Rocky Roads to Transfer: Rethinking Mechanisms of a Neglected Phenomenon

Gavriel Salomon, David N. Perkins

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Recent findings of transfer and nontransfer in such areas as planning and problem management skills, computer programming instruction, and literacy-related cognitive skills reveal paradoxes that invite explanation. In this article, we separate the “how” of transfer -the mechanisms that lead to it -from the “what” of transfer -the kind of knowledge and skill that might get transferred. We argue that transfer occurs in two ways. Low-road transfer depends on extensive, varied practice and occurs by the automatic triggering of well-learned behavior in a new context. High-road transfer occurs by intentional mindful abstraction of something from one context and application in a new context. Such transfer can either be of the forward-reaching kind, whereby one mindfully abstracts basic elements in anticipation forj later application, or of the backward-reaching kind, where one faces a new situation and deliberately searches for relevant knowledge already acquired. Findings of transfer or nontransfer reflect whether the conditions for either low-road or high-road transfer were met. Qualitative predictions stemming from this theory of the mechanisms of transfer are offered and discussed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)113-142
Number of pages30
JournalEducational Psychologist
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 1989
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We gratefully acknowledge support from the Spenser Foundation to Gavriel Salc~mona nd the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (Contract #OERI 400-83-0041) to the Educational Technology Center at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 'The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the supporting agencies.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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