Getting Students to Ask Their Own Questions

Last year’s Provisions Fellow, Dr. Jim Allen, focused on the idea of asking questions as key to critical thinking.  One of the texts he wrote about and presented on was Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana’s book, Make Just One Change:  Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions.  Pete and I added the book to our reading list for this year (and I would go so far as to recommend that it be required reading, along with John Bean’s Engaging Ideas, for all future Provisions Fellows).

I am going to use Jim’s description of the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) that the book is based on and then move onto notes from my own implementation — broken into the seven steps:

They discuss a questioning strategy they refer to as the Question Formulation Technique (QFT). The focus of this strategy is to help students develop their divergent, convergent and metacognitive thinking abilities.

As the name suggests, the method is very structured in its approach in teaching students how to formulate, modify, improve, and use questions to deepen their learning. There are seven basic steps of QFT where both the teacher and students work collaboratively in the process. The teacher is involved in facilitating the process by setting a “focus” for the questions, discussing with students a set of “rules” for the process of creating questions, monitoring students so that they follow the rules, and providing direction for using the questions to learn specific course content.

Recently, I decided to try out the QFT process for the first time with my students with the goal of  creating focused research questions for their midterm projects.  Since they are all working with different course readings, based on their own selection, I put them in small groups that shared the same chosen course reading.  For this reason, I needed to come up with a total of five QFocus prompts — a different one for each group.

  • “Conservatism of Emojis”:  emojis are can be cultural artifacts
  • “Media Ecologies”:  genres of participation describe online practices
  • “Why Youth Heart Social Networking Sites”:  The importance of youth participation in new media
  • “Activists”:  civic engagement is influenced by digital technologies
  • “The Internet”:  The internet means interaction/connection

Despite my reservations about following the QFT’s strict rules and rigid guidelines, we proceeded through all of the steps (saving the last step of reflection for our next class meeting session) as described by Rothstein and Santana.  Here are some notes/thoughts/recollections on each of the steps:

1.  Discussion of QFT RULES (5-7 minutes):  The four rules are deceivingly simple (as is the entire process, really):  1) Ask as many questions as you can.  2) Do not stop to discuss, judge, or answer any question.  3) Write down every question exactly as it is stated.  4) Change any statement into a question.

To facilitate discussion, I went over the rules and then gave my students a copy of the templates on pages 52 and 53 of the book, which give them space to describe whether they think the rules will be easy or difficult to follow and why.  After filling out the sheet, they discussed their answers as a group.  There was little consensus among group members; however, overall the class as a whole felt that most of the rules would be easy to follow.  #2 — not discussing or answering any questions — was described as the most challenging because students said that they tend to instinctually want to respond when they hear a question posted.  One student was honest in his description of why #1 — generating questions — would be challenging:  Because how do I know what the right questions are to ask.  How do I know how to formulate questions (paraphrased response).  This response is important because it actually describes the genesis of the book and the QFT:  The authors discovered that parents of students in the school they were working in didn’t know how to ask questions that would enable them to participate in their children’s education.

My surprise to the discussion was immediate because I had felt sure that discussing the rules would result in students sitting there silently.  I wasn’t convinced, having never done such an assignment before, that they’d be able to envision what they were about to do and discuss it with any depth.  But they did!

2.  Produce questions (5-7 minutes):  I wrote a reminder to myself:  Do NOT give examples; Only tell them they can start questions with words like what, when, how….  The goal here is to make sure students produce their own questions without any influence from the teacher.  Our role is to monitor time and observe the group work, only to remind students of the rules in case they forget.

It took a bit of prodding to get a couple of groups working on this collaboratively rather than writing down their own individual list of questions, but beyond that, the students followed the rules and seemed engaged for the entire process.

3.  Introduce closed- and open-ended questions — As a class we defined these.  For example, Is it going to be on the test (closed) vs. what will be on the test (open-ended)?  Is/do/can ( lead to closed questions) vs. Why/How questions (tend to be open).  Both kinds of questions can result from, what, who, where, when?

The students had no problem defining the types of questions, but when it came to labeling their questions they found that some questions were tough to categorize — that is, they could result in one word responses (closed), but that really they would need more elaboration than that.  This wrangling is a typical and important part of the process.

Ultimately what matters is the discussion around dis/advantages of both types of questions.  The students had no problem coming up with these:

  • Disadvantages of closed:  you get only one word answers, might not get enough information, doesn’t facilitate further thinking/discussion
  • Advantages of closed:  cut and dry, not confusing, doesn’t go on a tangent, could produce more follow-up questions
  • Disadvantages of open:  too much information, could get boring or go on tangent, answer could be confusing, not clear-cut
  • Advantages of open:  elaboration, allows more thinking about the subject, get more information

The point is to show students that there is clear value in asking both kinds of questions.  The students then label their list of questions as either C or O.  Lastly, they change one question into its opposite form (4 mins), because “being able to change the questions makes them feel more confident about working with questions and figuring out how to solve problems for themselves” (82).

Even more importantly, in my mind, is the idea that by changing the wording of the questions, students can see more clearly that “the construction and phrasing of a question shapes the kind of information you can expect to receive” (85).

4.  Prioritize the questions:  Students collectively choose the three questions that will best help them meet some kind of criteria you’ve established.  For me this goal was coming up with a research question, and so I prompted them to choose the questions that would best help them shape and move forward with their research project, and I added a reminder that the first draft should reflect what they’re trying to figure out; what they’ve learned from their sources; how they respond to their sources.  The goal for me in this process was to get them to “think about a problem from a different angle” and to “unlock something” (114).

5.  What to do with all the questions:  As I mentioned in the last step, the purpose of our question generating activity was clearly established from the start — to produce a research question for their midterm projects.  Rothstein and Santana, however, give examples of ideas for uses of student questions at the beginning of a unit/class, mid-unit or class, and for the end.  There are many options given in the book for using student generated questions.  For example, for opening class discussion, to use as guides for a reading assignment, to use in preparation for a test, and so on.   

6.  Reflection:  

“[Students] need the opportunity to name for themselves what they have learned, why it is valuable, and how they can continue to use the process of creating questions beyond this one assignment” (117).

This last step is important because it is yet another aspect of this process that reinforces metacognition.  By asking students to name what they have learned, “they deepen their learning, develop greater confidence for moving forward…, and reveal…a new depth of understanding that may not have previously been detected” (119).  Requiring students to reflect on the activity should also help save it from the realm of a “classroom exercise whose importance teachers recognize, but that the students follow only because the teachers require it” (120).

I saved this step for the following class period, as we had already spent more than forty-five minutes of class time (this is the minimum amount of time needed the first time you implement the QFT with a class) on the activity.

I stuck to the simple metacognitive question of:  What did you learn?  And asked them to follow that up with:  Did/how did it help you (move forward with your project)?  I had them write their responses, and I received feedback like:

  • I learned how to ask questions that really allow me as the writer to expand my thinking and come up with answers that will help me in the writing process. I also learned that narrowing down the important questions is difficult but is definitely vital to the whole process and will allow me to write a better essay.  It is important to utilize the right type of question in order to get the right answer.
  • The sheets we did on monday made us ask questions about our topic and think a little outside the box.  It helped put some of my thoughts on my topic into words.
  • From mondays class I learned new ways to discover questions on certain topics. This helped me formulate an opinion and think about ways i could express that idea. It did help me while writing my piece because i resorted back to it when i became stuck and it helped me to keep writing.

[Side Note:  I indicate at the start that there are  seven steps involved in the QFT.  The first step is for teachers outside the classroom -- and that is developing the QFocus prompt.  While I did not detail the "how-to" for this step, I gave examples of my own prompts.  Further information for this step can be found on pages 28-35 of the book.  I numbered only the steps that actually occur in/during class.]

Flipping Again

In our last post, Jenn and I provided reflections on our experiment with flipped library instruction.  In this post, I wanted to provide some additional context for library instruction, as it’s been my experience that many faculty are not quite sure what this entails.


One-shot instruction: not always the best medicine.

The goal of library instruction is to build a range of competencies in students, often referred to as information literacy, which will give them a framework for engaging in college-level research. The opportunities for this type of instruction are presented in a less than systematic fashion — often delivered in response to classroom faculty who have research-based assignments.  Much to the dismay of many librarians, the reality is that we often engage in “one-shot instruction,” which — just as it sounds — happens once without much opportunity for follow up or assessment.

However, the range of new pedagogical strategies in the classroom presents new opportunities for rethinking library instruction.  Indeed both Jenn and I came enthusiastically to the idea that flipping library instruction could have some significant benefits.  The absence of a teaching lab in the library limits our ability (or conversely — challenges our creativity) to engage students in active learning.  I was excited to be able to be in the writing lab in Albertus, helping students as they worked through their assignment, which the assigned videos had modeled .  While this flipped instruction still can be seen as one-shot instruction, the fact that the videos serve as both pre-class assignments and as semester-long learning assets means that the normal limitations of a typical one-shot class are able to be overcome.

While there is a large body of research on the flipped classroom, there is yet to be a lot published that focuses on flipped library instruction.  The article referenced below provides a good overview, teasing out the benefits and challenges inherent in this relatively new form of library instruction.  Among the challenges many librarians would face:

  • Logistics.  It is difficult to plan for out-of-the-classroom work for a class that you have not yet met.   Fortunately, the goals of Jenn and I as Provisions’ fellows dovetailed nicely and helped eliminate the usual logistical issues; but on more normal one-shot requests, this issue would be one that could be particularly challenging.
  • Engagement.  It is always a challenge for a librarian who sees a class once during the semester.  Think substitute teacher and you have an idea of the challenges we face in engaging students and gaining their trust.
  • Time.  Creating and editing instructional videos, I quickly discovered, is very time-consuming.  I was fortunate to have a good deal of lead time, but this would not typically be the case.  However, I do think I would tend to get better — and quicker — with experience.

Part of what Jenn and I are discovering this semester through our work together and through an examination of the research on first-year students is that many of these students struggle to adapt to higher expectations and a new information environment at the college level.  One-shot instruction is simply one tool — and perhaps not the most effective one — to help first-year students build that “research toolkit” that will let them progressively improve their ability to find and utilize resources in their new and complex information ecosystem.

As I read more research on teaching first-year students and as I gain experience trying new approaches to library instruction, the suggestion that Stephanie Bennett offers in the concluding Provisions’ meeting from 2013-14 to “change just one thing” resonates strongly.  While there are many changes on the institution-level that can address the transitional needs of first year students — both generally and in the area of information literacy, the status of that larger process should not hinder or delay the individual efforts I can make to try to improve the things I do in the classroom.

W.B. Yeats once said

Life is an experiment.

I’m running with this, thinking library instruction is an experiment, and it’s an experiment processed one change at a time!

Document Referred to in the Post

Arnold-Garza, S. (2014). The Flipped Classroom Teaching Model and Its Use for Information Literacy Instruction. Communications in Information Literacy, 8(1), 7. [Read article]

The Culture of Assessment

In their 2013 article,  “Assessment culture: From ideal to real – A process of tinkering,” California State University Monterey Bay [CSUMB] professors Pat Tinsley, Marylou Shockley, Patricia Whang, Paoze Thao, Becky Rosenberg and Brian Simmons introduce a set of curricular assessment guidelines recently adopted by departments across CSUMB. According to Tinsley et al., implementation of these guidelines will promote “meaningful, sustained, and systematic assessment of student learning,” thus fostering a “culture of assessment.”  Their goals for operating within a culture of assessment include “increased curricular coherence” (i.e., across departments and between undergraduate and graduate curricula), helping students to identify milestones in the learning process and assess their own learning, and improvement of the curriculum to facilitate improved learning outcomes through ongoing assessment.

However, the interest in growing a culture of assessment has not been unanimous, and has even been controversial in the world of higher education. In their 2013 “Promoting a “Culture of Engagement,” Not a “Culture of Assessment,”  the Trustees of Princeton University cautioned that, by striving for a culture of assessment (i.e., with externally benchmarked measures), faculty risk promoting: a) standardization of curricula across departments and institutions, at the expense of diverse, individualized missions, b) the inappropriate evaluation of programs using generic/vague surveys and standardized assessments, c) undervaluing non-benchmarked evidence of learning, d) overvaluing standardized test results while undervaluing real-world outcomes like employment and fulfillment post-graduation, e) teaching towards the tests, f), self-validation of assessment policies with no external evidence to support their efficacy in improving real-world learning outcomes. In order to avoid these pitfalls, the authors recommend that institutions of higher education foster a culture of engagement rather than assessment.


Tinsley, P., Shockley, M., Whang, P., Thao, P., Rosenberg, B., and Simmons, B. (2010). Assessment culture: From ideal to real – A process of tinkering. Peer Review, 12(1).

Retrieved from


The Trustees of Princeton University. (2013, September 12). Promoting a “culture of engagement,” not a “culture of assessment” [Remarks to presidents of the American Association of Universities (AAU), prepared for delivery at the AAU meeting on Oct. 23, 2012].

Retrieved from

“Flipped” Library Instruction

In keeping with the theme of the “flipped” classroom in first-year writing, Pete and I decided that we would also attempt to flip the library instruction that tends to be a standard part of our ENG105 classes and FYW in general (In fact, in the “Learning the Ropes” article that Pete wrote about, researchers found that “Freshman said they found campus librarians (29%) and their English composition instructors (29%) were the most helpful individuals on campus with guiding them through college-level research” (3)).  To accomplish this, Pete created a helpful series of videos to guide students through the library research processes and databases that are typically covered during a librarian’s classroom visit.  The students came to class with a basic understanding of how to approach the research assignment at hand, leaving class time free to spend answering questions and doing some hands-on research with the assistance of our reference librarians.

Hopefully the students learned as much as Pete and I did.  We thought we’d share some of our thoughts about the experience:

  • In the Hofer, Townsend, and Brunetti article that Pete details in his last blog post, there is a lot of concern with the “flat” landscape of Google.  Respondents (librarians) to the authors’ survey describe their issues with students’ research tactics:  “They [students] seem to see information as flat, as coming all from one place, Google” and “How to read a citation and understand what type of publication it represents–journal article, book, etc…  Many are used to getting all information from one flat source–Google.”  While I understand what the respondents are trying to get at with the word “flat” (there is more to the research beyond Google and much of the diversity in sources needs to be sought out in other ways, and, as Pete describes below, sources all seem the same to students), I also find the word a bit misleading.  What struck me in working with my students while they were researching this week is that the types of sources available via a Google search are more complex and diverse than ever before.  Part of the assignment [Citation Trail library worksheet] that the students were working with asked them to identify citations and source types, and yes, as the previous respondent describes, students struggled with this, but to be honest:  So did I.  One student discovered a massive online project about digital literacy that isn’t quite a blog but certainly isn’t a static webpage as it regularly publishes articles by scholars researching the topic of teens and digital literacy.  So what is it?  What kind of articles are these pieces that aren’t necessarily peer reviewed or appearing in print publications but involved in scholarly research by experts in a field?
  • The other aspect of the flipped library instruction time that proved challenging was getting students to move away from Google and into the library databases.  This difficulty is described in both the “Learning the Ropes” article and in “Troublesome Concepts and Information Literacy: Investigating Threshold Concepts for IL Instruction.”  Because the assignment asks students to track down sources contained in both scholarly and popular sources, there is good reason for many of the students to start with Google search to help track down a source from a reading that doesn’t have a bibliography (for example, as Pete details here in his video about “tips on running down elusive documents”).  Students did well with using Google to find the details of the specific reference; however, getting them to then take that information and use it to find the book or article in our own library’s holdings was a bit of a struggle (it often involved me hovering and directing them to open additional tabs and pull up the catalog or databases).

— From Pete

Two things resonated with me as I walked around and helped students make sense of the documents they had brought up on their screens.

  1. Many did in fact seem to have difficulty understanding format types and purposes outside of the context of their computer screen. The landscape had indeed become flat and within that one dimension, all content was in an important sense equal.
  2. Last year Bryan Alexander, educator and futurist, delivered a keynote speech at a conference I attended. What I most remember about his speech was that he contended that we had moved from being a “culture of the page” to a “culture of the screen.”  One implication of this shift is that a new generation, largely unfamiliar with the print counterparts of online journals, ebooks, etc., have a hard time making critical distinctions between the types of resources that show up on their computer screens.

An inability to determine the context of the resource hampered their ability for critical evaluation.  The Hofer article referenced in an earlier post contends that a key understanding that many students have trouble grasping is, in her shorthand, “format as a process.”  By this she means:

What makes a book a book and a newspaper article a newspaper article has nothing to do with how one accesses it (print/digital), but with the process that went into creating it. Understanding this principle helps students navigate the information they find online and evaluate it according to the process underlying its creation, rather than by a set of memorized, constantly changing, inconsistent characteristics.

This lack of understanding was evident as I spoke to many students and did indeed appear to be one of the outcomes of a “flat environment.”

  • Our awareness of these challenges of student research influenced both the assignment design, as well as what Pete covered in his video series.  I wanted students to begin making these distinctions and being able to identify types of sources early on in the research process and also for them to be able to see the range of sources that all scholars and writers use when composing a researched text.  Perhaps by next time framing “what makes a book a book and a newspaper article a newspaper article” in the terms that Hofer, Towsend, and Brunetti describe as “the process that went into creating it,” students might better understand the concept of “format as a process.”  This, after all, needs to be a goal of ours according to Hofer, Townsend, and Brunetti.  Citing “format as a process” as a “threshold concept” means that “the next step from a pedagogical standpoint is to make curricular changes that surface the teaching and learning of these concepts and then to assess student learning in these areas” (402).

Threshold Concepts

Alice and doorway

Well, that’s a threshold I can’t cross!

Threshold concepts are, in essence, those stumbling blocks that prevent a student from advancing within a chosen discipline.  Those fully invested in a discpline have a shared vocabulary, body of knowledge (and approach to it), tools, and sometimes, biases.  However, pracitioners in a discpline are often so immersed in their field that the foundational framework from which they think and work is often unspoken and unrecoginzed.

A student new to a field of study, however, must somehow learn and integrate these foundational concepts of the discipline.  Often the concepts must be encountered in a progressive manner, with one leading to insights that prepare them for the next.  In formulating the idea of threshold concepts, Jan Meyer and Ray Land provide a theoretical and practical method to help teachers identify and address these important disciplinary understandings.

As they point out, not every important concept within a discipline should be identified as a threshold concept.  Indeed, they outline five qualities that characterize a threshold concept:

  • Transformative: grapsing the concept will help a student experience a “shift in perspective”
  • Integrative: it brings together other competencies or disciplinary concepts into a unified understanding
  • Irrersible: no turning back!
  • Bounded: in the disciplinary context, it helps define the unique boundaries of the field
  • Troublesome: moving beyond the idea is difficult and not initially intuitive or even logical

I find this construct to be very compelling, as it fits in well with what I observe while working with students.  Amy Hofer, a librarian at Portland State University, writes about how this idea of threshold concepts can be applied to information literacy.  While the focus of threshold concepts is within a discpline (e.g., helping students “think like a biologist”), Hofer contends that all college students would benefit from “understanding some of the information science concepts that underlie the practice of librarianship.”

The concepts that rise to the level of “threshold concepts” are certainly open to debate, and in fact, ideally should be constructed within the context of local discussions.  However, as a starting point, those identified by Hofer seem to be appropriate.  They strike me as a useful checklist to consult when planning strategies and programs that will help high school students make that difficult transition to college.

Here are those troublesome threshold concepts Hofer identifies (Note: the article itself — link below — provides more detail on each of these):

  • Metadata = Findability
  • Good Searches Use Database Structure
  • Format as a Process
  • Authority is Constructed and Contextual
  • Primary Source is and Exact and Conditional Category
  • Information as Commodity
  • Research Solves Problems

Simply used as a starting point for discussion, this list holds great promise.  I easily see connections to the objectives outlined by Jenn in her ENG 105 syllabus, and it points the way to further initiatives that will help students transcend these major stumbling blocks in order to advance as readers, researchers, and writers.

Documents Referred to in this Post

Hofer, A. R., Townsend, L., & Brunetti, K. (2012). Troublesome Concepts and Information Literacy: Investigating Threshold Concepts for IL Instruction. Portal: Libraries and the Academy, 12(4), 387–405. [Read article]
Meyer, J. H. F., & Land, R. (2005). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (2): Epistemological considerations and a conceptual framework for teaching and learning. Higher Education, 49(3), 373–388. doi:10.1007/s10734-004-6779-5 [Read article]

September Provisions: Teaching First Year Students

Our first Provisions session of the year kicked off with the topic of “Teaching First Year Students.” The presenters, who so kindly volunteered to impart their knowledge to the 38-strong audience, were Dr. Jelane Kennedy, Counseling and CCSA, Mary Fitzsimmons, Director of HEOP (Higher Education Opportunity Program) & AOE (Academic Opportunity Experience) and Dr. Shirlee Dufort, Writing Center Director.

Jelane Kennedy was the first to present. She chose to talk about Arthur W. Chickering and his theory of identity development. Chickering’s theory features seven vectors of development:

  • Developing Competence – Intellectual, Physical and Interpersonal
  • Managing Emotions
  • Moving through Autonomy toward Interdependence
  • Developing Mature Interpersonal relationships
  • Establishing Identity
  • Developing Purpose
  • Developing Integrity

These vectors or stages all make up how one’s identity is developed, particularly throughout a student’s life in higher education. After giving a brief run through of each vector, Dr. Kennedy focused in on three that are of the most significance for First Year Students:

  • Competence – Trying to adjust to the realities of college life. There are many new obstacles and transitions that High School Students must face when making the leap to college. There are so many new tasks and experiences that they may have not encountered before. They may have to deal with basics such as making their own dinner, doing their own laundry and more demanding homework. On top of that, they must learn how to find time for their personal leisure activities, and get along with roommates and professors, as well as learning a new academic schedule.
  • Managing Emotions – There are a lot of emotions in those first few weeks of college: How do I connect to people? How to make new friends? Feeling homesick (leaving behind friends, family and partners). They have to be able to cope and deal with a range of emotions and the questions that emanate from them.
  • Moving through Autonomy toward Interdependence – A need for approval and feedback. Academic feedback is regular from K through 12 but may be less abundant in those first weeks in college. There is also a desire for personal feedback: Do people like me? They may have yet to reach the point where they don’t care about what people think and are comfortable just being themselves.

Dr. Kennedy provided a handout that followed up on the stages faced by students as they continue their academic journey – Chickering

Up next was Mary Fitzsimmons, who, as well as being the director of the Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP), teaches English 105 (a First Year Program).  She began her presentation by commenting how different St. Rose can appear to students who are not from the local area. For example, students from New York City had commented that the campus seemed like a park to them. Another girl shared that it was the first time she had had to cross four lanes of traffic.

In English 105, Fitzsimmons said that she liked to communicate individually and privately with her students. One way she does this is through the form of an online assignment; the students do a journal and are also asked a check-in question such as, “Is everything going okay in the program?” Fitzsimmons feels that by initiating direct communication with her, the student starts to feel more comfortable. She mentioned a student who came up to her after class and posed  the question, “How do I make friends?” – A question that really emphasizes the struggle, for some students, during those initial weeks at college. Through her dual role in student affairs, she said that it is easier to be more of an ambassador of the college for students. Fitzsimmons encouraged other members of the faculty to do the same by knowing who their partners are on campus, and in turn, knowing where to direct any in-need students. In her role as Director of AOE, Fitzsimmons invites students to attend a presentation that gives advice on how best to adapt to the standards they have to live up to at College.

Fitzsimmons continued by introducing the role of the AOE, where 1st year students are able to get assistance in making the transition both academically and socially. The students have a well planned schedule which allows them to attend workshops, get tutoring, and have structured study, as well as to gain help moving in, and to enjoy a celebration dinner to welcome the new arrivals. Fitzsimmons sees this early start orientation as a way to create community, comfort, and a challenge.

Last on the floor was Shirlee Dufort, director of the Writing Center. As part of her work with the AOE, she assigned students to write a research paper in five days. The main goals of this process were to walk through the stages of writing the paper, make it virtually impossible to plagiarize, and to collaborate academically. Over these five days, the students learned a lot about college writing, and the experience would no doubt hold them in good stead for future challenges. Here is Dr. Dufort’s handout from the presentation, which goes into detail about the five day experience – Shirlee Dufort Handout

After the presentations, during the Question & Answer session, some interesting points and observations were made by various members of the faculty:

  • Faculty should recommend help from specific individuals to struggling students, to add a personal touch.
  • Having academic coaches check up on students would be beneficial.
  • Students need to know where help and resources are for them on campus.
  • Self-motivation is key; while professors may provide inspiration, students are ultimately responsible for their personal growth.
  • Faculty should strive to put themselves in their students’ shoes, and try to remember what it’s like to be a beginner.
  • Make deals with students; give them the opportunity to improve. For example, a student given a poor first grade on a paper was given the chance to rewrite it in the office of the professor, and the new grade was averaged with the initial grade.

To listen to a podcast from the session, check out our soundcloud page at

Knowledge Transfer and First Year Writing

Most of us at one time or another have been either on the receiving or giving end of the “students can’t write” commonplace.  As a compositionist and current coordinator of the First Year Writing Program here at Saint Rose, I am generally on the receiving end, followed by the heavily loaded question about what we are teaching in ENG105 — Expository Writing, Research Techniques, and Oral Communication — the college’s required writing class.  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.

As Gerald Nelms and Ronda Leathers Dively put it in their article, “Perceived Roadblocks to Transferring Knowledge from First-Year Composition to Writing-Intensive Major Courses: A Pilot Study,” “our definitions of student success often remain tied to what can be more or less immediately observed” (214).  It is this restricted vision of student success that contributes to the kind of complaints I just described.  The idea of transfer is important to both understanding the root of these beliefs about student writing and improving student writing in all coursework across the curriculum.  The responsibility for achieving this on a campus cannot live solely with first year writing instruction, as Nelms and Dively describe:  “[A]ny successful approach to enhancing the transfer of composition knowledge must involve changes in composition instruction, as well as a pervasive commitment to writing across the curriculum” (emphasis mine 214).

Transfer, as I described in our introductory post, refers to the ability to apply skills learned in one context to different disciplinary and professional contexts.  Transfer differs from learning in that learning has to happen first for transfer to occur.  David Perkins and Gavriel Salomon, two of the foremost scholars on the concept of transfer, assert that “The ends of education are not achieved unless transfer occurs.”  As Nelms and Dively point out, transfer has always been a difficult thing to track and measure, as it “occurs over time and across contextual borders” (215).  Regardless of this fact, they also are strong in their claim that “teaching to transfer is possible” (emphasis mine 216).

In their article, Nelms and Dively describe the differences between near and far transfer (writing involves both).  Far transfer (“application of skills and knowledge to a context remote from the originating one”), in particular, relies on (and here they borrow again from Perkins and Gavriel) metacognition, motivation to learn, and representation.  For the purposes of my Provisions work this semester with Pete, I am especially interested in the first two — metacognition and motivation to learn — as they relate to and will be embedded into the idea of the “flipped” writing classroom.  I hope to work on developing metacognitive skills through the use of Eli Review.  Peer response, as Nelms and Dively remind us, is rooted in reflection, “a crucial mechanism of knowledge transfer.”  Additionally, Kathleen Blake Yancey’s description of reflection in the writing process is almost perfectly reflected in the write-review-revise cycle that Eli Review assists students in working through:

Speaking generally, reflection includes the three processes of projection, retrospection (or review), and revision. For writing, it likewise includes three processes:
1. goal-setting, revisiting, and refining
2. text-revising in the light of retrospection
3. the articulating of what learning has taken place, as embodied in various texts as well as in the processes used by the writer (6)

Nelms and Dively attach “motivation to learn” to time-on-task and the amount of attention devoted to the task.  It is my hope that the additional time devoted to writing and research (information literacy practices) in the classroom, as opposed to outside the classroom where the students are on their own without guidance, will increase this category that is so important to later knowledge transfer.  Motivation to learn is critical to actual learning; without learning taking place there will be nothing to transfer.

Nelms and Dively conclude their study by asking two questions that they believe need the consideration of our profession with the second one being:  “What specific roles do motivation and reflection play in the transfer of composition knowledge (230)?”  It is this question that Pete and I will continue to pursue this semester within the context of our flipped writing and information literacy instruction.


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