Recently a question was asked about the benefit of playing chess on cognitive abilities. More specifically, how chess would improve understanding technical texts. Many other questions are also focused on learning and skim the topic of transfer of learning (e.g. Does learning one discipline improve performance in another discipline?, Why is training better when following an easy-to-difficult schedule?, How does task difficulty schedule affect the rate and efficiency of perceptual learning? ). However, it is not entirely clear to me how transfer can be explained, independent of the type of tasks.

What does recent scientific research say about transfer of skill, or are there cognitive models that help explain it?

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    $\begingroup$ This question looks like a duplicate of this one: cogsci.stackexchange.com/questions/207/…, or is at least, high in overlap. I think this question may be more focused on the cognitive mechanism, but that is also discussed in much detail in the other question's answers, so what is missing from there that you would like to see added here? $\endgroup$
    – Arnon Weinberg
    Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 23:51
  • $\begingroup$ Darnit, it seems you are right. To not let my bounty go to waste, an update of some information would be nice. What has been done in this line of research in the five years after the linked (and the linked in the linked) answers? But indeed with the focus on the cognitive mechanisms. Perhaps one could discuss some competing cognitive models that have a different take on transfer. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 14, 2017 at 7:31

1 Answer 1


Short Answer

A cognitive model is made that decomposes any skill in smaller elements or production rules. These elements (or combinations thereof) are often context independent and can be used for multiple tasks. The requirement for transfer of skill is that the tasks need to have some sort of overlap in how it is performed.

Long Answer

I found a cognitive model that tries to explain how transfer works (and thereby acknowledges its existence). The theory is called primitive elements theory of cognitive skills (PRIMs; Taatgen, 2013). The model is implemented based on the ideas of the cognitive architecture ACT-R. I will not go in to that too much, but in Figure 1 is the PRIMs representation of ACT-R: enter image description here

According to PRIMs, each production rule represents part of a cognitive task. While initially each production rule is a separate cognitive step, with learning you can accumulate these production rules into one (See Figure 4 for an example). enter image description here

The idea is that some of these elements (gray and white ones) are context independent. Steps like "check for empty working memory" and "check for visual input" are used in almost any task that requires visual input. Being context independent makes it not necessary to learn this over and over for every new skill you want to learn. The final figure (Figure 9) shows how counting, or to be more precise, an iterative component of counting, can be transferred to a Semantic task (answering questions like "is a canary a bird?"). The essence of transfer is thus that the tasks need to have some overlap in how the task is performed (in terms of basic cognitive elements). enter image description here

Taatgen, N. A. (2013). The nature and transfer of cognitive skills. Psychological review, 120(3), 439. ISO 690


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