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An incremental transfer approach to instructional design

P. R. Wallace
Royal Australian Air Force
This paper describes an instructional design methodology and the model of learning upon which it is premised. This methodology was specifically developed to assist with the design of simulations for skills training within the Australian Defence Force. The methodology emphasises simulation fidelity definition in terms of skill process elements, performance transactions and environmental features. Instructional simulation methods appropriate to defined stages of learning are also proposed.

The incremental-transfer approach to instructional design described in this paper resulted from a 12 month study into the design of instructional simulations within the Australian Defence Force. During this study 'transfer of learning' was identified as being the key purpose of simulations and, from this, the view of learning as a process of incremental transfer grew.

The incremental-transfer approach described here addresses the process by which a novice at a skill first gains competence in familiar contexts and then in novel contexts. This scale of the learning process is particularly relevant to job-related training where minimum standards of performance under specified conditions are stipulated, but the ability to cope with unusual or unfamiliar situations is also expected.

The incremental-transfer approach has so far been applied to two training design projects. In a developmental trial of the approach a simulation was developed to assist the instruction of ILS (instrument landing system) procedures to RAAF undergraduate pilots; this trial was very successful with a clear improvement over conventional instruction being demonstrated (Wallace, in press). In an investigation of the use of embedded training techniques for teaching the use of software, the incremental transfer approach u as again successfully employed to develop simulations for task rehearsal (Rzechowicz & Wallace, in press).

The aim of this paper is to briefly describe the principles underlying the proposed incremental-transfer approach to instructional design and the key steps in its implementation. Readers are directed to Wallace (in press) for a more detailed explanation of the approach.

Transfer as an organising concept

Transfer of learning has traditionally been seen as an outcome of learning. For example, when practice at one task is considered to lead to improved performance at another task positive transfer is said to have taken place. Likewise, negative transfer is also considered to result at times. An alternative view defines transfer as the actual process by which learning takes place.

A complete novice at a skill may be considered to have the job of transferring past learning into a new skill domain so that elements of the skill become personally meaningful. Viewed from this perspective, transfer is the process of learning and not an outcome. Moreover, if we imagine proficiency at a skill being represented by points on a line with novice performance at one end and expert performance at the other then progression along the line will occur through learning and this progression may be defined as a process of incremental transfer.

The allure of an incremental-transfer model of learning is that it may be used to provide prescriptions for instruction. These prescriptions would define the functions that instructional environments need to provide in order to support the increment of transfer being targeted at any particular stage of learning. The two aspects which require definition prior to prescriptions being formulated are: the description of learning contexts in terms of transfer, and generic stages of skill learning.

Three dimensions of transfer

Successful progression from a context within which competence has been achieved to a more difficult context in which competence had not been previously achieved signifies the traverse of a transfer distance. The transfer distance may be abstractly considered as the contextual differences between the two skill environments. However, a more practical definition of transfer distance is necessary for learning environments to be precisely prescribed.

The proposed incremental-transfer model adopts a three dimensional view of transfer. Any context of skill performance, along the path from being a novice to an expert, may be defined in terms of these three dimensions. The dimensions are labelled: skill process elements, performance transactions and physical environment. For example, the context of expert performance may be described in terms of each of these dimensions; the skill may be analysed as a process and a comprehensive set of elements identified, the strategies and work cycles performed represent transactions with the environment, and the environment must provide certain features for the performance of transactions to be possible.

The three dimensional definition of transfer thereby provides a tool for precisely defining the context most suited to any particular stage of learning. However, productive application of this tool will only be possible if a description is available of what role defined stages of learning play in the overall transfer process.

A five stage incremental-transfer model of learning

The learning of a skill may have two goals: competent performance under specified conditions, or competent performance under novel and unanticipated conditions. The first of these goals is reminiscent of educational theories which have been termed 'conservative' (Bowen & Hobson, 1974); such theories assume that required knowledge may be defined in advance of learning. The second of the goals is more akin to the theories Bowen and Hobson (Bowen & Hobson, 1974) refer to as being 'liberal'; these theories argue that abilities to inquire, explore and adapt should be developed in learners.

While educational theorists continue to argue over which of the conservative and the preferred, the learning of a skill may well require both approaches. Indeed, in many job-related skills a certain minimum standard of performance under specified conditions is necessary for safety certification, while the commonsense to adapt to variations in conditions is also expected.

Near transfer has been used to describe situations where learning is required to be transferred to a context very similar to that in which experience has already been gained (Clark & Voogel, 1985). When the context of graduate performance can be reliably predicted then near transfer, and conservative theories of learning, may be the most appropriate.

Far transfer has been used to describe situations where transfer to novel contexts is required (Clark & Voogel, 1985). Where the context within which graduates are to perform a skill cannot be reliably defined then far transfer, and liberal theories of learning, may be the most appropriate.

The incremental-transfer model views near and far transfer as being respective goals of the final two stages of skill learning. Preceding these are three stages which prepare learners for near transfer practice. The first stage is skill initiation, during which the skill domain becomes meaningful. The second stage is skill paragon formation, during which a mental model of an individual paragon of skill performance is constructed The third stage is initial skill practice, during which learners first apply and modify skill paragons.

In summary, the incremental-transfer model defines five stages of transfer: skill initiation, skill paragon formation, initial skill practice, near transfer practice, and far transfer practice.

An incremental-transfer instructional design methodology

An eight step methodology has been proposed for the design of instruction consistent with an incremental-transfer model of learning. The eight steps are: training problem analysis, skill analysis, instructional strategy, transfer path derivation, learning event specification, statement of requirement, system specification, and implementation guidelines.

The proposed design methodology was specifically developed for the context of training projects within the Australian Defence Force and places emphasis on matters such as a formal statement of requirement (for the purpose of calling for tenders) which may not be relevant in many civilian situations.

The step of 'learning event specification' is worthy of some elaboration. A review of modern theories of learning was used to develop lists of general functions which simulations should perform if they were to support transfer during each of the defined five stages. As a result, five types of simulation were defined: Expository Examples, Inquisitory Examples, Guided Convergent Practice, Independent Convergent Practice and Independent Divergent Practice. These respectively match the five defined stages of transfer, ie. skill initiation, etc.

A brief description of how required ILS procedures simulation functions in support of RAAF undergraduate pilot training were defined during development of the design methodology may provide a practical illustration of the application of incremental transfer.

A review of current ILS procedures training, in terms of the incremental-transfer model, revealed potential problems during the stages of skill paragon formation and initial skill practice. A single simulation event comprising two parts, one addressing skill paragon formation and the other initial skill practice, was assessed as being adequate to overcome the potential problems. In accordance with the above described simulation types, the single simulation event was to provide inquisitory examples and then guided convergent practice.

Competent performance during near transfer was analysed and the context for this performance described in terms of the three dimensions of transfer. During simulation design, the dimension of skill process elements was firstly addressed with only elements unfamiliar to learners being included in the context descriptions for skill paragon formation and initial skill practice. Next the transactions identified through analysis of near transfer contexts were modified to match the two stages to be addressed by the simulation event. Finally, the environmental features associated with near transfer performance were modified to allow both instructional functions and performance transactions appropriate to the two transfer stages to be performed.

The result was a functional description of the required simulation and an instructor guide. As mentioned in the introduction to this paper, instruction designed using the incremental-transfer approach was compared with conventional instruction and found to be superior in supporting transfer (Wallace, in press).

The production of a functional description of the required simulation is especially important. Historically, statements of requirement for simulation systems have focussed upon engineering concerns and neglected instructional issues (Hays & Singer, 1988). The incremental-transfer approach avoids this pitfall by stating the instructional functions which the simulation system must support and the context the simulation is to provide in terms of transfer dimension characteristics.


The approach to instructional design described within this paper is aimed at implementing an incremental-transfer model of skill learning. This model of learning views transfer as being the process by which learning occurs. Consequently, the job of instructional design is to create environments and activities which promote efficient transfer.

Prescriptions for desired transfer are provided within the design methodology and draw upon a broad range of learning theories. An underlying assumption of the methodology is that both near and far transfer are valid goals of learning and, therefore, that theories dealing with each of these goals are relevant.


Bowen, J. & Hobson, P. R. (1974). Theories of Education. Brisbane: John Wiley & Sons.

Clark, R. E. & Voogel, R. (1985). Transfer of training principles. Educational Communication and Technology Journal, 33, 113-123.

Hays, R. T. & Singer, M. J. (1988). Simulation Fidelity in Training System Design. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Rzechowicz, M. J. & Wallace, P. R. (in press). A trial application of a performance supported statistical software package in the RAAF. Proceedings of the ITTE92 Conference. Brisbane: University of Queensland.

Wallace, P. R. (in press). The Instructional Design of Simulation Systems for Skills Training in the Australian Defence Force. Canberra: Department of Defence.

Author: Phil Wallace is a Squadron Leader in the Education Officer category of the RAAF. He is currently in charge of the Training Technology Cell at the RAAF's Headquarters Training Command. In 1991 he undertook a 12 month Defence Force Fellowship at Curtin University to study the instructional design of simulation systems for the Australian Defence Force. He is currently conducting research at Monash University into the design of simulations which provide task rehearsal. Mailing Address: PE5 Headquarters Training Command, RAAF WILLIAMS, Point Cook VIC 3027

Please cite as: Wallace, P. R. (1992). An incremental transfer approach to instructional design. In J. G. Hedberg and J. Steele (eds), Educational Technology for the Clever Country: Selected papers from EdTech'92, 151-155. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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