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What Influences Learning Transfer Among Professionals?


Wed Nov 23 2016

What Influences Learning Transfer Among Professionals?

Professionals like engineers, physicians, and educators are playing important roles in today’s organizations operating in the Knowledge Economy. Considering the amount of change occurring in business and the rapid development of science and technology, continuous education is necessary. What’s more, learning transfer is imperative.

Professionals in the same industry often share similar beliefs and possess a high degree of autonomy in their work. This begs the question: How do professionals decide whether or not to transfer new learning into their practice. In their Human Resource Development Quarterly article, “Learning Transfer in Practice: A Qualitative Study of Medical Professionals’ Perspectives,” Myungweon Chio and Kathryn Roulston try to answer this question.


In particular, Chio and Roulston question the widely held assumption that learning is passive. This assumption, they argue, does not take into account the sociocultural and economic contexts in which learning and learning transfer happens. Critical factors influence learning transfer within the actual context of practice and affect the meaning that professionals apply to new learning within their individual context of practice.

Specifically, the authors studied the learning transfer decisions among physicians participating in a training program in mind-body medicine (MBM) funded by Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) from 2007-2010. MBM, in general, refers to the use of the power of emotions and thoughts to improve physical health. The goal of the program was to enable the participants to use MBM interventions when they may be beneficial to the patients. Chio and Roulston content that the context of MBM training is an appropriate context for studying learning transfer decision among professional due to the controversial nature of the subject among physicians. The authors interviewed 48 participants during this three-year period.


What Researchers Found


Analyzing interview transcripts, Chio and Roulston identified three types of  factors that influenced the use of MBM:

  • prior beliefs and their understanding of the purpose of their profession

  • prior beliefs and their understanding of what constitutes a good practice

  • experience of the contextual constraints (barriers) that might make learning transfer difficult.

    The research suggests that viewing medicine as a helping profession positively influences the incorporation of MBM in the practice of studied physicians. Specifically, as stated by some of the participants, when it comes to low-income populations, MBM can be seen as a low-cost health intervention.

    The researchers also found that while all participants believed in an evidence-based approach to medicine, they had different views of “what counted as evidence” and, therefore, would think differently about the usefulness of MBM. Moreover, some of the respondents found the experiential activities of the MBM program rather time-consuming and preferred to be taught about the subject in a traditional approach.

    Based on the study’s findings, some of the participants stated that they would not apply what they had learned in the program because of the difficulties and problems of its usage in real practice. These challenges were categorized in two ways: 1) issues related to health-care system (lack of sufficient time, current insurance policies) and 2) issues related to patient contexts (the resistance against MBM among patients, the patients’ socioeconomic status, and so forth).

    This HRDQ article emphasizes the ways that the professional background of a learner can influence learning transfer—and may actually prevent transfer from taking place. While traditionally, effectiveness of training programs was attributed more often to the quality of the learning content, the professional’s values and the beliefs of the learner are critically important to the design of training programs.

    Recommendations for Practice      

    Based on the analysis presented by Chio and Roulston, L&D designers should consider the following recommendations:

  • Strategically incorporate the personal values, beliefs, and environmental factors of training participants into the design of training materials as important factors for learning transfer. Avoid the one-size-fits-all approaches.

  • Address the potential difficulties of transferring knowledge to the context of real practice, and customize the programs accordingly.

  • Identify what counts as credible knowledge within the aimed profession and prepare materials within that context.

  • Prior to the learning activities, encourage organizations to develop supporting policies and provide guidelines and approaches that help individuals apply the new learning into their practice. 

    Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series of articles highlighting research from the journals of the Academy of Human Resource Development (AHRD). In partnership with ATD, AHRD is committed to sharing useful research with the practitioner community. For more details on this study, access the original Human Resource Development Quarterly article by Myungweon Chio and Kathryn Roulston. Jossey-Bass/Wiley is offering free access to the article for a limited time.

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