Mobilizing what you know and can do is critical in a world moving so fast… but skill and knowledge transfer is rarely explicitly taught in schools, and almost always expected (yet often not realized) in practice. WIL programs are uniquely situated to bridge this gap by explicitly teaching and supporting skill and knowledge transfer and ensuring as many opportunities for WIL students to practice that transfer throughout their WIL journey.

Skills and Knowledge Transfer

WIL places the student's experience at the center of its approach with the opportunity to take what was learned in school and apply it in a workplace setting, as well as to take the knowledge and skills learned in the workplace context back to the classroom.  The unspoken assumption is that the WIL learner will automatically transfer what they know and can do between the two learning environments and, by extension, to many others settings in which that knowledge and skills might be useful.

Because WIL offerings occur in a variety of environments (often beyond the classroom), the learner is afforded many opportunities to mobilize and use what they have learned to their advantage in another context, such as a new workplace, when they return to school, or in other parts of their life.  This is known in the literature as Skills and Knowledge Transfer and most people assume it is something that occurs naturally as we move between different environments and activities. Unfortunately the research shows us that this is not the case.

Most people do not readily transfer what they know and can do unless prompted, especially when the tasks or knowledge is more complex in nature.  However, when prompted they can and will, and with practice this will come more naturally to them. In this sense, for work-integrated learning’s potential to be fully realized, skills and knowledge transfer needs to be explicitly taught and supported until it becomes a tacit part of how students learn to mobilize what they know and can do across a variety contexts, for different applications.

“There is little evidence to support the existence of the transfer of complex skills such as those usually taught in school” (Detterman, 1993)

While WIL programs are said to develop many transferable skills, unless the learner has been prompted to think more deeply about what they have learned (how it connects back to what they already know and forward to future circumstances) their skills and knowledge may remain only potentially transferable. Because many WIL programs alternate time spent in school with time spent in workplace settings, they afford the perfect opportunity for students to practice skills and knowledge transfer. Your role as a WIL educator is key in prompting the connection and meaning making needed to facilitate your students' skills and knowledge transfer.

WIL Practitioner
WIL Practitioners are key in helping students make connections back to their personal and academic goals, and forward to future professional goals.  The WIL Practitioner has the important role of prompting these interconnections throughout the student’s WIL journey. Helping students see how skills and knowledge learned in one context can contribute to their performance in other contexts is key to them mobilizing their skills and knowledge across many contexts and many argue that transfer is the only real evidence that true learning has occurred. 

Foundational to this is ensuring students engage in regular, ongoing critical reflection activities. The problems that students have encountered during their WIL experiences can often provide a very good source for such reflection.  Reflective activities needs to be present throughout the WIL experience and can be embedded at many stages of the student's WIL journey: preparation for the WIL experience, site visits and check-ins (virtual or face-to-face), final reports, online blogs, reflective journals, back to campus presentations, etc. 

WIL Practitioner

Understanding a bit more about this skills and knowledge transfer, and how WIL programs are uniquely positioned to provide many opportunities for practicing skills and knowledge transfer, is key to ensuring your students get the most from their experiences. Embedding learning for transfer techniques into your WIL curriculum can greatly enhance your students’ control over the future use of their skills and knowledge.  While skills and knowledge transfer is one of the most important aspects of learning, it is also one of least well understood. WIL programs are uniquely positioned to enhance skills and knowledge transfer by helping students understand it and ensuring many opportunities to practice such transfer. 

See the assessment page to find tools and approaches that support this kind of deep reflection. 

Generalizable Skills

The key to transfer is being able to identify the key concepts underlying the details of the specific, contextualized subject matter that has been learned. Learners do this by critically reflecting on an experience or observation, drawing some sort of generalization from it, testing that generalization through another experience, and reflecting on that outcome (bringing them back to re-start the cycle observing the result of their test). The process requires that the learner takes what they experienced and draws a generalizable conclusion from it. It is the generalizable principle which is the transferable piece, especially when the transfer is to a fairly different context (you will learn more about this concept of "far transfer" next). It is this generalized principle that is helpful in new and different applications as the details surrounding each experience are unique, and often very context specific. 

Additional Readings

To read more about learning and transfer, see:

Bransford, J. (2000). How people learn: brain, mind, experience, and school / John D. Bransford [and others], editors ; Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning and Committee on Learning Research and Educational Practice, Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, National Research Council. (Expanded ed.). National Academy Press.

Salomon, G. & Perkins, DN. (1989). Rocky Roads to Transfer: Rethinking Mechanisms of a Neglected Phenomenon, in: Educational Psychologist vol. 24 no. 2.

Responding to Rapid Change in Higher Education: Enabling University Departments Responsible for Work Related Programs Through Boundary Spanning.

Types of Transfer

The transfer research indicates we are all capable of transferring skills and knowledge AND we will do so quite readily between situations that we perceive as being quite similar (or “Near Transfer” situations). However, especially with more complex knowledge and skills, learners tend to see new situations as requiring “Far Transfer” and what they know and can do is NOT mobilized. A skill or piece of knowledge is therefore only ever potentially transferable, depending on how the learner sees the new context in which they could be used. Review the slide show to learn more about the different types of transfer.