Sunday, January 15, 2012

On the challenges of learning transfer, or why students sometimes seem like they have never taken a writing class . . .

A couple of years ago, I had a student in Writing Workshop who was working on his Advanced Project. His paper lacked a thesis and organization, his sentences ran on and on, and he rarely cited his sources. Who, I wondered, had taught him writing? Later that day, I realized that his name was familiar because he had been in one of my online Academic Writing for Adults classes. Moreover, he had taken and done well in three other writing classes at DePaul. When I looked back at his papers from my class, it was clear that he knew, or once knew, how to do all of the things he did not seem to be able to do while working on his Advanced Project.

While it is discouraging that this student did not transfer what he had learned in his writing classes to his Advanced Project, it is not unusual. In mathematics and science education, in cognitive and learning sciences, in psychology, and in training and development, teachers and researchers have struggled to understand why students frequently do not transfer their learning from one context to another. Even management consultants, who are paid lavishly for and “whose jobs depend on their ability to apply their knowledge in new situations,” turn out to be not so great at learning transfer (Gentner et al. 1353). When researchers gave experienced and motivated consultants two analogous cases illustrating a principle of negotiation and asked them to read through each individually, only 17% identified the similarity between the two cases (Gentner et al. 1347-1349, 1353).

Encouragingly, researchers were able to significantly improve upon these results simply by asking the consultants to compare the two examples. When so promoted, 88% linked the two cases (Gentner et al. 1349). Moreover, those who were explicitly told to compare the two cases were almost twice as likely to draw upon the principle illustrated by the cases in a subsequent face-to-face negotiation exercise (Gentner et al. 1349).

So, there are both barriers and reason to hope on the road to transfer.

One key barrier is that students (as novices) and teachers (as experts) perceive what is being learned differently. Novices, like my student trying to write his Advanced Project, tend to focus on, and are often overwhelmed by, what is new and different and have a hard time noticing connections to what they already know. Just as bike riders lose the balance they had mastered when they try the new challenge of riding without their hands on the handlebars, writers can lose control of the basics when they take on new writing challenges: "student writing may sometimes need to get 'worse' before it can get 'better'” (Carroll 9).

Experts, on the other hand, see connections and patterns and, because these connections are so obvious to them, tend to take them for granted. As a result, "professors in major disciplinary courses may underestimate how different their expectations about writing are from those that students have already experienced and how much practice is needed to apply disciplinary specific concepts, knowledge, and conventions in writing" (Carroll 6). Like Carroll, Herrington and Curtis conducted a longitudinal study of students’ writing development in college and were surprised by the "truly dizzying array of writing assignments and teacher expectations about them" that students encounter “from their first semester to their last” (Herrington and Curtis 387). In another longitudinal study following returning adult students, Theresa Lillis showed how these largely unarticulated expectations were a particular challenge for nontraditional students who were being asked to negotiate meaning in unfamiliar social contexts with unwritten rules (14).

As a result of her findings, Carroll dismisses as a “faculty fantasy” the idea that academic writing is a discrete, unified and easily transferable skill. Her conclusion is supported by over two decades of research showing that we do not learn to write in the abstract but through immersion in specific and dynamic contexts: “highly context-dependent skills such as rhetorical performance are best learned—perhaps can only be learned—when learners are immersed in the real context in which such skills must be performed on a daily basis" (Brent 5). As a result, stand-alone writing classes can get students only so far. Besides teaching basic writing skills, they can teach students general strategies for managing the writing process and for analyzing and responding to the expectations of various disciplines, groups, and rhetorical situations. Students will transfer this learning and develop their writing expertise only through participation in specific contexts and when motivated by concrete goals.

Ways to Facilitate Transfer

As Alexander and Murphy sum up, “transfer requires attention to learner, task and context” (565). Researchers have demonstrated that the likihood of transfer is dependent upon the level of expertise, metacognitive abilities, and motivation of the learner; the teacher’s disciplinarily and pedagogical knowledge and abilities and willingness to foster transfer; and the affordances of the learning context (Bransford, Brown, Cocking 39-66, 143-177). Below are some of the most commonly recommended ways to facilitate transfer:
  • Hold students accountable for their learning: Students often do not transfer what they had learned about writing because they did not need to do so. In two different studies and in my own research with SNL students, students report that they do not practice what they learned in their composition courses because they can write papers the night before, not proofread them, and get good enough grades (Wardle 73 and 76; Bergman and Zepernick 128-129 and 139-140).
  • Assign meaningful work: Experts agree that learners who are motivated and challenged are more likely than others to look for prior knowledge to help them address new challenges (Alexander and Murphy 568; Bransford, Brown, Cocking 48-49; Lobato 433-434; Nelms and Dively 218; Simons 585-7; Subedi 592; Volet 625-7). "Challenges, however, must be at the proper level of difficulty in order to be and to remain motivating: tasks that are too easy become boring; tasks that are too difficult cause frustration" (Bransford, Brown, Cocking 49).
  • Help students develop meta-cognitive skills: Across disciplines and theories of transfer, researchers agree that the development of metacognitive skills enhances transfer (Alexander and Murphy 565-566; Beaufort 152; Bransford, Brown, Cocking 12, 35, 38, 55, 66; Brent 17-18; Brown 406; Gee 174; Nelms and Dively 218; Perkins and Salomon 9; Rounsaville, Golberg, Bawarshi, 108; Simons 582-583; Wardle 81-82).
  • Provide frequent feedback: “In order for learners to gain insight into their learning and their understanding, frequent feedback is critical” (Bransford, Brown, Cocking 66). Feedback helps students identify "the relevant knowledge and strengths that students bring to a learning situation and [build] on them" (Bransford, Brown, Cocking 66).
  • Cue transfer: Making explicit connections to prior and future learning and offering comparisons improves transfer, but having students make those connections and compare two examples at the same time, often through peer collaboration, improves it even more (Brent 20; Gick and Holyoak 19; Lave and Wagner 92-93; Rittle-Johnson and Star 3-4).

Works Cited

Alexander, Patricia A., and P. Karen Murphy. "Nurturing the Seeds of Transfer: A Domain-Specific Perspective." International Journal of Educational Research 31 (1999): 561-76. Elesvier. Web. 12 August 2011.

Beaufort, Anne. College Writing and Beyond: A New Framework for University Writing Instruction. Logan: Utah State UP, 2007. Print.

Bergmann, Linda S., and Janet Zepernick. "Disciplinarity and Transfer: Students' Perceptions of Learning to Write." WPA: Writing Program Administration 31.1/2 (2007): 124-49. Print.

Bransford, John D., Ann L. Brown, Rodney R. Cocking, eds. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1999. Print.

Brent, Doug. "Transfer, Transformation, and Rhetorical Knowledge: Insights from Transfer Theory." Journal of Business and Technical Communication 25.4 (2011): 396-420. Sage. Web. 18 September 2011.

Brown, Ann L. "Analogical Learning and Transfer: What Develops?" Similarity and Analogical Reasoning. Eds. Stella Vosniadou and Andrew Ortony. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. 369-412. Print.

Carroll, Lee Ann. Rehearsing New Roles: How College Students Develop as Writers. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2002. Print. Studies in Writing & Rhetoric.

Gee, James Paul. "Literacies, Identities, and Discourses." Developing Advanced Literacy in First and Second Languages: Meaning with Power. Eds. Mary J. Schleppegrell and M. Cecilia Colombi. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 2002. 159-75. Print.

Gentner, Dedre, et al. "Reviving Inert Knowledge: Analogical Abstraction Supports Relational Retrieval of Past Events." Cognitive Science 33 (2009): 1343-82. EBSCO. Web. 18 September 2011.

Herrington, Anne J., and Marion Curtis. Persons in Process: Four Stories of Writing and Personal Development in College. Reconfiguring English Studies. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 2000. Print.

Lave, Jean, and Etienne Wenger. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Learning in Doing: Social, Cognitive, and Computational Perspectives. Eds. Roy Pea, Christian Heath and Lucy A. Suchman. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. Print.

Lillis, Theresa M. Student Writing: Access, Regulation, Desire. London: Routledge, 2001. Print.

Lobato, Joanne. "Alternative Perspectives on the Transfer of Learning: History, Issues and Challenges for Future Research." The Journal of the Learning Sciences 15.4 (2006): 431-49. Web. 12 August 2011.

Nelms, Gerald, and Ronda Leathers Dively. "Perceived Roadblocks to Transferring Knowledge from First-Year Composition to Writing-Intensive Major Courses: A Pilot Study." WPA: Writing Program Administration 31.1-2 (2007): 214-40. Print.
Perkins, D.N., and Gavriel Salomon. "The Science and Art of Transfer." 1-13. 1992. Harvard. Web. 3 August 2010.

Rounsaville, Angela, Rachel Golberg, and Anis Bawarshi. "From Incomes to Outcomes: FYW Students' Prior Genre Knowledge, Meta-Cognition, and the Question of Transfer." WPA: Writing Program Administration 32.1 (2008): 97-112. Web. 31 January 2011.

Rittle-Johnson, Bethany, and Jon R. Star. "Compared to What? The Effects of Different Comparisons on Conceptual Knowledge and Procedural Flexibility for Equation Solving." Journal of Educational Psychology 101.3 (2009): 529-44. DASH: Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard. Web. 18 September 2011.

Simons, P.R.J. "Transfer of Learning: Paradoxes for Learners." International Journal of Educational Research 31 (1999): 577-89. Elsevier. Web. 12 August 2011.

Subedi, Bhawani Shankar. "Emerging Trends of Research of Transfer of Learning." International Education Journal 5.4 (2004): 591-99. Web. 7 August 2010.

Volet, Simone. "Learning across Cultures: Appropriateness of Knowledge Transfer." International Journal of Educational Research 31 (1999): 625-43. Elsevier. Web. 12 August 2011.

Wardle, Elizabeth. "Understanding 'Transfer' from FYC: Preliminary Results of a Longitudinal Study." WPA: Writing Program Administration 31.1/2 (2007): 65-85. Web. 3 August 2010.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Schedule your class presentation with UCWbL for Winter Quarter

The University Center for Writing-based Learning (UCWbL) would like to remind you to schedule your informational presentations for Winter term. These presentations are a great way to get your students excited about coming to the Writing Groups, a wing of the UCWbL. The Writing Groups meet each Saturday and offer student-centered workshops that allow students to enter into the discussion of academic writing in a workshop setting facilitated by two tutors from the UCWbL. By discussing their own writing as well as the work of other participants, students develop critical reading, thinking, and analytical skills and the ability to articulate and discuss writing. The presentations will make sure that they are aware of Writing Groups as well as the wide variety of services that we offer online, at our Lincoln Park and Loop offices and outposts, and at the suburban campuses.

Presentations are about fifteen minutes in length and will include (in smart classrooms) a demonstration of our online scheduling service as well as a quick tour of the resources available to students on our website. An experienced tutor or staff member will deliver the presentation and take any questions from both the students and you. If you’d like, our staff members can also briefly tell you and your students about the other four wings of the UCWbL: the Writing Fellows Program, the Suburban Campus Writing Groups, the Collaborative for Multilingual Writing and Research, and Faculty Development.

If you are unable to schedule an in-class presentation with us, we can still deliver promotional materials such as bookmarks to you. Feel free to email the UCWbL at with any inquiries about requesting these items. Presentations begin the second week of classes. To request a presentation for your class, visit

Monday, January 9, 2012

SNL student published in Faith, Hope, and Fiction

SNL student Sara (last name withheld at student’s request) took Steffanie Triller’s Advanced Elective Write Where You Are: Writing About the Places We Live this Autumn Quarter. The course encourages students to write about places that are meaningful in their everyday experience. As part of the course, Sara wrote a paper entitled “My Transcendent Yoga Mat” about the ways that her experience on her yoga mat is both spiritual and liminal. The essay was published in the January e-newsletter Faith, Hope and Fiction

SNL Writing faculty member, Michelle Navarre Cleary, publishes article on SNL Writing Workshop course

SNL Writing faculty member, Michelle Navarre Cleary, recently published an article about SNL's Writing Workshop course, called "How Antonio Graduate on Out of Here - Improving the Success of Adult Students with an Individualized Writing Course."


"Adult students are more anxious about writing for school, less familiar with academic conventions, and more likely to drop out than younger students. For students learning to move between personal, work, and academic discourse communities, the ongoing and explicit writing instruction argued for in the research of Sternglass, Herrington and Curtis, Carroll, and Beaufort is particularly vital. Writing Workshop at DePaul University's School for New Learning is one model for providing this instruction. The course works for students with a broad range of learning styles, prior knowledge, needs, and goals because it is individualized and because it is focused on developing writers rather than on teaching specific kinds of writing. It is open to any student struggling with writing, from incoming basic writers to seniors stuck on final projects. Writing Workshop has improved access for and the retention and success of our adult students. This article shows the need for a class like Writing Workshop, explains how it works, discusses challenges, and describes the experience of the at-risk, nontraditional, adult students in one Writing Workshop class."

Michelle Navarre Cleary. "How Antonio Graduated on Out of Here Improving the Success of Adult Students with an Individualized Writing Course" The Journal of Basic Writing 30.1 (2011): 101-130.

The full article is available through the DePaul Library,

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Learning Disabilities, Writing, and Adult Students

Teaching writing to adult students with learning disabilities (LD) and/or attention deficit disorders requires the instructor to understand and accommodate a variety of learning styles in the classroom. Below is a list of resources, articles, and tips focused on learning disabilities, writing, and adult students.

I. DePaul’s PLuS Program
DePaul University’s PLuS (Productive Learning Strategies) program offers a variety of services for LD students. In order to be eligible to receive services, students must apply online at Students need to have a recent psycho-educational evaluation on file, which should be no more than five years old for LD, or three years old for AD/HD. For students in need of testing, you can recommend the following testing centers listed here: Please note that UIC has a sliding scale and students should inquire about other potential sliding fee scales based on student hardships.

PluS services include:
• Exam proctoring (for extended time on exams);
• Priority registration;
• Course selection advising;
• Reader and/or transcriber for exams;
• Note-taking assistance;
• Assistive technology;
• Advocacy; and
• Weekly sessions with a PLuS clinician (professional Learning Specialists; please note that because availability of clinicians is limited, students may be placed on a waiting list for this specific service).

II. Writing & Learning Disabilities
Discusses making the writing process concrete by customizing a step-by-step process for writing essays; also discusses use of audio and visual aids like recorders, out-loud protocol, regular peer review, note cards, colored markers.
Review of four studies on LD/Writing: use of handwriting v. word processing v. dictation, the importance of planning, the interference of mechanics/grammar on global writing, and revision processes.
Review of literature on young (K-8) students with LD’s writing shows that these writers have a difficult time generating content and typically need more guidance in thinking through audience, purpose, organization, and context; students with LD tend to have an over-simplified view of the writing process (planning, translating thoughts into writing, improving minor errors) and need more time and guidance to develop their rhetorical skills and their concept/process of global revision. Authors also suggest “Self-Regulated Strategy Development” that involves routines, authentic writing assignments, interaction with others, writing at one’s own pace.
Writers with LD have difficulty with mechanics, content generation, perceiving essay writing as only question-answering with no conclusions or synthesis, improper pronoun use, anxiety, poor studentship skills, poor revision skills and misunderstanding of what revision is. This source references the article “Assistive Technology: An Instructional Tool to Assist College Students with Written Language Disabilities”, which talks about tools such as word processors (for mechanical corrections), outlining programs (for content and organizational coherence), brainstorming programs (with lots of visual elements), and speech recognition/speech synthesis programs. The authors also note that teachers should help writers come up with concrete strategies for every stage of the writing process so that the student can become self-regulatory. Setting up individualized routines and cues raises student confidence. One-on-one conferences and peer review groups are beneficial instructional methods.
Urges writing programs to be sure that writing instructors discuss, as early in the course as possible, the need for students to identify learning disabilities and the university/college resources available to students with potential learning disabilities. Writing instructors should not assume that lack of quality revision or poor mechanics is due to student apathy or inexperience.
Techniques for helping writers with LD include: (1) be aware of learning disabilities and difference between LD and inexperience; (2) provide list of resources for students to get tested for learning disability; (3) give students extra time and timely, detailed feedback; (4) encourage students’ use of planners, sitting close to board, communicating with you and each other; (5) help student find channels for self-sufficiency (like knowing where to go for help in the future; (6) don’t let students with LD “get by” if they don’t demonstrate the necessary skills.
Three points confirmed to help writers with LD: “Adhering to a basic framework of planning, writing, and revision; Explicitly teaching critical steps in the writing process; Providing feedback guided by the information explicitly taught” There is also a final note about need for research on students with LD and transfer of writing skills to other areas for academic success.
A dyslexic typeface.
A discussion of autism, literacy, and composition written by my colleague from WRD’s grad program. (NOTE: Autism is NOT a learning disability, though many believe it is.)

III. Adults & Learning Disabilities
Describes what learning disabilities are (according to scholarly and federal literature) and are not, how they’re diagnosed, the causes, the difference between LD and attention disorders, and national statistics. Provides a comprehensive list of general LD characteristics, dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia on pgs 5-7.
Discusses adaptations, accommodations, and assistive technology devices available to adult students with LD.
Similar to above, but also discusses three instructional strategies: “Direct - (Teacher tells and shows; learner practices.) Intensive - (Teacher asks many questions; learners respond frequently.) Structured and Systematic - (Teacher and learner go step by step.) “
A resource for adult students with learning disabilities: how to be successful, self-advocacy, resources.
The government provides an overview of resources in the U.S, including research, evaluation, and statistics regarding adult students and learning disabilities. Mentions “Illinois Center for Teaching and Learning” offerings of training programs for adult educators who want to know more about teaching students with LD.
The Learning Disabilities Association of America provides an overview of resources for adults who have a learning disability.