Learning & The Transfer Problem

There’s a classic quote that gets attributed to a whole bunch of people, and it goes like this:

“In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But in practice, there is.”

This is the transfer problem, and it’s a real thorn for how we learn (and especially how we learn to perform in high-stakes roles like medicine).

When a medical student says, “I know all the information and can explain it but I just don’t do well on the multiple-choice test,” this is the transfer problem at work.

When someone else can do well on the multiple-choice test but can’t apply their knowledge to actually helping patients, that’s the transfer problem too.

The more different the learning methods are from the evaluation, the harder it can be to succeed. The more different the learning and evaluation methods are from the real-life goal, the less useful they are.

Here are some passages from Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career:

Given a century of research showing the difficulties of transfer along with proposed solutions that have failed to provide lasting results, any student must take seriously the notion that transferring what has been learned between very different contexts and situations will be treacherous.

The answer is that learning directly is hard. It is often more frustrating, challenging, and intense than reading a book or sitting through a lecture. But this very difficulty creates a potent source of competitive advantage.

The best way to prepare for taking a high-stakes multiple-choice exam is to do lots of multiple-choice questions (e.g. How to Study for Step 1). The best to learn to do a procedure (other than actually doing the procedure) is to do a good simulation of said procedure.

If you can judge yourself only on how much you improve at the overall task, it can lead to a situation in which your improvement slows down because you will be getting worse at the overall task while becoming better at a specific component of it.

This is the treacherous problem of stagnant or decreasing qbank performance during dedicated review for some students. More time to trying to memorize low-yield minutia or shore up knowledge gaps doesn’t always yield upfront measurable gains. But, that doesn’t mean that when once again incorporated into a broader approach and after refreshing your core knowledge against the forgetting curve that it won’t ultimately yield results.

This practice of starting too hard and learning prerequisites as they are needed can be frustrating, but it saves a lot of time

Sometimes it’s best to just dive in because you’ll rapidly figure out exactly what you need to know.

I agree with this, and it argues for the early incorporation of question-based learning. This is actually how I learned pathology, by slogging through the question book and largely ignoring the larger text.

Human beings don’t have the ability to know with certainty how well they’ve learned something. Instead, we need to rely on clues from our experience of studying to give us a feeling about how well we’re doing. These so-called judgments of learning (JOLs) are based, in part, on how fluently we can process something. If the learning task feels easy and smooth, we are more likely to believe we’ve learned it. If the task feels like a struggle, we’ll feel we haven’t learned it yet.

No pain, no gain.

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