Maintenance & Generalization of Skills Across Learning Environments

Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

How can teachers help students apply the skills they learn in the classroom to many different situations? How can they encourage students to become autonomous learners? In this lesson, we'll examine two types of transfer of learning.

Transfer of Learning

Colleen is struggling academically and socially at school. She often gets frustrated and throws things across the room or she gets so excited that she calls out in class instead of raising her hand and waiting to be called on. Her teacher, Jamal, wants to help Colleen use the academic and behavioral skills he teaches her in many different situations.

Jamal is thinking about transfer of learning, which involves being able to use knowledge and skills at a different time and/or in a different setting than the one in which the knowledge or skills were learned. For example, when a student is learning to add, they will need to be able to add tomorrow (in a different time) and when they are shopping in the real world (a different situation).

The same is true of behavior. If Jamal teaches Colleen to take three deep breaths when she is feeling frustrated, he'll want her to do that at different times and different places, such as remembering to take three breaths next week or in the lunchroom instead of Jamal's classroom.

How can Jamal help facilitate Colleen's transfer of learning? To help him out, let's look at two major types of transfer— maintenance and generalization— and how educators can help students with each of them.


Jamal has set up a system for Colleen. When she begins to call out instead of raising her hand, he raises his own hand to remind her. Once she sees her teacher raising his hand, she remembers that she's supposed to raise hers.

That works well, but Jamal really wants Colleen to learn to raise her hand even when he doesn't remind her. Jamal is thinking about maintenance, which involves being able to use knowledge and skills autonomously, as support systems are taken away. Because maintenance is about teaching students to apply what they've learned without help, and that takes time to develop, maintenance can be thought of as transfer across time.

We've already seen one example of maintenance: Jamal wants Colleen to learn how to raise her hand even when he doesn't remind her. An academic example of maintenance can be seen in the use of manipulatives in math classes. If Jamal teaches Colleen to add using manipulatives today, his goal is to eventually have her be able to add without the manipulatives.

Both of these examples seem very complicated to Jamal. How can he get Colleen to add without manipulatives or remember to raise her hand without reminding her?

Strategies for maintenance (or transfer across time) are about offering lots of scaffolding early on and slowly removing the scaffolding until students are able to do things on their own. Scaffolding is anything that supports student learning. This can be rewards and punishments, protocols, manipulatives or other tools, or even other students.

For example, maybe at the beginning, Jamal provides Colleen with many different pieces of scaffolding during math. He might provide her with manipulatives and a card that describes how to do her work. He might work with her and another student, helping them use the tools to add. Once Colleen feels comfortable adding with all of those things, Jamal might want to remove a scaffold. Perhaps he leaves Colleen and the other student alone with the manipulatives and cards and has them work together to figure out how to add. Later, he might have Colleen work alone with the manipulatives and cards, and eventually even take away those scaffolds. The key is that he's only taking away one thing at a time and giving Colleen a chance to get used to working with less scaffolding.

Another strategy for maintenance involves building habits. Repetition, structure, and building onto existing habits can all help with that. For example, Jamal wants Colleen to learn to raise her hand. He might try to make it a habit by repeating his cue to her (raising his hand) each time she calls out. He might also build onto an existing habit. For example, if Colleen has a habit of tapping her finger when she is thinking, he could have her tap her fingers in the air. This combines her current habit (tapping her fingers) with the new habit he's building (raising her hand).


Jamal likes the idea of maintenance, but it's not all he wants for Colleen. He also wants her to be able to use what he's teaching her outside of his classroom. Jamal is thinking about generalization, which involves being able to use knowledge or skills in a setting that is different from the one it was learned in. Because the setting is changing, generalization can be thought of as transfer across situations.

For example, Jamal wants Colleen to be able to use her critical thinking skills that she's learning in debate class as she's studying history. By transferring those skills from one subject to another, the situation is changing.

Likewise, when Jamal wants Colleen to take three breaths instead of losing her temper, he's teaching her that skill in his classroom. But if he wants her to use it in the lunchroom or at recess, he's asking her to generalize it to other scenarios.

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