Understanding Generalizability and Transferability
In this chapter, we discuss generalizabililty, transferability, and the interrelationship between the two. We also explain how these two aspects of research operate in different methodologies, demonstrating how researchers may apply these concepts throughout the research process.
Generalizability is applied by researchers in an academic setting. It can be defined as the extension of research findings and conclusions from a study conducted on a sample population to the population at large. While the dependability of this extension is not absolute, it is statistically probable. Because sound generalizability requires data on large populations, quantitative research -- experimental for instance -- provides the best foundation for producing broad generalizability. The larger the sample population, the more one can generalize the results. For example, a comprehensive study of the role computers play in the writing process might reveal that it is statistically probable that students who do most of their composing on a computer will move chunks of text around more than students who do not compose on a computer.
Transferability is applied by the readers of research. Although generalizability usually applies only to certain types of quantitative methods, transferability can apply in varying degrees to most types of research . Unlike generalizability, transferability does not involve broad claims, but invites readers of research to make connections between elements of a study and their own experience. For instance, teachers at the high school level might selectively apply to their own classrooms results from a study demonstrating that heuristic writing exercises help students at the college level.
Generalizability and transferability are important elements of any research methodology, but they are not mutually exclusive: generalizability, to varying degrees, rests on the transferability of research findings. It is important for researchers to understand the implications of these twin aspects of research before designing a study. Researchers who intend to make a generalizable claim must carefully examine the variables involved in the study. Among these are the sample of the population used and the mechanisms behind formulating a causal model. Furthermore, if researchers desire to make the results of their study transferable to another context, they must keep a detailed account of the environment surrounding their research, and include a rich description of that environment in their final report. Armed with the knowledge that the sample population was large and varied, as well as with detailed information about the study itself, readers of research can more confidently generalize and transfer the findings to other situations.