Generalization versus transfer in first year composition

As I discuss in one of my first blog posts, questions of transfer are pertinent to first year composition.  The point I am trying to make in that early post is that often times faculty complaints about student writing are less about knowledge and ability and more about lack of transfer:

What I believe is actually happening with student writing that leads to these laments, is that students are struggling to write in a specific context, namely, an academic writing situation in a particular discipline.  What might be a matter of students struggling with content information specific to a discipline or over navigating the conventions of a disciplinary genre is often interpreted as students not being able to write.

In Elizabeth Wardle’s piece, “Understanding ‘Transfer’ from FYC: Preliminary Results of a Longitudinal Study,” she too takes on issues of transfer as they pertain to first year composition.  In it she validates my own quest for more information on this topic, pointing out the dearth of it in our field.  She borrows from David Smit’s book, The End of Composition to make this point:

In The End of Composition Studies, David Smit summarizes what we know as a field about the transfer of writing-related skills from first-year composition (FYC) to other courses and contexts: very little.  Smit’s primary criticism is of the dearth of systematic research attention paid to transfer from first-year writing courses; he makes a valid point.  (65)

Wardle’s long-term study sets out to rectify this problem.  The importance of transfer, argues Wardle, to composition studies is manifest in the expectations from various stakeholders (parents, administrators, other faculty) that we are teaching knowledge and skills that can transfer from our first year class “to writing tasks in other courses and context.”  For this reason, it is imperative that compositionists care about questions of transfer, and yet very little research actually exists in our field.

One of the first moves Wardle makes in her piece is to distance herself from the term “transfer.”  Instead, she prefers the term “generalization” (as described by King Beach).  This can help us better understand the loose/implied connection Michael Carter makes between general knowledge and transfer.  Transfer tends to refer to specific tasks and individual learners in a way that describes “just plain learning” (as Beach puts it).  Generalization, on the other hand,

includes classical interpretations of transfer—carrying and applying knowledge across tasks—but goes beyond them to examine individuals and their social organizations, the ways that individuals construct associations among social organizations, associations that can be continuous and constant or distinctive and contradictory (Beach 41, qtd. in Wardle 68).

Wardle draws on Beach’s work, as well as that of David Guile and Michael Young, to make the case that “the learning of the activity system and the learning of an individual are intertwined, and the individual’s learning is understandable only if we understand the learning of the activity system” (68).  Motivation to learn comes from “the nature of the activity system…” Potential for people to “generalize learning” (preferred term over transfer) is determined by an activity system that encourages collaboration and some risk and opportunities to share and be “inspired by a common motive for undertaking a specific learning task” (Guile and Young 74, qtd. in Wardle 68).  The problem we are faced with according to Wardle is that,

When we confine our attention to individuals, we may be tempted to assign some ‘deficiency’ to students or their previous training….  Therefore, if we look for but do not find direct evidence that students use specific previously-learned skills in new situations, we cannot necessarily assume that students did not learn them, have not used them, or will not use them in the future.  (69)

Here Wardle makes a similar point to the one I open with from my previous post.  We are, as Wardle so aptly puts it, “looking for apples when those apples are now part of an apple pie.”  (69).  This means that the discrete writing skills that faculty might be looking for are actually part of this larger, contextual “activity system” and might not be immediately obvious to either student or teacher.  So what to do?  The idea of transfer, as Pete and I have been learning, is a little like a unicorn — rare and of questionable existence.  Yet, there are those like Gerald Nelms and Ronda Leathers Dively who do admit that while transfer has always been a difficult thing to track and measure, as it “occurs over time and across contextual borders…,” “teaching to transfer is possible” (emphasis mine 215-216). The key to achieving transfer or “generalization” lies in, not surprisingly, how we teach and the types of writing assignments we assign in courses across the curriculum.

If participation in new activity systems fails to motivate students to use those skills, it is possible that impetus for transfer may not be obvious, or readily available, to them….  Consequently, we should attempt to account for the ways in which knowledge and skills are transformed across contexts; otherwise, we risk overlooking manifestations of skills that have been adapted to meet the needs of a new activity system.  (Wardle 69)

Highlights from Wardle’s longtudinal study that give insight into why transfer/generalization might not take place across the curriculum:

  • Students reported having writing assignments that did not require advanced preparation and/and require/allow time for revision (73, 76).
  • Students describe teacher expectations as generally “low” in their first two years (74).
  • Students reported most assignments asked for summary
  • Students reported not being motivated to bring past abilities and experiences to complete “new” writing assignments (75).
  • Students reported that most writing assignments were not “engaging”
    • By engaging students meant things like:  assignment has more than one “right answer,” prompt is “thought provoking,” assignment allows for student “ownership,” assignment does not feel like “busy work”/is more than a regurgitation of facts, assignment relates to students’ interests and future (career), assignment is challenging, assignment relates closely to rest of course content, assignment’s purpose is clear and “goal oriented” (77-78).

What all of this suggests:

[S]tudents did not often generalize from FYC—but not because they are unable to or because they did not learn anything in FYC. Rather, students did not perceive a need to adopt or adapt most of the writing behaviors they used in FYC for other courses….  In other words, neither the writing tasks in other courses nor the structures of the larger activity system of the university provided the necessary affordances for generalization.  (Wardle 76)

This means that the burden for getting transfer/generalization to occur “seems to rest on assignments given in classes beyond FYC. Those writing assignments must be engaging and challenging, explicitly designed to help students use all the tools in their writing toolboxes—as necessary for achieving the learning goals of the specific classroom activity system” (82).

Two more take-aways (context and meta-awareness — aka metacognition):

  1. Over and over Wardle’s findings indicate that students need “context-specific support” in order to be successful in writing tasks for their courses beyond FYC.  Teacher feedback, interaction with peers, and reading/writing in the same field (80).  “[P]revious experiences alone were not enough to ensure student success on new and difficult writing tasks” (82).
  2. “Transfer research from other fields, and well as the findings of this study, suggest that meta-awareness about writing, language, and rhetorical strategies in FYC may be the most important ability our courses can cultivate” (82).

Should Professors Take a Backseat?

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In Professors’ Place in the Classroom Is Shifting to the Side from The Chronicle of Higher Education, the role of the professor in the classroom is brought into question. History suggests that it has long been established that the professor takes center stage and guides the learning experience for the students. However, more recently, we are seeing a shift in the paradigm towards a more student driven experience.

Kevin Eagan, both an assistant professor at the University of California and interim director of the Higher Education Research Institute, has seen evidence of this change documented in a recent survey produced by the institute. According to the results, faculty members have reported an increase in student-centered teaching methods. Class discussions, group projects, student selected topics, and cooperative learning have all become more prominent facets of the modern day classroom. Among explanations for this shift, Eagan states that older, more experienced professors were more likely to engage in traditional lecturing in their teaching, while the opposite was true for younger professors, who reported employing more student-centered approaches. These findings suggest that “a true paradigm shift might not hit until 2020″

On the other hand, Maryellen Weimer, a professor emerita of teaching and learning at Pennsylvania State University, is not convinced that one can take the professors’ self-reports as gospel. She believes that, in such surveys, professors are prone to “report what they should be doing rather than what they’re actually doing”. Weimer, who prefers the term “learner-centered”, sees a change in the classroom power dynamic as being key to a real evolution. In such a dynamic, the students would have an increased say in what they learn, and most significantly, they would be working equally as hard as the teachers. Weimer has noticed that, despite the best of intentions, professors are often working harder than the students, and thus remaining the focal point of the classroom

Catharine H. Beyer, a research scientist for the assessment of student learning at the University of Washington, has observed that professors are most likely to initiate change based off of their students’ feedback. Beyer insists that faculty must view students as “partners in the process of learning”, in order to possess the requisite awareness and need for adjustment that is vital to achieving positive learning outcomes. Instead of seeing their students as being “passive recipients of knowledge”, Beyer remarked that professors began to describe their students as “traveling along a learning path”.

Is such a development inevitable or exaggerated?

November Provisions Session – Teaching the Visual

To listen to the podcast from this session, click here.

27 faculty members were in attendance for our 3rd and final Provisions session of 2014. The three presenters, who shared their experiences of ‘Teaching the Visual’, were Liz Richards, Visiting Instructor of Communications, Susan Meyer, Assistant Professor of Art Foundation, and Dr. Joanne Powers, an Associate Professor of Mathematics.

Proceedings began a little differently to usual, with Liz Richards and Susan Meyer collaborating to co-present their story about another collaboration that took place back in the spring semester. Richards, who teaches Multimedia Storytelling, a communications class, and Meyer, who teaches 3-D concepts, an art class, decided to merge their group of students together in the hope of creating a unique project centered on a type of installation art dubbed “inflatables”. Due to the common divide of city and country students, an urban vs. rural theme was established. For the art class, the task was to physically construct the inflatable installations using plastic sheeting material and a fan, while the communications students provided both visual and audio media that was projected onto them. In addition, the communications class combined their talents to document the collaboration, report on it, and form marketing and public relations departments.

Another notable difference between the two classes was that the 3-D concepts students were in their 1st year, while the Multimedia Storytelling were comprised of juniors and seniors. Richards and Meyer explained that, in spite of the gap, the two sets of students learned a lot from each other. Although they were only able to align their schedules to meet three times in person, the use of technology acted as a vital resource in maintaining and facilitating that contact.

Richards and Meyer added that, for the students who were used to last-minute cramming and starting and finishing work the night before due date, a project of this nature required a time of acclimation. By the end of the experience, Richards and Meyer learned that their collaboration acted as a great platform for their students to learn from each other, gain confidence, and that the project provided a visual example of their accomplishments.To see the collaborating duo’s PowerPoint, click on the link – Inflatables-4.

Dr. Joanne Powers was next up to present; she demonstrated how mathematical visualizations impact her teaching and, thus, the learning of her students. In Dr. Powers’ class, games can be used to help understand complex concepts. The chaos game allows students to see how a seemingly random process can result in familiar patterns; the Sierpinski triangle being one of them.  The students’ learning is further enhanced through the medium of an interactive geometry software program called “The Geometer’s Sketchpad”where students are able to visually explore a multitude of different mathematical areas. Dr. Powers showed the audience, with the Geometer’s Sketchpad, examples of how shapes can be constructed and, in turn, manipulated to provide visual representations of the changes that can take place in the figures. The students are able to see for themselves the answer to “what would happen if….?”  Dr. Powers stated that her students’ understanding of mathematical equations was made easier thanks to the visual model. Due to the visual nature of the world these days, a visual approach could surely enhance learning in any academic discipline.

As always, at the end of the presentations, the floor was opened up for discussions. These were a few of the points that arose:

  • There is a need for integration between courses in liberal education.
  • Having interdisciplinary students in the same classroom helps to provide welcomed diversity and different insights to a subject.
  • Creativity is not merely confined to traditionally creative classes such as music and art.
  • Students should be encouraged to take risks; the process of potentially making a mistake can lead to a greater eventual understanding.
  • It could be beneficial to spread out liberal arts courses so that students can take them when they are older and have developed their sense of critical thinking.

To listen to the podcast from this session, click here.

Further Reflections on the Novice-Expert Continuum

This week, Jenn and I dug a little deeper into our examination of the processes that underlie the transition from novice to expert through our reading and discussion of the following articles:

Laird, T. F. N., Seifert, T. A., Pascarella, E. T., Mayhew, M. J., & Blaich, C. F. (2014). Deeply Affecting First-Year Students’ Thinking: Deep Approaches to Learning and Three Dimensions of Cognitive Development. Journal of Higher Education, 85(3), 402–432. [Read here]
Perkins, D. N., & Salomon, G. (1989). Are Cognitive Skills Context-Bound? Educational Researcher, (1), 16. [Read here]
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Salomon, G., & Perkins, D. N. (1987). Transfer of cognitive skills from programming: When and how? Journal of Educational Computing Research, 3(2), 149–169. doi:10.2190/6F4Q-7861-QWA5-8PL1
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Implicit in our recent readings on composition theory, and explicit here in the Laird article, is a special concern for the needs of first-year (and even moreso, first-semester) students as they begin to travel along the continuum toward expertise.  Indeed I still am working to make the translation from theories concerning disciplinary expertise and studies about human cognition to the more personal task of improving my own efforts to assist first-year students.  While I still have a long way to go before I feel competent to draw conclusions, here are some of my intial takeaways:
  • A depth of general knowledge is useful in creating local or disciplinary knowledge.  But not in all cases!
  • We must plan lessons carefully if we hope to optimize the chances that students will tranfer knowledge into other domains (and be explicit about the idea of transfer).
  • Repetition of tasks prepares a student for “low road transfer” of knowledge into similar situations (e.g., driving a car allows transfer of knowledge about driving when you sit behind the wheel of a truck), and this will happen without a great deal of deliberate thought about this transfer.
  • The affect or emotional response a student brings to the learning process can be a critical factor in helping her move along the continuum from novice to expert successfully.

 

Perhaps this quote from Perkins and Salomon (1989) best sums up the role and importance of both general and discipline-specific knowledge within the context of transfer and expertise:

To the extent that transfer does take place, it is highly specific and must be cued, primed, and guided; it seldom occurs spontaneously.  The case for generalized, context-independent skills and strategies that can be trained in one context and transferred to other domains has proven to be more a matter of wishful thinking than hard empirical evidence…Local knowledge, more than general problem-solving heuristics, appeared to be the bottleneck.

 

YouTube Education

In What Teachers Can Learn From Vsauce’s YouTube Show, Jessica Lahey interviews Michael Stevens, one of many internet educators who are effortlessly engaging children across the nation. His YouTube education channel, named Vsauce, has managed to attract 8 million subscribers and amass around 700 million views. The channel is home to a mixture of scientific and philosophical explorations in which he imparts a wealth of entertaining knowledge to his audience.

It is not inconceivable to imagine that many procrastinating students around the world have been victims of YouTube’s addictive and distracting nature. Channels such as Vsauce are able to take advantage of our love of technology, and children’s predilection for video-based entertainment.

In the article, Stevens articulates a number of factors that he believes help to engage his young followers.

First, Stevens highlights the importance of knowing your subject inside out. It is one thing to know and to understand the concept, but being able to clearly and concisely explain it in a way that leaves no confusion or ambiguity is paramount.

Stevens, too, stresses the importance of tailoring vocabulary to the learners needs. He recommends that teachers assume their students are intelligent, but unfamiliar to the subject specific jargon.

Lastly, Stevens urges other educators to point students in the direction of further resources so that they can continue their learning outside of the classroom and begin to self-educate.

Lahey concludes that Stevens’ approach is “to teach so people don’t even realize they are learning”, and that YouTube, which has proven to capture students’ imagination, is an ideal forum for this method of teaching.

For a link to Vsauce’s channel, click here 

General versus Local Knowledge: The Great Debate

In Michael Carter’s “The Idea of Expertise: An Exploration of Cognitive and Social Dimensions of Writing,” he outlines a late 1980s/early 1990s debate in the field of composition over the value of general versus local knowledge in terms of students becoming “expert” writers.  Pete’s post provides us with a table comparing the elements that make up these two types of knowledge, and since he does an excellent job of summing of the key elements of the article, I won’t rehash it all here.  I will just say that Carter spends about 22 pages to get us to a pluralistic model of knowledge (general to local knowledge = a continuum), which when applied to writing instruction tells us:  “[T]he writers who possess local expertise in a domain must continue to rely on the more general strategies of the competent writer when writing outside that domain” (282)

The article, “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Epistemological Considerations and a Conceptual Framework for Teaching and Learning,” returns us to the concept of threshold concepts that Pete has already written about.

Jan H.F. Meyer and Ray Land revisit a definition of threshold concepts as “conceptual gateways” or “portals” that ultimately lead to a “previously inaccessible” way of thinking about a concept.  “A new way of understanding, interpreting, or viewing something may thus emerge — a transformed internal view of subject matter, subject landscape, or even world view” (373).  They reiterate that threshold concepts “may be”:

  • transformative
  • irreversible
  • integrative

Meyer and Land describe the “conceptual framework” that they offer up in this article as providing a means of locating “troublesome aspects of disciplinary knowledge within transitions across conceptual thresholds…” (they call this transitional state of not knowing or being “stuck” as “liminal) “and hence to assist teachers in identifying appropriate ways of modifying or redesigning curricula to enable their students to negotiate such epistemological transitions and ontological transformations in a more satisfying fashion for all concerned” (386).  They describe the tension between thresholds and liminality as that between leading a learner toward a “pre-ordained end” (threshold) and unpredictability — the “‘liquid’ space” (liminality).  On account of this, their framework attends to figuring out how/why certain students experience a transformation while in liminal space of learning and others get “stuck.”  To understand these phenomena their framework insists educators take into account “the notion of variation within learning” (380).  Student-centered teaching, they tell us, requires as certain “responsiveness” to “variation in the manner in which students engage with the context and content of learning” (380).

The “emerging framework” that they offer up in this article is really quite general (by their own admission):  “Ultimately of course it is not for us (and we would not wish) to generalize across the varied and complex settings within which discipline-based colleagues might negotiate such transitions in the context of their own institutions and students” (386).  In other words, Meyer and Land see the value of offering up a generalized heuristic or “conceptual framework,” while acknowledging this will be adopted and implemented differently based on the local knowledge of a specific discipline.

While their goal in this piece is not to debate the virtues of general versus local knowledge, as Carter does in “The Idea of Expertise: An Exploration of Cognitive and Social Dimensions of Writing,” Meyer and Land seem to tacitly understand that general to local is a continuum and that both types of knowledge have impact and are, in fact, necessary in an educational space.  Pete puts it this way, “I would say that these problematic concepts represent ones that cannot be understood using only a general knowledge framework.”  Here Pete is referring to threshold concepts when he says “problematic concepts.”  He understands that a pluralistic model is necessary, as do Meyer and Land.

The generalized heuristic is necessary for those “new to a knowledge domain,” as Carter describes novices, in order for them to “gain more and more specific knowledge” (270).  However, “to go beyond competence is to go beyond the reliance on general strategies” (Carter 271) — just as Meyer and Land acknowledge that to help remove problems with teaching threshold concepts we might “create an authentic scenario…that presents an opportunity to think like an economist'” (384).  In other words, to think in a discourse community immersed in the local knowledge of a specific discipline.  I find it interesting that this 2005 piece on the psychology of learning treats as a given what Carter worked very hard to make a case for in 1990.

 

 

October Provisions Session – The Culture of Assessment

For the podcast from the session, visit the mediasite or our Soundcloud page -Mediasite / Soundcloud 

The 2nd Provisions session of the year was on the Culture of Assessment. 27 attendees were present to hear talks from John Dion, of the Marking Department in the school of business, Dr. Claudia Lingertat-Putnam, the deputy chair of the Counselling and CSSA programs, and Dr. Stephanie Bennett, from the Sociology Department.

John Dion kicked things off by sharing his experience of assessment from the school of business. He asserted that the main desire of accreditors was to see that professors had a good understanding of what students should leave the program knowing. More specifically, what components of the curriculum students are expected to learn target material through, how to assess progress toward learning targets, and how to make changes if student are failing to make sufficient progress. Then, using the School of Business as an example, Dion outlined the process of developing learning outcomes, and curriculum mapping through which those desired outcomes may be realized. To see Dion’s PowerPoint presentation, click on the link – Assessment for Provisions

Next up was Dr. Claudia Lingertat-Putnam. She demonstrated how her program uses data to inform what they were doing. As of now, the school of education is operating under conceptual framework where there are eight standards to meet – Provisions Flowchart Program Assessment (The presentation).
The counselling students are evaluated in three phases during their master’s program to ensure they are meeting standards. Dr. Lingertat-Putnam described how well-designed rubrics, including those on Chalk and Wire may be used to facilitate evaluation of student progress across learning domains. Chalk and Wire is a particularly useful tool for professors in that, following the input of a rubric, it provides detailed student evaluation reports. Dr. Lingertat-Putnam’s student learning outcome assessment data, collected via a Chalk and Wire rubric, showed that her students were struggling with both their writing, and coming to grips with the APA style. With these problems highlighted, changes were able to be made. Due to the nature of these two problems, a trip to the writing center was seen as the remedial action to be taken.

Last but not least, Dr. Stephanie Bennett focused in on the use of rubrics and the important role that they play. Within the Sociology Department, herself and her colleague created pre and post-test rubrics. Based on their experiences, Dr. Bennett recommends that professors create rubrics that are divided by specific learning outcomes, and in which instructions are detailed and expectations are explicitly stated. Having implemented such rubrics, and thus improved communication between her students and herself, Dr. Bennett discovered that her students were more knowledgeable than she initially realized. Bennett explained that, while her students possessed the intelligence and understanding of the target material necessary to complete assignments well, they depended on clearly stated expectations to demonstrate that intelligence and subject comprehension. For example, some of Dr. Bennett’s students realized only when writing style was included on Dr. Bennett’s grading rubrics, that their manner of writing was as important to their grade as the content of their paper.

After the three presenters had their say, the floor was opened up for discussion. These were a few of the highlights:

  • Chalk & Wire can track progress over time, and inform professors on what works and what doesn’t.
  • Adjunct professors need to be more integrated into the process in order to maintain consistency throughout the faculty.
  • Faculty development in the form of mentoring can help to inform and reach out to adjuncts.
  • Writing skills need to be emphasized and reinforced throughout each year of the program.
  • Clearer guidelines and better communication with the students has generated richer discussions within the classroom.
  • A lot of data is collected, but it does not always make the transition to practical information.
  • Students are honest about their own performance, especially when working with well developed and clear rubrics.

For the podcast from the session, visit the mediasite or our Soundcloud page -Mediasite / Soundcloud 

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