Transfer of Knowledge Theory

In education Transfer of learning or transfer of knowledge or transfer refers to learning in one context and applying the learning to another. In other words, transfer is the capacity to apply acquired knowledge and skills to new situations. A student’s prior knowledge or learning therefore has a significant influence on future learning. This is why eliciting prior knowledge, reviewing known concepts, and connecting to previous learning are all fundamental lesson design components.

There are relationships between known and new knowledge and variations that determine the extent to which prior learning facilitates new learning. Theorists refer to these variations in influence as positive, negative, or zero transfer.

Thonis (1983) defined these variations in terms of linguistic relationships.

Positive Transfer is when there exists similarity of language, concept, condition, rule, skill task and expected response. Skills that transfer in both the general and in the specific sense are examples of positive transfer. Cognates are an example of positive transfer.


Negative Transfer refers to a linguistic condition where performance on the first task inhibits or detracts from performance on the second,  or a new response is expected from a similar stimulus.  Words that look the same in English and Spanish are an example of negative transfer.

meaning “tell me”meaning “ten cents”

Zero Transfer is when there is no influence between prior learning and new learning.  There are aspects in each language that are unique and the differences between the two languages need to be taught specifically and separately.

Letter ñapostrophe s (‘s)
does not apply to EnglishDoes not apply to