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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4 Responses

  1. I have always believed that there were many common threads between the processes of becoming a good writer and becoming information literate. As I read your post, Jenn, some of those connections jumped out. For instance:

    Writing>> Complaint – “students can’t write”
    Information Literacy>> Complaint – “students aren’t prepared for college-level research”

    Writing>> For students to develop into better writers there must be a “pervasive commitment to writing across the curriculum.”
    Information Literacy>> Information literacy must be recognized as more than a librarian concern. Just like with writing, there are discipline-specific components and it must be envisioned as a commitment across the curriculum.

    Writing>> Metacognition and motivation to learn
    Information Literacy>> Yes! For information literacy, in particular, students must be able to tie their growing competency to their course assignments and disciplinary demands.

  2. This is why we make such a good team! Together we can fight off these misperceptions.

    This makes me think of our recent reading about threshold concepts, “Troublesome Concepts and Information Literacy. The authors write: “It is not surprising to find citation and plagiarism singled out repeatedly as trouble spots. Teaching citation skills often falls to librarians, but like academic writing skills, it is not precisely ours to teach” (Hofer, Townsend, and Brunetti 400).

  3. […] 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 […]

  4. […] I believe that the concept of transfer is central to understanding what underlies the common “students can’t write” complaint.  I also think that revisiting the concept of transfer in eduction is important as our […]

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