Psychology, Interamerican
Transfer of learning and task complexity: "The cart before the horse"

Supplementary Files

Cover page

How to Cite

Souza, C., Flores, E. P., & Castro-Neto, J. M. de O. (2016). Transfer of learning and task complexity: "The cart before the horse". Revista Interamericana De Psicología/Interamerican Journal of Psychology, 49(3).


This paper analyzes uses of the term 'transfer' in studies of learning transfer and compares them with the logic of everyday use. We discuss conceptual issues related to the definition of transfer that tend to hinder analysis and comparison of empirical studies. We propose (1) the importance of taking into account empirical and conceptual aspects of the complexity of the tasks involved and (2) avoiding overly restricted definitions of transfer. A theoretical proposal is presented in which tasks involved in transfer of learning are conceived as a set of programmed contingencies of reinforcement, which can be quantified in order to establish a measure of its discriminative complexity.


Ayres, P., & Paas, F. (2012). Cognitive load theory: New directions and challenges. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 26(6), 827-832.

Banicki, K. (2012). Connective conceptual analysis and psychology. Theory & Psychology, 22(3), 310-323.

Barnett, S. M., & Ceci, S. J. (2002). When and where do we apply what we learn? A taxonomy for far transfer. Psychological Bulletin, 128(4), 612-637.

Broadbent, D.P., Causer, J., Williams, A.M., & Ford, P. R. (2015). Perceptual-cognitive skill training and its transfer to expert performance in the field: Future research directions. European Journal of Sport Science, 15(4), 322-331.

Butterfield, E. C., Slocum, T. A., & Nelson, G. D. (1993). Cognitive and behavioral analyses of teaching and transfer: Are they different? En D. K. Detterman, & R. J. Sternberg (Eds.), Transfer on Trial: Intelligence, Cognition, and Instruction. (p. 192-257). Ablex Publishing Corporation: Norwood-NJ.

Carraher, D., & Schliemann, A. (2002). The transfer dilemma. The Journal of the learning sciences, 11(1), 1-24.

Catania, A. C. (1998). Learning (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Collins A. G., & Frank, M. J. (2013). Cognitive control over learning: Creating, clustering, and generalizing task-set structure. Psychological Review, 120(1), 190-229.

Commons, M. L. (2008). Introduction to the model of hierarchical complexity and its relationship to postformal action. World Futures, 64(5-7), 305-320.

Commons, M. L., & Miller, P. M. (1998). A quantitative behavior-analytic theory of development. Revista Mexicana de Análisis de la Conducta, 24, 153-180.

Cormier, S. M., & Hagman, J. D. (1987). Introduction. En S.M. Cormier & J.D. Hagman (Eds.), Transfer of learning: Contemporary research and applications (pp.1-8). London: Academic Press.

Detterman, D. K. (1993). The case for the prosecution: Transfer as an epiphenomenon. En D. K. Detterman, & R. J. Sternberg (Eds.), Transfer on Trial: Intelligence, Cognition, and Instruction (pp. 1-24). Ablex Publishing Corporation: Norwood-NJ.

Fischer, K. W. (1980). A theory of cognitive development: The control and construction of hierarchies of skills. Psychological Review, 87, 477-531.

Flores, E. P. (1997). Comportamento auxiliar em tarefas sucessivas: Efeitos de mudanças nos estímulos e/ou nas respostas exigidas. Tesis de Maestría, Programa de Pós-graduação em Psicologia, Universidade de Brasília, DF, Brasil.

Flores, E. P. (2003). Saber como e saber sobre em uma tarefa de pares associados: Efeitos da complexidade da tarefa e das instruções. Tesis Doctoral. Programa de pós-graduação em Psicologia, Universidade de Brasília, DF, Brasil.

Hadger, P., & Hodkinson, P. (2009). Moving beyond the metaphor of transfer of learning. British Educational Research Journal, 35(4), 619–638.

Harzem, P., & Miles, T. R. (1978). Conceptual issues in operant psychology. London: John Wiley and Sons.

Herrnstein , R. J., & Boring , E. G. (Eds.). (1970). A source book in the history of psychology. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press [Obra original publicada en 1965].

Kirschner, P. A., Ayres, P., & Chandler, P. (2011). Contemporary cognitive load theory research: The good, the bad and the ugly. Computers in Human Behavior, 27(1), 99-105.

Leppink, J., Paas, F., Van der Vleuten, C. P., Van Gog, T., & Van Merriënboer, J. J. (2013). Development of an instrument for measuring different types of cognitive load. Behavior Research Methods, 45(4), 1058-1072.

Lobato, J. (2006). Alternative perspectives on the transfer of learning: History, issues, and challenges for future research. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 15(4), 431-449.

Lobato, J. (2012). The Actor-Oriented transfer perspective and its contributions to educational research and practice. Educational Psychologist, 47(3), 232-247. doi:10.1080/00461520.2012.693353

Machado, A., & Silva, F. J. (2007). Toward a richer view of the scientific method: The role of conceptual analysis. American Psychologist, 62(7), 671-681.

Oliveira-Castro, J. M. (1993). “Fazer na cabeça”: análise conceitual, demonstrações empíricas e considerações teóricas. Psicologia USP, 4, 171-202.

Oliveira-Castro, J. M.(2001). Contingências programadas de reforço e complexidade discriminativa de tarefa: Aplicações a situações de ensino de leitura. En R.C. Wielenska (Org.), Sobre Comportamento e Cognição (Vol.6, p. 111-120). Santo André, SP: Esetec.

Oliveira-Castro, J. M., & Campos, A. P. M. (2004). Comportamento precorrente auxiliar: Efeitos do número de dimensões discriminativas da tarefa. Psicologia: Teoria e Pesquisa, 20, 191-199.

Oliveira-Castro, J. M., Coelho. D. S., & Oliveira-Castro, G. A.(1999). Decrease of precurrent behavior as training increases: effect of task complexity. The Psychological Record, 49, 299-325.

Oliveira-Castro, J. M., Faria, J. B., Dias, M. B., & Coelho, D. S. (2002). Effects of task complexity on learning to skip steps: An operant analysis. Behavioural Processes, 59, 101-120.

Paas, F. G. (1992). Training strategies for attaining transfer of problem-solving skill in statistics: A cognitive-load approach. Journal of Educational Psychology, 84(4), 429-434.

Peláez, M., & Moreno, R. (1998). A taxonomy of rules and their correspondence to rule-governed behavior. Revista Mexicana de Análisis de la Conducta, 24, 197-214.

Real Academia Española (2014). Diccionario de la Lengua Española (23ª Edición). Recuperado el 13 de abril de 2015 de

Ribes-Iñesta, E. (2000). Instructions, rules, and abstraction: A misconstrued relation. Behavior and Philosophy, 28, 41-55.

Sweller, J. (1994). Cognitive load theory, learning difficulty, and instructional design. Learning and Instruction, 4(4), 295-312.

Thorndike, E.L., & Woodworth, R. S. (1901). The influence of improvement in one mental function upon the efficiency of other functions (I). Psychological Review, 8, 247-261.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1958). Philosophical Investigations (3. Ed). New Jersey: Prentice Hall (Obra Original publicada en 1953).

Wood, R. E. (1986). Task complexity: definition of the construct. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Process, 37, 60-82.