The Quandary of Writing Across the Curriculum

Julie Foertsch’s 1995 article, “Where Cognitive Psychology Applies: How Theories About Memory and Transfer Can Influence Composition Pedagogy” continues with the work of Michael Carter’s 1990 piece, “The Idea of Expertise: An Exploration of Cognitive and Social Dimensions of Writing,” which I wrote about previously.

Foertsch begins by pointing out that the concept of transfer is largely overlooked in composition scholarship (with the exception of Carter’s work).  Likewise, I have noted the same thing — even twenty years later there is little discussion of transfer in the field of composition (which is why I am revisiting these now “dated” articles).  And yet, as I have said a number of times in my posts for this Provisions blog, 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 teaching/learning experiences are increasingly shaped by our digital/networked culture.

Foertsch, like Carter, believes that there needs to be a synthesis between general and local knowledge in order to teach writing effectively.  Foertsch in particular attempts to bring together the seemingly disparate composition “camps” of the social theorists and cognitive theorists.  Social theorists believe all writing is deeply contextual, discipline specific, and therefore local (so that ultimately transfer is unlikely or rare). Cognitive theorists believe generalizations can be useful across writing contexts (meaning transfer is indeed possible).  To bring these two together in a pedagogically useful way (and by this she means in a way that promotes transfer of learning), Foertsch draws on cognitive psychology’s work on memory.

[What follows is entirely paraphrased from Foertsch’s article.  I do not pretend to have any deep knowledge of cognitive psychology]:  Historically cognitive psychologists made a distinction between “semantic” and “episodic” memories. As the names connote, semantic memories refer to “an entire class of entities”; whereas, episodic memory is tied to a specific episode or instance (the difference between your knowledge of how to knit and what is in yarn store versus that time you knitted with your grandmother and the cat got into the yarn bag).  It was once believed that semantic memory was more “robust and more readily accessible,” would eventually replace or override episodic memory, and hence was more useful than episodic memory.  Later this theory of memory was called into question resulting in a model of memory known as “instance based,” favoring the strength and usefulness of episodic memory:  “[M]emory traces of individual instances can be retained indefinitely.  Semantic generalizations still occur, but they are by no means automatic replacements for the set of episodic memories that they summarize” (366).  Finally there is the “connectionist models” of memory, which see memory as a pattern of activation [based on the name of this model, you can probably see this is where we are headed].  “With connectionist models, both highly specific ‘episodic’ memories and more generic ‘semantic’ memories can be stored on and retrieved from the same set of connection weights” (367).  The level of specificity of the recalled memory depends on how many past episodes were similar to the current context.  What we end up with is not a dichotomy (semantic OR episodic with one being more robust, useful, etc.) but a continuum (!!!) “where the vast majority of memories have both some degree of generalization and some degree of context dependency” (369).  Continuum.  Context.  Generalization.  We are finally back to writing and composition pedagogy (phew)!

Drawing on this model’s ability to connect both the local (context specific memory recall — episodic) and the general (abstract, semantic memory), Foertsch makes the move to say writing too needs to be connectionist and that we can make this happen through our writing curriculum.  Using the evidence from cognitive psychology, Foertsch points out, one could conclude that “teacher-provided generalizations” / “generalizations about academic writing” have little use without “real-life” context or a plethora of “contextual retrieval cues.”

Q:  So of what use “are teacher provided semantic strategies and ‘decontextualized’ cognitive approach” (370)?

A:  To answer this question, we must turn our attention to the problem of transfer.

I’ve written previously about the “problem of transfer”:  that it can occur, but is rare; that it can only occur if we create pedagogically sound/effective conditions for it to occur; that often we see education as being achieved when transfer occurs; that spontaneous transfer is rare unless the situation involves an expert; and so on.  Foertsch tells us that all of these challenges to transfer occurring suggest a causal relationship between “the number of related episodic memories one has” and the ability to “transfer that learning to new contexts” (371).  This points us back to scholarship on the difference between novices and experts.  Ultimately it seems, experts have “enough exemplars of relevant problems in memory to bet able to abstract out the general structural relations…” (371).  That is, the more previous experience/examples upon which to draw, the more expert the person is.

However, even if novices will always be less accurate than experts at identifying the relations that are relevant, they can be explicitly instructed to use the same strategy that experts use….  [S]ucessful transfer can be achieved even with relatively low levels  of past experience as long as the novices are forced to process the problems in ways that direct their attention toward structural commonalities…rather than surface-level differences.  (emphasis in bold mine 372)

Q:  So how does this help us teach writing so that transfer might occur?

A:  “[B]ecause few lower-level college courses require writing, many students have limited opportunities to gain experience with academic writing….  [T]ransfer of learning is most likely to be obtained when general principles and reasoning processes are taught in conjunction with their real-life applications in varied, specific contexts” (374).

The general solution that many schools use (including our own) to ensure the general to context specific continuum is covered in teaching students to write is through a “general” first year writing course followed by a writing intensive course within the major.  The efficacy of these separate courses for general and local knowledge/writing is unclear, as students often “forget” and/or don’t understand how to apply the writing principles they were taught in first year writing.  While the general to local continuum when it comes to writing instruction should essentially be attended to in every course, it rarely happens.  Instead, we divide up the teaching of writing with those outside the discipline of English expecting the experts teach writing in a way that adequately prepares students for all future academic writing, while those within English departments rarely have the kind of expertise (not to mention the lack of time) to teach discourse conventions specific to other fields.  Similarly, those faculty outside of English departments argue that they have neither the time nor the expertise to teaching writing in their courses, having so much content to cover.  It’s quite a quandary.  For me the answer lies in creating more collaboration across disciplines as faculty.

Foertsch’s answer lies in working with students “to analyze the underlying discourse conventions” (379).  This requires a collaboration between students and teachers to “contrast and compare different writing contexts and assignments and to make generalizations about writing and rhetorical skill” (378).  This approach would use “real-life examples from a variety of academic contexts and have student analyze these examples in such a way that encourages transfer” (378).  As a result, “students would become aware of the differences in how the generic principles that they learn will actually apply once they start writing for specific disciplines” (379).

Foertsch also recommends two levels of composition courses before students move onto their junior or senior year discipline-specific writing instruction, in which instructors take time to teach the specific discourse conventions of the field.

All of this seems a very (long…) round-about way of doing what many first year writing textbooks aim to do, which is teach the “moves” of “academic discourse” (see, for example They Say / I Say).  What I find, however, is that these “moves” are often still too general.  I believe that collaboration between first year writing programs and other departments / other colleagues across the disciplines is central to addressing the problem of transfer.  The kinds of “real-life examples” that Foertsch refers to need to be understood in the deep way that experts  have access to in order to be discussed and analyzed with students.  Working collaboratively we might be able to actually address this kind of local knowledge in a more effective way in first year writing.

In sum a writing curriculum that teaches for transfer:

  • Has more writing early on in a student’s college career.
  • Has a robust WAC program that has resources (time/compensation) for faculty across disciplines to collaborate in the teaching of writing in order to create a contextualized general knowledge approach to writing instruction.
  • Is focused on working with students to recognize the conventions of academic discourse (structural commonalities as opposed to surface-level differences).

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).

Provisions Fellows Introduction

As the Provisions Fellows for 2014-2015, we invite you along on our journey of thinking, inquiry, and discovery through our blog posts, which will be published here (at least) weekly.  The theme for this year’s Provisions’ Fellowship is “First Year Students,” and we hope that our students will follow us in the processes of thinking, inquiry, and discovery that we will undertake through this fellowship.  Our blogging here will act a resource for readers, but also a space for us to learn more, through the act of writing, about our research, theory, and classroom practices.  Please read along and let us know what you think in the comments section.

Below you will find highlights from our Provisions Fellowship applications, as well as plans for what we’d like to experiment with and research this coming year.

Jennifer Marlow, Assistant Professor of English

I can think of few things more crucial to the long-term success of college students than their experience as a first-year student, including the foundational experience of ENG105 Expository Writing, Oral Communication, and Research Techniques, and their knowledge of the writing process. As a specialist in rhetoric and composition, I treat first-year writing as an opportunity to provide a curricular space for welcoming students to the college and as an indispensable introduction to writing and thinking skills that will support their entire college careers and beyond.

This semester in my ENG105 class I am interested in employing the concept of the “flipped classroom” and also pursuing questions of transfer between first-year writing and writing in other college courses.  Transfer refers to the ability to apply skills learned in one context to different disciplinary and professional contexts. The flipped classroom involves moving the work traditionally done inside the classroom (lectures, slideshows, videos, etc.) out of it and moving the work historically done outside the classroom (activities, problem solving, writing, research, etc.) into it, creating a more active and engaged classroom experience. In a first-year writing classroom, this would mean dedicating substantial class time to the act of writing.

In particular I am interested in any potential causal relationship (though, since this project isn’t — for now — longitudinal, I won’t be able to make any concrete conclusions) between additional time-on-task devoted to writing, as well as additional metacognitive exercises completed, in the “flipped” writing classroom and transfer of skills to other college classes or writing situations.  I am pursuing the question: Does a flipped writing classroom help facilitate transferable knowledge of the writing process?

Pete Koonz, Faculty Librarian

Research indicates that a majority of first year college students are ill-prepared to research and write college-level papers.  While Google and Wikipedia have made it simple to find information, students are expected to navigate a much more complex information ecosystem once they enter college.  This ecosystem includes library databases, academic journals, primary sources, authoritative web site, and many discipline-specific resources as well.  Not only does this represent a much larger and more complicated universe of information to new students, it also requires new strategies and competencies if they are to successfully retrieve and use information from these unfamiliar resources.

My inquiry for Provisions targets the role librarians can play in helping first year students become progressively capable of  finding and using appropriate and authoritative information in this complex world of information sources.  I will follow the discussion happening in the library community as it reconsiders the meaning of information literacy within an evolving networked world.  The Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) has drafted a new framework for information literacy, utilizing the idea of threshold concepts and metaliteracy as anchoring components.

In part, this initiative by ACRL was sparked by a variety of trends and realities in higher education over the past decade, including an increased emphasis on collaborative learning, increased use of non-textual media, and a willingness to test new classroom strategies, such as the flipped classroom.

Not only do Jenn and I hope to explore the research in these areas and share what we are learning and thinking in this blog, but we will attempt to figure out how to best insert library instruction and information literacy support into her flipped classroom.

The bibliography of our readings for the year can be found as as a page on this blog.