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).

The Bumpy Road to Expert Status

Articles Discussed
Carter, M. (1990). The Idea of Expertise: An Exploration of Cognitive and Social Dimensions of Writing. College Composition and Communication, (3), 265. [Read]
Foertsch, J. (1995). Where Cognitive Psychology Applies: How Theories about Memory and Transfer Can Influence Composition Pedagogy. Written Communication, 12(3), 360–83.
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, (3), 373. doi:10.2307/25068074 [Read]
This week, Jenn brought me to her domain, assigning a couple of articles (Carter and Foertsch) that discuss composition theory.  Both authors arrive at a pluralistic model to understand the process that moves a student from novice writer to expert.  Along the way I was able to learn more about the two opposing schools of thought:  1) novices learn by using general knowledge (“universal, fundamental structures of thought and language”) to develop expertise as writers and 2) local knowledge is the key, as knowledge is “constituted by a community and writing is a function of a discourse community.”
Each of these opposing models was expressed in various terms and contains important concepts, outlined in the table below:

Most interesting to me was the alternative models of how a student moves from novice to expert, which I attempt to summarize below and simplify greatly:

  • General Process Model: Experts, through experience, have developed more effective general strategies than novices.  These general strategies can be tranfered from one domain to another and are thus more powerful than those that derive from local knowledge.
  • Local Knowledge Model: Experience in a domain is the dominant way a novice progresses to become expert in that domain.  General knowledge is not sufficient to advance within a discipline.  (The idea of experience is given a framework within cognitive psychology by Foertsch, as she distinguishes between semantic and episodic memory and their role in solving new problems we encounter.)
  • Pluralistic Model: General and local knowledge fall along a continuum and novices move along that continuum from general to local.  Absent the same knowledge and tools to integrate new knowledge as a disciplinary expert, a novice will rely on general knowledge strategies to acquire local knowledge.  In this manner, the novice acquires more local knowledge and eventually can operate primarily from a local knowledge approach within the domain.

I include the third article (Land and Meyer) to my list this week, because the process of acquiring expertise within a discipline is a central problem that is addressed by the authors — in their case through the use of a framework of threshold concepts.  I provided an overview of threshold concepts in an earlier post, but I think it would be useful to revisit the idea in light of this pluralistic model of expertise.  The central idea of threshold concepts is that there are certain important concepts in all disciplines that are particularly difficult for students to grasp.  Within the models presented by Carter and Foertsch, I would say that these problematic concepts represent ones that cannot be understood using only a general knowledge framework.

In large part this is because another necessary criterion of threshold concepts is that they are particularly troublesome, and often the underlying knowledge is counterintuitive to the uninitiated.  The ugly underside of this aspect of threshold concepts is that they often go unrecognized by experts in the discipline.  Having fully integrated these concepts within their larger disciplinary knowledge base, experts may be blind to the troublesome nature of these threshold concepts and not fully appreciate or even recognize the struggle their students face.

While difficult to move beyond, threshold concepts, once understood, are transformative to students’ understandings and are integrative in the sense that they help provide a more unified and comprehensive understanding of the discipline.  As important and significant mileposts along that disciplinary continuum, threshold concepts may be those anomalies where the accumulation of general knowledge does not provide a sufficient basis to continue their progress in the discipline.  Constructing learning opportunities that infuse a unique local knowledge perspective at these junctures may aid in pushing students along that continuum, happily moving ahead until the next troublesome concept slows them once again.

Teaching the Whole Student

Ann Neilson, Department chair of the Physical Education Department, discussed what she does in her winter sports class to teach the whole child. She came up with five dimensions for this: social, physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual (SPIES). For the social aspect Neilson has her students socialize with one another. They form groups early on in the semester to discuss issues they may be having with school or in their personal lives. Neilson brings her students to the von Trapp Family Lodge located in Stowe, Vermont. Her students then engage in cross-country skiing, snow shoeing, maple sugaring, and nutrition lessons. For the emotional, Neilson tries helping her students deal with stress – this is done in a number of ways. The European challenge was mentioned as a way to deal with stress. This activity involves rolling in snow and then getting in a hot tub. For those not brave enough for the European challenge there is always tea and lecture time in the afternoon. Neilson says that the lecture is often disguised as fun so her students do not even realize they are being lectured. The winter sports class also has sing-a-longs for stress relief. Neilson then discussed the intellectual and spiritual dimensions – which she grouped together. For these two dimensions she has her students read a book written by Maria von Trapp that The Sound of Music based on. This experience helps the students understand the history behind the family who owns the von Trapp Family Lodge.

Mary Fitzsimmons, Director of HEOP/ACCESS, and Marcy Nielsen Pendergast, director of the Academic Support Center discussed the many challenges facing students today and what their departments do to help these students. Nielsen Pendergast works with students who need academic support, have disabilities, or are on probation. She said that many of the students she works with are at risk academically, socially, and/or financially. With today’s economy many students have to work a part-time or even full-time job in order to afford to continue with their education. These students are at risk of leaving school because of the stress of going to school full-time and working. Another challenge for students today is that they are coming to college lacking the writing and math skills they need in order to succeed. There has been a large increase in the number of college students who utilize the writing center. Many students are also coming in requesting help with reading their textbooks, with tutorial requests, or with requests for help with time management. What is being done to help these students? Time management can often be a big factor in why students struggle, so they are helped with planning a weekly schedule for their academic and personal lives. The college also tries to provide emotional support for students. They want to foster an atmosphere where students feel comfortable talking with at least one faculty member. Three trends as to why students may be struggling have become very noticeable. The first trend is an increase in anxiety. Studies have shown an increase in anxiety in children born between 1989 and 2003. The college’s response to this is to help increase students’ resilience with the formation of a program called Knight Skills for freshman and transfer students. Knight Skills helps students deal with the problems first time college students encounter. The second trend is a high dropout rate for students who are the first generation of their family to go to college. These students don’t necessarily have moral support from family members who understand what they are going through. The last trend is the effect dorm life can have on a student. There are so many outside influences affecting students on a college campus (loud noises, parties, sickness, roommates, etc.). One last factor that is affecting student dropout rates is the stress students will be facing when trying to find a job after graduation. Many people are contemplating why they should spend so much money on an education if they won’t have a job to pay off their loans when they graduate.



Academic Support

Podcast of November Session

Writing Tools

In honor of writing here is an article that discusses different devices for writing:  “Do You Have Something to Write With?”

From notepads on phones, to real notepads, to post-its or PicoPads there are dozens of ways to write down information. And of course, there are dozens of situations one may find themselves in with the need to write. Sometimes there isn’t a writing utensil or paper within reach (although some of the truly dedicated are never caught without these items) and a phone or other electronic device will have to do. At other times a small scrap of paper found at the bottom of a purse or pocket will have to work. Whatever the circumstance, those who are dedicated to writing and acquiring knowledge will find a way to write no matter the situation.

Teaching Writing in the Disciplines

Megan Fulwiler, Associate
Professor of English, discussed the history and Theory of Writing in the
disciplines. In the 1980s the Writing Across the Curriculum Movement (WAC)
began as a way to get students to write more professionally. Three functions of
writing were determined: transactional, expressive, and poetic. Expressive
writing is often used to improve transactional writing; which is the most
widely used form. According to Dr. Fulwiler, there were several principles to
the WAC movement. “Writing is the responsibility of the entire academic
community. Writing must be integrated across departmental boundaries” In other
words, it is not just the responsibility of English department. “Writing
instruction must be continuous all four years of undergraduate education,” and
lastly, “writing promotes learning.” While acknowledging these principles it is
also important to remember that “different disciplines value different things.”
So not every discipline will utilize writing in the same way. A final quote
from Dr. Fulwiler’s presentation, “Writing transforms students from passive to
active learners and deepens students’ understanding of a subject matter.”

David Goldschmidt, Assistant Professor of Computer Science, discussed
writing as a form of communication and as a form of communicating ideas with an
emphasis on coding. Coding – like any language – has different nuances or
dialects.  Coding can also have
errors/defects or bug in it just like any piece of text. Again like writing,
the goal is to have as few errors as possible. Dr. Goldschmidt listed the steps
to writing code; which are the same for most forms of writing. The steps are
figuring out the requirements, analysis, design, coding, and finally testing.
The sequence is repeated if the testing reveals defects. For his classes, Dr.
Goldschmidt requires his students to write journals, algorithms, and
requirement documents.

Robert Shane, Assistant
Professor of Art History, discussed Teaching Writing in the Discipline of Art
History. He often uses the technique of free writing in his classroom. Posing a
question and then giving students a few minutes to respond. Dr. Shane usually
bases his question(s) on a particular piece of art; however, this method can
work in any of the disciplines. According to Dr. Shane this form of writing
allows students time to think about how art history is viewed critically and
“ensures students are actively engaged.” Other forms of writing that were
mentioned are cover memos for formal writing assignments and argumentative
scripts. Cover memos allow students to informally write about the formal
writing process. They can share what was difficult or what was easy about the
assignment, or write about the actual process of writing. An argumentative
script involves students comparing and contrasting, thinking critically, and formally
analyzing art in a way that they are comfortable with.

Podcast of the October session.

Links from the Session:

Dr. Shane’s Handout

Dr. Shane’s Argumentative Script Assignment

Dr. Shane’s Presentation

The WAC Clearinghouse at Colorado State

Rehearsing New Roles for Writers

David Russell’s book:
Writing In The Academic Disciplines

“Writing and the Disciplines” by Jonathon Monroe (from Cornell)

Top 10 schools for writing

Michael Carter’s article, “Ways of Knowing,
Doing, and Writing in the Disciplines”” target=”_blank”>Handwriting First