Leveraging the Transfer in Transferable Skills

By Lia Olson, Ph.D.

There is no question that teaching transferable skills can be powerful. In many ways, it is the cape we don to prepare our diverse adult learners to meet the varied needs and goals that will make them successful in any endeavor they pursue. After all, the skills they are learning are transferable.

We know there is truth to this, despite my hyperbole. According to The National Research Council in its synthesis of the literature on the subject of transferable skills, “Business leaders, educational organizations, and researchers have begun to call for new education policies that target the development of broad, transferable skills and knowledge” (2012).

We have responded to that call. First, we adopted College and Career Readiness Standards for Adult Education (2013) and purchased quality instructional resources to promote rigorous learning. Then we combed our textbooks, googled “transferable skills lists,” and read the WIOA legislation (2014) cover to cover to discover the identity of those transferable skills that would pack the most punch. We added them to our curriculum, our daily lessons, our learning goals, our learning tasks, and our assessments. Finally, our learners have been practicing them in class and even mastering them on our assessments.

Yet, our lamentation still rings out: “Why don’t my students apply what they have learned?” This lamentation clearly puts the ownness on the students, for we know we have done about everything we could do. And, after all, according to our assessments many of them learned it. But…(long pause here)…did they learn it?

The lists we consult, the learning goals we outline, the tasks we design focus on the skills in transferable skills. Indeed, this is a crucial element. But, isn’t its modifier equally crucial? The National Research Council (2012) states that learning that is transferable must “include both [emphasis added] knowledge in a domain and [emphasis added] knowledge of how, why, and when to apply this knowledge to answer questions and solve problems.” In other words, transferable skills must transfer.

The idea of transfer

So, what is transfer? We know what it looks like in everyday life: we transfer money from one account to the other, we transfer from one bus to another, one job to another, and one customer service rep to another and another and another.  In every instance, we are called upon to use what we know about the first situation, how it is connected to the next, and how to use what we already know when we get there. This transfer is successful, according to the National Reacher Council (2012), when the “ability to recognize familiar elements in novel problems allows them [expert learners] to apply (or transfer) their knowledge to solve such problems.”

If they are not practicing transfer, they are just learning skills

According to the National Research Council, that transfer becomes possible “when effective instructional methods are used.” What are these “effective instructional methods”? Many of them we are already using. We are already teaching the knowledge and skills in rigorous ways to engage our learners in productive struggle. Yet, we can teach our learners transferable skills all day long, but if they are not practicing transfer, then they are just learning skills. By the same token, we can teach any skill and make it transferable when our learners practice transfer!

So, what does it mean to “teach” transfer?  Let’s look for guidance from two gurus of the constructivist theory, the theorist Jerome Bruner and the philosopher John Dewey (p. 137).

Teaching specific topics or skills without making clear their context in the broader fundamental structure of a field of knowledge is uneconomical.  ~Bruner (1960)

To grasp the meaning of a thing, an event, or a situation is to see it in its relations to other things: to see how it operates or functions, what consequences follow from it, what causes it, what uses it can be put to.  ~Dewey (1933)

Creating a formula for transfer from their combined wisdom could, then, look like this:

Formula for transfer
Formula for transfer

In some ways, we already do this. We have tasks to activate prior knowledge, application tasks, and expansion activities. But are we leveraging them to focus on transfer? How often have we shortened or skipped one for the sake of time? Do these tasks transfer the learning to multiple contexts, or better yet, contexts of the learners’ choosing? We are still largely driven by the content we need to cover, and our students are still largely assessed on what they learn within one context.

Leveraging transfer

Leveraging transfer takes a paradigm shift in our thinking about instruction and instructional planning. No longer are we satisfied with a focus on knowledge and skills if it does not include an emphasis on transfer. In this way, we make time for transfer by including learning tasks that allow students to contextualize the content they are learning in multiple ways, make connections between the content and other content, and apply the content to multiple situations.

How do we do this? The good news is there are already many tried-and-true tasks we can leverage to maximize student practice in transferring knowledge and skills. Here are some examples:


The KWL chart, sometimes with the addition of the plus, is an activity to effectively support and evaluate student learning from the start of a lesson to its finish.

KWL+ chart
KWL+ Chart
  • The K can meaningfully extract the prior knowledge students have, not just about the topic at hand but about other topics that relate to it or are relevant to them.
    • What other things do you know that can help you understand this topic/learn this skill?
    • What learning have we done that will help you learn about this topic/learn this skill?
  • The W can include a question starter that helps students connect the current learning to other relevant areas in the lives.
    • How does this information/skill apply to __?
    • How will this information/skill help me ___?
  • The L can maintain its context-dependent stance to focus on the objectives of the lesson within the context to set the stage for greater transfer.
  • The + column can be expanded to include how the topic/skill relates to learners’ goals, needs, and interests.
    • How do I apply this knowledge/skill to __?
    • How do I use this knowledge/skill to __?

Activate Prior Knowledge

Often lessons begin with a discussion or prompt to help students connect the new learning with what they already know. Adding the K questions from the KWL+ chart above leverages this activity to include other knowledge and skills (including learning strategies) that students can connect to as they begin the lesson.

Venn Diagram

The Venn diagram is used to explore connections between things, specifically how they compare and contrast. Strategic placement of a Venn diagram task in the lesson allows learners to explore the connections between and among contexts by identifying the knowledge and skills they have in common and considering how those knowledge and skills would be used in other context(s).

Venn Diagram
Venn Diagram


Who hasn’t done a brainstorm? What about one that specifically asks where else learners can use the new knowledge or skill?  This activity can be done before the learning to get buy-in and show relevance or after the learning as a way for students to reflect on how the learning can transfer to other areas of their lives.

Brainstorming graphic


We plan for expansion activities all the time. Often, they are the task that gets cut when we run out of time. In addition, they often don’t expand beyond the context at hand. Instead, learners apply the learning to a new situation within the same context. Leverage expansion activities to move students beyond the current context to explore other contexts that are directly relevant to them. Students can choose the context and discuss how the new learning would transfer. What knowledge and skills could they use in that context? How could they use them? What adaptations would they make to what they learned to fit this new context?

Exit ticket

One common closure activity is the exit ticket. This can take the form of written or oral answers to 1 – 3 summary questions; a think-pair-share where students think of one thing they learned in class, pair to talk about it with a peer, and then share out with the class; or a turn-and-talk partner exchange to summarize the learning of the day. Including a question around where and/or how students are going to transfer the learning from the lesson means that students leave the classroom with transfer at the forefront of their thoughts, just when they need it the most.

The heart of the matter is that without transfer, transferable skills are just skills. They only become magical when we create the opportunity for transfer.  When our lessons brim with the lively exploration of concepts, connections, and contexts then, just maybe, the cape fits…and we should wear it. After all, we and our learners are up against a lot. We need all the leverage we can get!


Bruner, J. (1960). The process of education. Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.

Dewey, J. (1933). How we think: A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. Boston: Henry Holt.

National Research Council. (2012). Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/13398.

Lia Olson, Ph.D., has served as an ESOL classroom teacher, professional developer, curriculum design specialist, author, and consultant. She has taught adult learners for more than 20 years at St. Paul Public Schools Adult Education. In addition, she is an adjunct professor for the Teaching English as a Foreign Language program and Adult Basic Education licensure program at Hamline University. As a curriculum design expert, Dr. Olson has developed curricula and teaching materials for ESOL students at all levels that integrate English language acquisition with numeracy, technology, and work-readiness skills.