Enhancing the metaphoric transfer of learning in wilderness expeditions

Outdoor adventure education (OAE) has struggled to keep pace with recent advances in learning science (Mackenzie, Son, & Hollenhorst, 2014; Schenck & Cruickshank, 2015).  While proponents of OAE have long understood and touted the inherent benefits of OAE include positive identity, social skills, physical and thinking skills, and positive values and spirituality (Stiehl & Parker, 2007), little quantitative evidence has proven this to be the case (Barton, Bragg, Pretty, Roberts, & Wood, 2016) though a growing body of qualitative evidence has (Furman & Sibthorp, 2014; Sibthorp, Furman, Paisley, Gookin, & Schumann, 2011).  Furthermore, Sibthorp et al. (2011) have noted that much of the research that does exist to support OAE’s efficacy focuses on outcomes rather than the processes by which OAE actually works.

How might recent understandings in the science of learning better inform the processes used in OAE, specifically within wilderness expeditions?  One theory that has gained attention in OAE is metaphoric transfer (Gass, 1985), which “requires the student to generalize certain principles from one learning situation to another. But the principles being transferred in this theory are not common or the same in structure, but are similar, analogous, or metaphorical” (p. 20).  This paper will examine Gass’s (1985) original recommendations for learning transfer in light of recent understandings in learning science in hopes of supporting or discrediting certain practices.  Particular attention will be paid to metaphoric transfer and how educators can best facilitate metaphoric transfer from wilderness expeditions

Outdoor Adventure Education and Learning Transfer

OAE is a type of experiential education (EE), which, in its broadest form, is “Challenge and Experience followed by Reflection leading to Learning and Growth” (Association for Experiential Education, 2016).  Specifically, OAE is

direct, active, and engaging learning experiences that involve the whole person and have real consequences.  [It is] educational activities and experiences, usually involving close interaction with the natural environment and within a small group setting that contain elements of real or perceived risk.  The outcome [of OAE], while uncertain, focuses on the intrapersonal and interpersonal development of the individual or group.  (Prouty, Panicucci, & Collinson, 2007, p. 229)

Wilderness expeditions are an example of OAE, and Barton et al. (2016) have recently reported that expeditions lasting as little as five days can increase students’ self-esteem and connectedness to nature.  Expeditions typically occur in remote settings where the use of electronics and electricity is limited or restricted, water is collected from natural sources, and students camp, hike, and canoe far from human-developed areas amid unpredictable weather.

The learning activity or experience is adventure-based if it…

□       is direct.

□       is active.

□       is engaging.

□       involves the whole student.

□       contains real consequences for the student.

□       involves close interaction with the natural environment.

□       occurs within a small group setting.

□       contains elements of real or perceived risk for the student.

□       has an uncertain outcome.

□       focuses on intrapersonal or interpersonal development of the student or group.

Figure 1.  Elements of an outdoor adventure educational activity or experience.  Adapted from Prouty, Panicucci, & Collinson (2007).

Because wilderness expeditions, like many OAE experiences, are drastically different from students’ daily lives, the ability of students to learn from expeditions and transfer the preponderance of their learning to novel settings (e.g. home, school, or their communities) requires facilitation and support from educators (APA, 2015): Learning “becomes progressively more difficult the more dissimilar the new context is from the original learning context” (p. 10).  For example, students may not be able to apply their newly learned skills in knot tying or canoeing to their daily lives at school, but a student who eventually shows teamwork, but initially struggles, to set up a tent and wash dishes with another student in the same tent group, might be able to apply this newfound cooperation with others at school or at home.  But not without the facilitation and support of a “more knowledgeable other,” a construct of Lev Vygotsky couched in social constructivism (Wertsch, 1985) that aligns well with the intrapersonal and interpersonal development inherent in OAE.  Within Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development,” (Wertsch, 1985) the student in the previous example has the potential to develop cooperation skills beyond those shown on expedition given support from “more capable peers” (p. 68).

The problem here is who facilitates this learning transfer?  Someone in the expedition setting or novel setting?  And when?  During expedition or afterward?  Most programs, by their design, will need to facilitate the metaphoric transfer of learning before the expedition ends rather than in the new setting, e.g. school, so this paper will focus on what can be addressed while on expedition.  Gass (1985) outlines three theories for learning transfer: specific, non-specific, and metaphoric transfer.  Specific transfer is when a student directly applies the habits and associations learned in OAE to a novel setting, e.g. using the J-stroke when canoeing on a family vacation.  Non-specific transfer is when a student generalizes learning from OAE to a novel setting, e.g. generalizing cooking with a backpacking stove to cooking a meal with a microwave.  Lastly, metaphoric transfer is when a student applies the underlying principles (e.g. cooperation and teamwork) from OAE to novel settings like in the example above (Gass, 1985).

Metaphoric Transfer

For metaphoric transfer of learning to work in OAE, the metaphoric situation, activity, or experience needs to be isomorphic, or similar in structure, to the novel situation (Bacon, 1983 in Gass, 1985).  This is inherently difficult though, because “it’s often hard to see the unifying underlying concepts in different examples” (Deans for Impact, 2015, n.p.).  Generally, “metaphor is linked to transfer because participants must apply what they know in one situation, assess similarities and differences between two situations, and then make a cognitive link to approximate the two” (Sibthrop et al., 2011, p. 113).  How educators can facilitate and support this process in wilderness expeditions is detailed in the next section, but first, an example will work well to illustrate the previous point regarding metaphor and lay a foundation for the next section.

Jon is a young man on a five-day mountain biking expedition in north central New England.  On day two of the expedition, he struggles to ascend steep inclines of approximately 50 yards without stopping to walk his bike.  That evening, during the group’s nightly reflection, Jon relays how hard the inclines were for him.  At breakfast the next day, an instructor makes a point to speak with Jon about what he struggles to complete or finish at home or at school.  Jon mentions how math schoolwork and chores at home are difficult for him because he gets in trouble for not completing both.  “How might that be like biking up the steep hills?” the instructor could ask Jon, and together, they might create a metaphor wherein Jon is reminded “not to give up until the yardwork’s done,” because it “can feel good to work hard and finish what you start.”

The metaphorical situation is mountain biking, and the real-life situation is the chores at home, which is closer to the physical nature of mountain biking than the more sedentary nature of math homework.  The instructor can underscore how, even though Jon felt tired, he continued to push himself up the inclines, much like he might be able to push himself to complete the physically unwanted strain of chores at home.  In order for the metaphoric transfer to occur within Jon, he will need to assess the similarities and differences between mountain biking up steep inclines and doing chores at home, apply what he knows about mountain biking, and then make a cognitive link to approximate the two situations.  No easy task to be certain.

It should be noted before going further the inherent cultural bias in this example.  Lakoff and Johnson (1980) detail the cultural aspects in metaphors and how these cultural forces shape how we make sense of metaphors.  This example exhibits cultural coherence because it can be presumed that Jon is a white, male who likes being physically active, struggles in school, shows some rebellion toward authority, and if academically intelligent, doesn’t especially take pride in bookish intelligence.  These are all examples of the cultural aspects of the metaphor comparing mountain biking to chores at home, which is a metaphor that may not work for every client, because “metaphors are basically devices for understanding and have little to do with objective reality, if there is such a thing” (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980, p. 184).

Factors/Techniques that Affect Learning Transfer in OAE

Of importance then is an understanding of how educators can best affect learning transfer during wilderness expeditions.  While Gass’s (1985) recommendations for learning transfer stemmed from all three theories he proposed (specific, non-specific, and metaphoric transfer), particular attention will be paid to the metaphorical aspects in each recommendation as well as how each relates to current understandings of learning science.

Design conditions for transfer before the course/program/learning activities actually begin

Preparation for metaphoric transfer in wilderness expeditions is essential.  “What students already know affects their learning” (APA, 2015, p. 7), so adding to current knowledge or revising current knowledge requires teachers take the time to “precipitate cognitive conflict or dissonance” (p.8) through problem-based learning.  The problems educators devise can then isomorphically resemble the real-life situations students will encounter after expedition, which leads to the next recommendation.

Create elements in the student’s learning environment similar to those elements likely to be found in future learning environments

Because the underlying principles of a learning situation are often hard to see for learners, educators can make sure students have enough background knowledge to fully appreciate the context of the situation, as well as alternate concrete examples with abstract examples (Deans for Impact, 2015).  Simply briefing students before a OAE lesson or activity with basic grounding questions can serve to lay the groundwork for transferring the skill to a “real-life” setting outside the OAE setting, e.g. “How might you use this skill at home?”

Provide students with the opportunities to practice the transfer of learning while still in the program

Of most importance to metaphoric transfer, given the constraints on expedition programs to instill an understanding of the metaphoric situation’s relevance during the program, educators can teach a concept in multiple contexts during expedition; they can help students compare and contrast these different contexts; and they can apply this learning to relevant and timely examples (APA, 2015).  For example, teaching strategies to resolve conflicts in multiple settings may mean comparing and contrasting how a student avoided a conflict in one setting, but compromised in another setting during expedition.

Have the consequences of learning be natural – not artificial

Perhaps most relevant to EE and OAE, natural consequences speak for themselves, and work well when educators anticipate and embrace the consequences inherent in wilderness expeditions.  Gass (1985) highlights the pitfalls of students over reliance on instructors in OAE settings.  For example, knowing rain is in the forecast before setting out for an expedition, the instructors may double check that every student has the proper gear to manage the impending weather, while at the same time framing the metaphor of forward-thinking: It may not be raining now, but it might in the future, so we’re going to be prepared for anything.  When the rain does begin, however, the instructor does not need to enforce wearing weather-proof gear: the consequences of not doing so speak for themselves!

Provide the means for students to internalize their own learning, and develop focused processing techniques that facilitate the transfer of learning

This recommendation of Gass (1985) is well supported outside of OAE and EE.  Processing, reflecting, or debriefing all serve as a foundational aspect of EE (AEE, 2016), and help many students internalize learning from OAE.  “Information is often withdrawn from memory just as it went in.  “We usually want students to remember what information means and why it is important, so they should think about meaning when they encounter to-be-remembered material” (Deans for Impact, 2016, n.p.).  Verbally processing an experience in OAE allows

consistent re-exposure to the basic facts, followed by a detailed elaboration of [students’] impressions.  The phenomenon is called elaborative rehearsal, and it’s the type of repetition shown to be most effective for the most robust retrieval.  A great deal of research shows that thinking or talking about an event immediately after it has occurred enhances memory for that event.  (Medina, 2008, p. 131)

Because the learning on expedition occurs at biological, psychological, and social levels beyond the scope of any classroom education, e.g. the OAE setting is vastly more dynamic and uncontrollable, the difficult work to set aside time to reflect on experiential learning can’t be ignored: The cognitive processes involved in recoding emotionally charged information into language is too valuable.  Nightly reflections can serve this purpose well.

Include past successful alumni in the adventure program, and include significant others in the learning process

Gass’s (1985) recommendations are both supported by Bandura’s (1971) work in social learning theory.  When students on expedition see older, experienced students who were once in a similar learning role, they learn by example.  Bandura went so far as to posit that “under most circumstances, a good example is…a much better teacher than the consequences of unguided actions” (Bandura, 1971, p. 5).  And since learning is situated within multiple social contexts, “creating opportunities for family and community involvement in the work of the [OAE “classroom”] is vital” (APA, 2015, p.21).  On expedition, counselors-in-training (CITs) serve this role well, and inviting families to participate in structured activities at the beginning or end of OAE experiences can help frame students’ learning.

When possible, place more responsibility for learning in the program with the student/clients

While Gass’s (1985) recommendation may seem intuitive, research indicates “students tend to enjoy learning and do better when they are more intrinsically rather than extrinsically motivated to achieve” (APA, 2015, p. 16), and this is often based on attention to a subject.  In order to gain that attention, educators must recognize that previous experiences, interest, and simply an awareness of the content to be learned are important in the arousal of interest (Medina, 2008).  In wilderness expeditions, students may be more compelled to take individual responsibility because of the immediacy and dynamic nature of OAE settings, i.e. if students want to have enough water for the day-hike, then they need to ration how much they bring and drink throughout the day.

Provide follow-up experiences which aid in the application of transfer

Among Gass’s (1985) recommendations receiving the shortest explanation are those dealing with the practice of skills learned in OAE, so the suggestion to provide follow-up experiences deserves an explanation of the practice required to transfer information from short-term to long-term memory because “practice is key to this transfer process” (APA, 2015, p. 11).  But not just any practice: It must involve deliberate attention, rehearsal, and repetition (APA, 2015).  Allowing a student on expedition to teach another an important skill may provide the necessary attention, rehearsal, and repetition involved in deliberate practice.


The processes that make OAE work have received little attention given recent advances in learning science.  Mackenzie et al. (2014) posited 1) pushing learners outside their “comfort zone” may not be as vital a component to EE as initially thought, 2) EE activities should be freely chosen and intrinsically motivated, and 3) personal challenge isn’t the definitive requirement of a successful EE program.  Likewise, Schenck & Cruickshank (2015) argued against Kolb’s long-held experiential learning theory (ELT) that stated EE learning follows a circular process from concrete experience, to reflective observation, to abstract conceptualization, to active experimentation, and back to concrete experience.

Metaphoric transfer (Gass, 1985) is one learning theory whereby learners apply the underlying principles learned in one setting to a novel one, and remarkably, Gass’s recommendations for metaphoric transfer can be confirmed given recent research in learning science.  These recommendations can be of particular use in OAE settings, specifically wilderness expeditions.


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