The effect of conceptual and contextual familiarity on transfer performance

Adv Health Sci Educ Theory Pract. 2012 Oct;17(4):489-99. doi: 10.1007/s10459-011-9326-z. Epub 2011 Sep 30.


Applying a previously learned concept to a novel problem is an important but difficult process called transfer. It is suggested that a commonsense analogy aids in transfer by linking novel concepts to familiar ones. How the context of practice affects transfer when learning using analogies is still unclear. This study investigated the effect of a commonsense analogy and context familiarity for transfer of physiological concepts. First year psychology students (n = 24) learned three concepts: Starling's law, Laplace's law, and laminar-turbulent flow. The control group saw standard explanations while the intervention group saw an additional commonsense analogy. The context of learning was the organ system used for two practice clinical cases which differed for all concepts. Testing consisted of 12 new clinical cases. Starling's law cases used the organ system from practice while the other concepts presented in both novel and familiar organ systems. Half of the sample repeated testing after 1 week delay. The outcome was ratings of explanations of cases on a 0-3 scale. The effect of analogy was significant (Mean = 1.24 with, 0.86 without, F(1,22) = 4.26, p < 0.05) but not after delay (means of 1.08 and 0.75 respectively, F = (1,10), p = 0.06) There was significant effect for familiar context (Same = 1.23 (Starling), different = 0.68 (Laplace) and 0.73 (laminar-turbulent flow) (F(2,44) = 5.14, p < 0.01). Laplace's law and laminar turbulent flow cases in the familiar organ system had means of 1.65 and 1.77 respectively compared to novel cases with means of 0.74 and 0.68 (F(1,22) = 35.64, p < 0.0001). Similar effects were observed after delay. There was significant decay in performance after delay for all participants (immediate = 1.17, delayed = 0.91, F = 11.9 (1,10) p < 0.01). Common analogies aid conceptual understanding necessary for transfer. Despite conceptual aids, solving transfer problems is difficult.

MeSH terms

  • Concept Formation*
  • Education, Medical, Undergraduate / methods
  • Humans
  • Models, Educational
  • Ontario
  • Physiology / education*
  • Problem-Based Learning / methods
  • Psychology / education*
  • Transfer, Psychology*