Different kinds of ‘skill transfer’

When I was a PhD student, I learned that there are 3 main topics of investigation in skill learning research: skill acquisition, skill retention, and skill transfer. The goal of researchers interested in skill ought to be to understand the processes by which these things happen, and to develop ways to enhance them.

The first two are fairly easy to define. Skill acquisition is the improvement of performance at a previously unlearned task, usually through repetition and training. Researchers might ask how to accelerate this process, or how to ensure that training/practice conditions ensure the most adaptive and long-lasting learning. Skill retention is the ability to perform well at the now-learned task after extended time periods, or following interference of another task/skill. ‘You never forget how to ride a bike’ = skill retention. In the research literature, retention is generally used as a metre stick to evaluate how successful the acquisition phase has been. Both acquisition and retention are (reasonably) well-defined and have been extensively researched.

Skill transfer is far less easy to define than acquisition or retention, and, while the most elusive, it is perhaps the most desirable phenomenon. It is something like the ability to perform an unrehearsed skill as the result of having previously acquired and retained a different-but-related skill. This definition has many problems and does not capture the idea of transfer fully. Examples might be better. Imagine a proficient Gaelic football player switching to Rugby – we might expect that many of the sub-skills required to do well in Gaelic would transfer to rugby, even if not all. Or a cello player taking up the viola. While the new instrument is a fraction of the size of the former, and played in a completely different posture, we might expect some of the learned skill to carry over. Of more general relevance, how can practice of one thing transfer to unpracticed situations? How can set-piece drills transfer to a real match against another team? How can rehearsing jazz scales transfer to a live improvisation during a gig? These are the kinds of phenomena and questions that skill transfer as a concept is supposed to capture.

An idea that I have been wondering about recently (and haven’t yet had the time to fully research) is about the different ways we could conceptualise skill transfer. Typically, the idea is that ‘acquisition of the skill to perform Task A will reliably result in better performance in Task B’ (assuming that Task A and B are similar enough in the relevant ways¹). However, I think there is another way of thinking about transfer. This is that ‘acquisition of the skill to perform Task A will reliably result in faster/better acquisition of the skill to perform Task B’. This may reveal itself independently of initial performance at Task B. Rather, by having tuned into the information that allowed Task A to be learned, and assuming that such information is meaningfully present in Task B, the learner will more readily be able to attune their attention to this in learning Task B and show accelerated acquisition. I am inspired here by the common anecdote² that having learned one instrument to a proficient level, it is easier to learn a second, and then easier still to learn a third, and so on. Thus, one view of transfer is improved performance of the unpractised task, while another would be improved learning of the unpractised task. The distinction may relate in part to a contrast between between ‘pick-up of information for action’ and ‘pick-up of information for learning’, but I am not yet in a position to formulate this idea fully yet.

I am sure that there is research relevant to this question out there. However, I have certainly not come across an explicit distinction between these two possible (and not mutually exclusive) ways that learning one skill could benefit another skill. I hope to look into this question further soon and report back with what I find.


  1. What counts as ‘the relevant ways’ is hugely important, and probably at the heart of the question of skill transfer, but something I will leave alone for now.
  2. I will look for proper evidence of this idea.

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