EjSBS - The European Journal of Social & Behavioural Sciences

The European Journal of Social & Behavioural Sciences

Online ISSN: 2301-2218
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Transfer of The Learning: Teacher Professional Development


On-going professional development and learning (PDL) should be a significant component of a professional’s development. Teachers, like all professionals, need to engage in continuous learning to ensure that relevant knowledge and skills are being utilised in their day-to-day activities to ensure professional growth and improved student outcomes. A new paradigm of PDL has emerged that supports this development, based upon a constructivist philosophy emphasising a student-centred, contextual, systems, empowering and collaborative approach that promotes teacher reflection. Numerous models supporting this paradigm have evolved, but overall, little attention given to the transfer of training (ToT) with research frequently indicating a lack of transfer. Nevertheless, PDL is only meaningful if it promotes change in teachers. Difficulties with ToT occur because it is a misunderstood, controversial, bewildering complex phenomenon and is consequently ill planned for PDL. Accordingly, PDL planning needs to incorporate a transfer plan that specifies a strategic framework and specific factors promoting on-the-job application of knowledge and skills. The Transfer of Training Audit (TOTA), based upon an evidence-based approach and developed by the author, is a means of systematically facilitating ToT promoting improved student outcomes.

Keywords: Transfer of training, professional development and learning, transfer of training audit


Teaching that promotes effective student learning and success is not an accident. The quality of the teaching relates to student outcomes and professional development/learning (PDL) is the most effective means of ensuring teaching quality. However, PDL has minimal value unless there is modification of teacher behaviour. Consequently, there is an ongoing demand for teachers to improve their practice but then research indicates that transfer of training (ToT) is often inadequate or does not occur. One important reason for this lack of transfer is that the processes for the implementation into the classroom are not well known and/or overlooked by PDL planners, despite there being a vast literature and research base concerning ToT strategies. Accordingly, PDL planners need to move beyond teacher learning and incorporate strategies that promote and monitor implementation of the learning and it is recommended that a Transfer of Training Audit (TOTA) can be employed to promote this implementation.

Problem Statement

ToT planning is an essential consideration if participant behaviour is to change following a workshop, training or PDL programme. However, teacher PDL plans often overlook the need for a strategic transfer plan to ensure this impact on-the-job.

Research Question

How can professional development planners more effectively promote ToT to the teachers’ classrooms?

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of the study was to identify approaches and techniques that promote transfer of training and to create an audit (checklist) of potentially useful ideas for PDL planners to use to enhance transfer.

Research Methods

The literature used to source this paper has arisen from a range of resources. Information about the nature of PDL and transfer was sought from databases (e.g., ProQuest) and texts, but also included unpublished material (e.g., thesis and websites) and personal experiences. Key words/phrases used in this search strategy included transfer of training, transfer of learning, effective professional development, effective professional learning and audit. It was an evidence-based literature collation (with emphasis upon teacher PDL) identifying strategic approaches and specific techniques for promoting on-the-job impact. The criteria for selection of approaches/techniques was material that had been peer reviewed (and/or confirmed by ToT experts and colleagues) and reported as valuable via quantitative and qualitative reports for transfer. The next step was to identify those specific ToT evidence-based techniques able to be operationalised and these were then placed in a pool for the development of the Transfer of Training Audit (TOTA). Following this, whenever possible a number of similar and splinter items identified for the audit were combined into one technique then arranged into before, during and after X roles PDL categories, although recognising that these were not exclusive categories.


The purpose of this study was to identify ToT strategic approaches and specific factors that enhance the likelihood of on-the-job implementation of following teacher PDL. Detailed below is a discussion about the nature of PDL and the qualities that make it an effective endeavor. Following this, it is indicated that TOT is a complex phenomenon but the ultimate outcome of PDL often either overlooked or misunderstood by PDL planners. To overcome these problems, it is outlined that planners need more understanding about the process and then use specific evidence based factors via a strategic framework to promote transfer. The TOTA is discussed as a systematic means of accomplishing this process.

Effective Professional Development

There is some lack of clarity about the definitions of professional development (PD) and professional learning (PL), although both are concerned with developing new teacher skills and knowledge to facilitate improved student outcomes. PD began to evolve from a more transmission-centred approach into a new paradigm in the later parts of the twentieth century (OECD, 1998) and this laid the foundation for the emergence of PL as a professional learning activity. PL is characterised as a constructivist activity working with/by teachers to facilitate the change that will lead to improved student outcomes (Lough, 2010). Frequently however, the terms are used inter-changeably, but rather than debating the semantic or the theory-practice perspectives of each, utilising the positive features of both has merit and a synthesis of the two approaches has been adopted. Therefore, in this review the term professional development and learning (PDL) is used, acknowledging the contributions that both PD and PL can make to improving student outcomes.

Because of the different theoretical PD and PL perspectives (e.g., behavioural, cognitive, constructivist) that have evolved over the years to improve teacher performance, it is not surprising that there are varying ideas about what constitutes PDL. Villegas-Reimers (2003) emphasised the teacher’s which “has a significant impact upon teachers’ beliefs and practices, students’ learning and on the implementation of educational reform” (p. 19). Fullan (1991) considered PDL in terms and defined it as "the sum total of formal and informal learning experiences throughout one's career from pre-service teacher education to retirement" (p. 326). CEASA (n.d.) highlighted the relationship between PL and PD: “ refers to the growth of teacher expertise that leads to improved student learning. Professional learning is demonstrated through practice. It is also the opportunity for teachers to put into practice their professional development.” (para 3). Timperley (2011) has encompassed the key ideas and identified PDL as the ongoing development of the teacher’s knowledge and skills to facilitate student learning by a systematically monitored teacher inquiry process linked to student progress and the use of evidence to meet student needs. Overall, what these ideas indicate is that PLD has become a transformational process incorporating ideas of teacher learning to improve teacher practice to improve student outcomes (Killion, 2010).

An even more compelling issue than the debate about definition relates to the nature of what constitutes PDL. According to Darling-Hammond and Richardson (2009), it is related to a process that places a priority on the content of student learning, the learning of the teacher and an integration of curriculum, assessment, standards and professional learning opportunities. According to Muijs, Kyriakides, van der Werf, Creemers, Timperley and Earl (2014) the cycle consists of identification of student needs and teacher knowledge and skills to meet these needs, followed by a PDL programme that engages the students in the new learning experiences, which are then assessed in terms of student outcomes and future needs. In more specific terms, it is recognised that effective PDL should emphasise data, in-depth learning, constructively mediated content, long-term processes, on-the-job related learning contexts, school-reform activities, reflective practice, teacher enquiry, collaborative processes and a variety of learning approaches depending upon needs, beliefs and practices in the specific context (Bond & Evans, 2006; McDonald, 2009).

Notwithstanding these developments however, it is unclear whether there are corresponding improvements in student learning outcomes from the professional development. In relation to PDL, Timperley, Wilson, Barrar and Fung (2007) discussed the significance of two black boxes: one situated between professional learning opportunities and the impact on teaching practice, the other between changed teaching behaviours and student outcomes. To gain a richer understanding of effective PDL, these commentators noted the importance of additional research to facilitate improved teacher learning which would promote student outcomes. There is however, a vast ToT research base on ToT able to shed some light on the contents of the teacher learning-impact black box but it is clear however, that the need to incorporate transfer strategies to promote teacher behaviour to improve student outcomes is often over-looked (McDonald, 2011; 2012). Indeed, there is substantial research to demonstrate that participants in varied PDL programmes frequently do not transfer their knowledge and skills because a ToT plan was not developed (Cheng & Ho, 2001).

Transfer of Training

Transfer of training is the application of training knowledge and skills to a work setting, a concept that has arisen from the more general notion of transfer of learning referring to the process of past experiences of any kind affecting learning and performance in a new situation (Ellis, 1965). Although transfer was first debated at the turn of the 20th Century, interest in it soon waned to the occasional reference in the literature. However, even when ToT was disregarded by many, its significance remained paramount for a few. For example, Deese (1958) noted over half a century ago, “There is no more important topic in the whole psychology of learning than transfer of learning ….. practically all educational and training programs are built upon the fundamental premise that human beings have the ability to transfer what they have learned from one situation to another” (p.1). The topic was simply waiting to re-emerge as a key discussion in psychology and education.

In the past 25 years, ToT has become an issue of significance again, particularly since the seminal Baldwin and Ford (1988) paper (re)promoted its significance resulting in a flurry of commentary and research sustained until the present. The following, research/commentaries, although not exhaustive, indicate the measure of this interest and the expanding knowledge base since 2000: Baldwin, Ford and Blume (2009); Blume, Ford, Baldwin, and Huang (2010); Burke and Hutchins (2007); Broad (2005); Broad and Newstrom (2001); Carnes (2010); Cheng and Hampson (2008); Cheng and Ho (2001); Cree and Macauley, (2000); Daffron and North (2011); Ford and Weissbein (1997); Greenaway, (2013); Grossman and Salas (2011); Haskell (2001); Holton, Bates and Ruona (2000); Kirwan (2009); Kraiger (2002); Leberman, McDonald and Doyle (2006); Lobato (2006); Merriam and Leahy (2005); Mestre (2005) Yamnil and Mclean (2001). In this literature, theory development, theory to practice links, practice ideas and the development of new learning paradigms have emphasised ToT links with meaningful, relevant and transportable information and established its importance in relation to how knowledge capital affects the local and global economies (Leberman, McDonald, & Doyle, 2006). Accordingly, with this increasing awareness, there is a wealth of ideas about how to promote ToT.

Nevertheless, ToT has been a controversial, complex and a bewildering notion, underpinned by different theoretical perspectives (Barnett & Ceci, 2002; De Cort, 1995. The formal disciplines approach (e.g., Binet, 1899), emphasised the general transfer of general skills to an unrelated area (e.g., learning of Latin could help learning in other discipline areas). Although now widely repudiated, there is some evidence that specific dominant faculties of the brain and liking of a subject can influence later learning (Muller, 1975; Rychlak, Nguyen, & Schneider, 1974). The gestalt perspective (e.g., Katona, 1940) promoted the idea of specific transfer of a modifiable general skill to enhance transfer (e.g., use of problem-solving skill in education engineering). In opposition to this, the identical elements approach (e.g., Thorndike & Woodworth, 1901) supported the idea of a specific skill transfer, emphasising the importance of similarity in both settings (e.g. teaching of cooperative learning in a simulated classroom setting to be transferred similarly to the teacher’s classroom). The cognitive explanation, also having it roots in the early 20th Century - although there have been many variants of it, today it is essentially characterised meta-cognitive control of specific and general skills for transfer (e.g., Brown, 1989). It has continued to develop and contribute significantly to current understanding about ToT.

All of these theoretical viewpoints have provided some impetus for promoting ToT understanding, practice and a platform for future developments, and as McDonald (in press) has noted, although different perspectives create complexities, the ….. “discussion and debate about the theories and operationalisation of transfer have continued, with one benefit being, understanding, conceptualisation and the development of applied training programmes ….. advanced.” Nevertheless, implementation cannot be assumed, for as Saks and Belcourt (2006) report, on average 40% of employees do not transfer immediately despite good intentions, and after 1 year 66% are not using the ideas. Indeed, it is generally accepted that implementation rates remain low, even though there have been significant theoretical and practice advances. Therefore, despite the importance attached to transfer to achieve outcomes, the significant research and practice base and the vast funding channelled into PDL, transfer does not always occur and principles and practices of ToT often over-looked or unknown.

There is a range of reasons explaining the lack application of ToT. Firstly, a number of commentators question the very nature of transferability - although some believe transfer frequently occurs spontaneously (e.g., Bereiter, 1995), others (e.g., Detterman, 1993) contend it is very difficult to achieve. On the other hand, Broad and Newstrom (2001) and Haskell (2001) believe it can readily be achieved if the important actors undertake careful planning. In particular, the role of the PDL facilitator is recognised as being a catalyst for initiating and sustaining the ToT process – but this does not diminish the importance of the other key actors in ToT because it is a complex interplay of roles/settings with an encompassing focus upon the facilitator, learner, supervisor and work context (Berry, 2012). Therefore, another potential reason for failure can be the role performance of the PDL facilitator.

The PDL facilitator role in ToT is crucial, not only concerned with the content and methodology of the course/workshop but also the coordination of the overall PDL programme, including ToT. However, as Berry (2012) has noted, many facilitators still have not grasped the central importance of ToT which thwarts its occurrence. Hutchins, Burke and Berthelson (2010) in support of this, noted many facilitators learn about ToT informally and as Sanders, van Riemsdijk and Groen (2008) have signified, to gain a workable ToT knowledge and skill base, research-practice findings need to be understood and employed. Many facilitators simply learn by trial and error in an ad hoc manner emphasising training/learning techniques, overlooking the importance of using techniques that act as vehicles for transfer (2005). A further complication, despite the paradigm shift to constructivism, transmission teaching approaches are often still evident, leaving the responsibility for application of ideas to the participants (McDonald, 2007).

It is unreasonable however to expect that all facilitators have a detailed knowledge of transfer. For example, a school professional development leader is unlikely to have this knowledge and skills and therefore, a guided flexible approach needs to be available for PDL facilitators to plan for implementation in the classroom. One means of accomplishing this is via a transfer plan to evaluate the instructional design, but it is also expected that a facilitator engage in additional learning about ToT for background understanding. This paper utilises ideas from the literature to assist in developing this transfer plan by using a TOT audit (TOTA).

In developing this audit, accessing a wide range of literature expedited the identification of key themes and these were then utilised to ensure a coverage of key ToT factors (within the before, during and after x roles strategic categorisations). The following themes (provided here with a descriptor) were identified:

  • Definition: The definition of ToT implicates the learner, content and context (McDonald, 2002) and it is agreed that it involves a generalisation to a new context that has at least some similarities or, at least, a preparation for future transfer to unknown context (Bransford & Schwartz, 1999);
  • Transfer process: Transfer is a process working toward an outcome (Foxon, 1993, 1994).
  • Cultural influences: Transfer is influenced by the national and local culture of the participants (Lim, 2007; McDonald, 2002; Sarkar-Barney, 2004)
  • Evidence based practice: Using qualitative (e.g., McDonald, 2002) and quantitative studies (e.g., Grossman & Salas, 2011; Holton, Bates & Ruona, 2000; ) as well as clinical practice ideas (e.g., Cree & Macaulay, 2000) can contribute to the knowledge base to develop successful transfer;
  • Assessment practices: These highlight the significance to be given to transfer and provide a vehicle for enhancing transfer effectiveness (eg., Cheng & Ho, 2001; Cree & Macaulay, 2000);
  • Transfer of training for professionals: Research and practice models for PDL have been relatively unexplored. Some of the professional practice case studies of Daffron and North (2011) provide data as well as some of the key approaches of transfer in teacher PD (e.g., Joyce & Showers, 1996, 2002; McDonald, 2002; 2012). Some health professional findings (e.g. Yelon, Sheppard, Sleight, & Ford, 2004), which are likely to have relevance to other professionals, are also useful to consider;
  • Different types of transfer: These require different approaches in different contexts - for example, near transfer refers to similar contexts while far transfer explains transfer to a dis-similar situation (Schunk, 2004);
  • ToT strategic approaches: A strategic planned transfer of training approach, which accesses key principles and practices about what is already known and successful is promotive of transfer. The Transfer roles X time periods schema (Broad & Newstrom, 2001), although developed initially for management, is a basic foundational model that can be supplemented by other strategic designs, such as those from the educational psychology orientation (e.g., Daffron & North, 2011; Halpern & Hakel, 2002; Haskell, 2001).
  • The new learning paradigms: ToT is interwoven with the nature of learning (including motivational aspects) and this is an important component of understanding how to effectively ensure PDL is implemented to achieve improved student outcomes (McDonald, 2012)

All of these ideas laid the foundation for the identification and development of the TOTA.

Significant ToT Factors

The TOTA has drawn upon a range of sources including two comprehensive research studies that have identified key TOT factors. Holton, Bates and Ruona (2000) developed the Learning Systems Transfer Inventory (LTSI) from the results of a factor analysis and detected 16 catalyst and barrier factors. It is a highly regarded research-based instrument employing a systematic approach with the latest version including 89 Likert items related to the 16 factors. In the Grossman and Salas (2011) summary of ToT research, 11 critical catalyst findings were detailed, many similar to the LTSI categories. Table 1 is a synthesis of these two sets of factors, and these (along with others identified via the evidence base search) have been included in the TOTA.

Table 1 - Synthesis of Catalysts and Barriers for TOT (Holton et al., 2000; Grossman et al., 2011)
See Full Size >

The TOTA (refer to table 2 below), developed for PDL contexts to improve transfer of training, has a number of advantageous features: it identifies a wide range of ToT factors, creates a baseline for PDL transfer and can identify gaps in ToT planning. As indicated, the 14 factors outlined in Table 1 are included (but sometimes expanded and integrated with other ideas) and are shaded grey in table 2 for easy recognition. Not all of the TOTA factors however would be included in every PDL programme as each context is unique and therefore, the user needs to be selective and even adding some additional contextual items if necessary. However, the variables identified by Gossman and Salas (2011) and Holton, Bates and Ruona (2000) (i.e., those shaded grey) need to be given some priority as those factors were identified by rigorous research endeavours, although this should not diminish the importance of the remaining factors which can provide a contextual significance for ToT. Indeed, TOTA is a more encompassing overview of ToT as it was developed using ideas from a wider evidence based approach (Hoffman, Bennett & Del Mar, 2010) including factors from research, clinical experience, practice and ideas related to the learner’s situation. However, it has not been subject to any statistical validation with selection of factors based upon reports that had been peer reviewed with each factor detailed in at least two different research reports – in a few cases, one research report and personal communication. Ongoing research is of course likely to identify other pertinent contextual factors. Furthermore, since the independence of the item factors was unassessed, it is likely that there are some overlaps in meaning, as well as some items being interactive. In the construction of the TOTA, some items could have been documented repeatedly (e.g., the 4th item, ‘culture of the workplace’, item could also be incorporated into the ‘different cultures’ section) but, for sake of brevity, multiple entries have been excluded. This is the second version of TOTA, the first developed in 2013 (McDonald, in press); this version has some additional factors including a section on cultural factors. Additional information concerning details of about the factors can be obtained by referring to the literature in the reference section.

Table 2 - Transfer of Training Audit
See Full Size >


Vast amounts of funding are devoted to upgrading and maintaining teacher quality to facilitate improved student outcomes and yet, PDL has no meaning unless participants use their learning in the classroom. Therefore, PDL planners/facilitators need more than a keen knowledge of curriculum developments, classroom processes, teacher motivation and teacher learning strategies for, although prerequisite qualities, they are insufficient to promote sustainability and implementation of the PDL on the job. Whether the PDL be in-school based or off-site, there is an urgent need for planners to become more knowledgeable and skilled in the transfer of training instructional technology and promote teacher application of new learning. The TOTA is an introductory flexible framework for identifying a range of factors that can be employed to promote ToT so that teacher learning, intentions and skills are enacted in the classroom.

We fail as training professionals if our participants do not transfer what they have learned in our programs back to their jobs. Too often we focus too much of our time, talent, and treasure to creating the best learning events – and usually we succeed. But …..what is really important is that our participants increase their job performance from we have taught them (Basarab, 2013, para 1).


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About this article

Published online: 20.11.2014
Pages: 389-406
Publisher: Future Academy
In: Volume 11, Issue 4
DOI: 10.15405/ejsbs.140
Online ISSN: 2301-2218
Article Type: Original Research
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