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.

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