Transfer is also affected by the context of original learning; people can learn in one context, yet fail to transfer to other contexts. For example, a group of Orange County homemakers did very well at making supermarket best-buy calculations despite doing poorly on equivalent school-like paper-and-pencil mathematics problems (Lave, 1988). Similarly, some Brazilian street children could perform mathematics when making sales in the street but were unable to answer similar problems presented in a school context (Carraher, 1986; Carraher et al, 1985).
How tightly learning is tied to contexts depends on how the knowledge is acquired (Eich, 1985). Research has indicated that transfer across contexts is especially difficult when a subject is taught only in a single context rather than in multiple contexts (Bjork and Richardson-Klavhen, 1989). One frequently used teaching technique is to get learners to elaborate on the examples used during learning in order to facilitate retrieval at a later time. The practice, however, has the potential of actually making it more difficult to retrieve the lesson material in other contexts, because knowledge tends to be especially context-bound when learners elaborate the new material with details of the context in which the material is learned (Eich, 1985). When a subject is taught in multiple contexts, however, and includes examples that demonstrate wide application of what is being taught, people are more likely to abstract the relevant features of concepts and to develop a flexible representation of knowledge (Gick and Holyoak, 1983).
The problem of overly contextualized knowledge has been studied in instructional programs that use case-based and problem-based learning. In these programs, information is presented in a context of attempting to solve complex, realistic problems (e.g., Barrows, 1985; Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt, 1997; Gragg, 1940; Hmelo, 1995; Williams, 1992). For example, fifth- and sixth-grade students may learn mathematical concepts of distance-rate-time in the context of solving a complex case involving planning for a boat trip. The findings indicate that if students learn only in this context, they often fail to transfer flexibly to new situations (Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt, 1997). The issue is how to promote wide transfer of the learning.
One way to deal with lack of flexibility is to ask learners to solve a specific case and then provide them with an additional, similar case; the goal is to help them abstract general principles that lead to more flexible transfer (Gick and Holyoak, 1983); see Box 3.7. A second way to improve flexibility is to let students learn in a specific context and then help them engage in “what-if” problem solving designed to increase the flexibility of their understanding. They might be asked: “What if this part of the problem