Getting to far transfer

Chris Chatham at Developing Intelligence looks at new research related to transfer — which is pretty much the entire reason for organizational training and learning.

In Building Expertise, Ruth Colvin Clark described near-transfer tasks as ones that “must be performed consistently each time they are done and by each worker who does them.”   I’ve worked with thousands of tasks like this — hotel or transportation reservation systems, tracking software for drug trials, procedures for evaluating health claims.   They may be enormous, like a financial system to support the work of tellers and officers at a bank branch, but individual elements are straightforward, like the steps for opening a certificate of deposit.   You don’t want a lot of innovation there.

Complex tasks require far transferFar-transfer tasks, Clark says, “require the worker to use extensive judgment… there are no set steps for all cases.”   She offers sales an an example — the successful salesperson treats each sales opportunity as a new event.   (When you go to a car dealership and the guy starts with a canned approach, you’re seeing someone using near transfer in a far-transfer setting.)

Sometimes judgments like Chatham’s seem obvious — well, of course training can improve your ability to perform.   I do think, however, that far more people claim to belong to the Church of Evidence-Based Practice than ever show up at services.

He cites a study dealing with tasks that activate a particular part of the brain (the left inferior frontal gyrus).   In theory, the left IFG helps “bias” activity when associations aren’t clear.

For example, you may need more of such “biasing” when trying to come up with a verb that’s related to “giraffe” than one that’s related to “lion” (lion has some obvious associates [roar! eat! hunt!] and is therefore less likely to require any help from [the left] IFG). This is an example of a verb generation task; like many other similar tasks, it engages the left IFG.

So, can training related to a specific kind of task improve performance in other areas, which is what far transfer is really about?    The study in question (PDF), by Persson and Reuter-Lorenz, deals with “interference resolution.”   How can the brain cope when a previously-learned task interferes with performance on a similar task?

From the study:

Eight days of training on high-interference versions of three different working memory tasks increased the efficiency with which proactive interference was resolved… participants training with noninterference versions of the tasks did not exhibit this effect….

An improved ability to resolve interference was also transferred to different working memory, semantic memory, and episodic memory tasks, a demonstration of far-transfer effects from process-specific training.

The researchers suggest that transfer may occur only when the same brain regions are activated in both the training and transfer tasks — which seems to argue that, however you do your training, the training tasks must demand the same kinds of brain activity as the desired performance.

No big secret here: if you want people to handle customer complaints or improve work flow or advise high school students, then the training requires increasing approximations of realistic situations.   The design element involves identifying high-value or high-importance cases — even though the universe of cases is vast — so as to strengthen a person’s ability to transfer what he’s learned to a new situation.

Complexity photo by PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE.