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Critical Transitions: Writing and the Question of Transfer – Research Highlights (Part 1)

by Jessie L. Moore

If writing-intensive courses are a high-impact practice, as George Kuh and others have suggested, what can universities do to help students transition from these high-impact experiences into other contexts and apply what they’ve learned about writing? What bridging strategies (as Perkins and Salomon call them) can faculty employ in their classes to facilitate mindful abstraction? How might course designs foster what King Beach calls critical transitions? And how can colleges prepare students to be boundary crossers when it comes to their writing? From 2011 to 2013, the Center for Engaged Learning sponsored a two-year, multi-institutional research seminar to explore these and other questions about writing transfer, and we’re featuring some of the resulting research this week in Critical Transitions Online.

Here are some of the highlights:

In first-year writing courses, content matters. Critical Transitions: Writing and the Question of Transfer participants have investigated both “Writing about Writing” and “Teaching for Transfer” curricula in multi-institutional studies. Because these types of curricular approaches forefront the rhetorical knowledge, terms, and concepts that students will need to apply in future contexts, they equip students with tools and strategies for successful “boundary crossing.” As Kara Taczak notes in her video interview for Critical Transitions Online (with Liane Robertson, below), these content approaches allow  writers to “reframe” and analyze new writing situations in ways that enable  them to understand and write responsively for those new contexts – whether they are general education courses, courses in disciplinary  majors, or workplace settings.

Students need reiterative opportunities for reflection throughout their education. Both Writing about Writing and Teaching for Transfer curricula typically build in these opportunities, but courses university-wide can include reflection activities about both generalizable and discipline-specific writing strategies. A sophisticated reflective practice allows students to identify the writing strategies they already know and mindfully abstract them for use in new writing situations. (For strategies for fostering “reflective habits of mind,” see Kathleen Blake Yancey’s Reflection in the Writing Classroom, which has informed several of the Critical Transitions seminar studies on reflective practices and their impact on transfer.)

When considering students’ ability to transfer or adapt writing strategies, personal identities matter. Transfer successes and challenges cannot be understood outside of the learners’ social-cultural spaces. Dana Driscoll, Gwen Gorzelsky, and Ed Jones explore some of the ways that learners’ interests, goals, and prior experiences inform their transfer practices, drawing attention to the need to adapt curricula (specifically, Writing about Writing approaches) for the institutional context and local learners’ needs. Studies on student dispositions further emphasize the role of the individual in writing transfer.

Across the university, expectations for student writing often are misaligned. Prior studies have examined students’ and faculty members’ perceptions of the transferability – or rather, the lack of transferability – of first-year writing material to subsequent courses (also see Dana Driscoll’s work). Critical Transitions participant Carmen Werder notes that academic writing expectations remain tacit across universities, leading to misalignments in what students, faculty, and administrators expect student writers to “know, do, and believe.” To bridge high-impact, writing-intensive courses with other writing experiences across the curriculum and to enable (and recognize) transfer, then, universities need to facilitate institution-wide discussions about writing practices and instruction.

concept-map-enabling-recognizing

This post only scratches the surface of what Critical Transitions research seminar participants are learning about writing transfer.  Nonetheless, these highlights already offer insight into how university curricula can better prepare student writers for critical transitions by consciously using enabling practices and by facilitating university-wide discussions to improve recognition of students’ attempts at boundary crossing.

Watch for additional research findings – and an extended discussion of their implications for universities – in Part 2 (in two weeks).

 

Jessie L. Moore (@jessielmoore) is the Associate Director of the Center for Engaged Learning at Elon University and associate professor of Professional Writing & Rhetoric in the Department of English.

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