on that context for recall. The answer is obvious. Build classrooms in all the working environments where recall is needed and when you need to remember something, go into the classroom and the context should help you remember.

Great idea, but what about having to remember something when a classroom isn’t available. The transference problem.

Transference problems can be overcome if we practice our learning in a number of different contexts or environments. Reading (and basic math and writing) is learned in a classroom early in school, but because it is practiced in a variety of contexts (home, different classes, libraries etc.) the skill is available pretty well anywhere we need it. As we progress through school, the information we learn as well as the skills we acquire, become more and more context dependent. The only place that we ever need to know them is in a classroom in order to pass a test. In many contexts, that is the only place that we will ever be able to recall the information or skill.

As a tip for business trainers, when you run training exercises, ensure that your participants begin to use the knowledge in other contexts as soon as you can in order to make the knowledge transferrable.

The consequences in higher education have a wider impact because of how higher education has evolved over the last 50 – 75 years. There are those who sneer at a liberal arts education because of the outcomes and the emptiness of the qualifications. This was never the intent. The knowledge studied for a liberal arts degree was never intended to be knowledge in its own right. It was an interesting vehicle around which higher-order thinking skills were developed. A proper liberal arts education allowed the skills to be developed and practiced in a number of different contexts. Because these higher-order thinking skills were used in a variety of contexts, the skills became transferrable and usable after graduation, making the graduates valuable as thinking members of society. Because of the vital need in today’s world to jam as much content as possible into a student, the higher-order skills are neither learned (except in a few instances) nor are they practiced in a variety of contexts in order to make the skills transferable. As a result, today’s graduates have very little knowledge (we know that most is forgotten shortly after testing), and they lack the higher-order thinking skills a university education should be giving them. The qualification that used to say that a graduate was valuable because of their ability to think has been devalued until it has become almost worthless today.

For those who sneer at a liberal arts degree, your offering is no better than the liberal arts proponents. In most cases, STEM subjects teach concrete skills associated with the subject matter. Higher-order thinking skills are ignored because the concrete skills are what the commercial world claims to need. Even when higher order thinking skills are acquired, they are within a field of study, often a very narrow field of study, and end up being non-transferrable. A student learns to think critically within the context of chemistry (or whatever) but is unable to transfer that skill to another context. Valuable as a worker in chemistry, but worthless as a thinker who can help solve the problems of the world.

The lack of higher-order thinking skills is well known in the education and business world. This has been both measured and observed. Unfortunately, there is no will to fix the problem. As invaluable as a thinking workforce might be, the business world is not in the business of education. As important as higher-order thinking skills are in higher education, the higher education world isn’t in the business of education either because research is all that matters. As a result, we have very few graduates who come out with anything of value other than a qualification.

More and more people are suggesting that an alternative needs to be started. An institution that has a single goal – producing people who think. I’m happy to play a leading role in such a venture, but the need for a wide variety of skills is vital and I need help.

The world needs changing and we all have a responsibility to play our part – unless you are too busy doing whatever it is that you always do. Let’s come together and make the world a better place.

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