The concept of educational “transfer” is a hot topic in composition and rhetoric circles these days. Much of this interest is inspired by a recent publication, Writing across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing by Kathleen Yancy, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak. Yancy and her co-authors ask “Do the knowledge and skills learned in a writing course transfer to other courses and workplaces?” and is it possible to “teach for transfer”?
Yancy et al found that college students tended to rely on what they had been taught in high school when writing for college courses rather than what they learned in their First Year Writing course. They redesigned the FYC course to emphasize a limited number of concepts:
- Audience, genre, rhetorical situation, and reflection
- Exigence, critical analysis, discourse community, and knowledge
- Context, composing, and circulation
- Knowledge and reflection (57)
To me, these concepts appear to be a mix of categories and of varying utility, though it is a positive step to look beyond the immediate course to the student’s future rhetorical situations.
ERWC and Transfer
ERWC has been interested in transfer from the beginning. In the ERWC document “Transfer and Engagement: From Theory to Enhanced Practice” Nelson Graff cites Smith and Wilhelm, who argue that four factors make it more likely that students will transfer concepts and strategies from one context to another:
- Students have a command of the knowledge that is to be transferred.
- Students have a theoretical understanding of the principles to be transferred.
- The classroom culture cultivates a spirit of transfer.
- Students get plenty of practice.
Graff notes that that is why ERWC repeats the same strategies across modules. ERWC is certainly an ideal environment for creating the conditions for transfer.
What Actually Transfers?
However, if we look at what kinds of concepts and strategies powerfully transfer from high school to college, the list is pretty small. In my experience, it includes the five-paragraph essay, Toulmin argumentation (in a simplistic and reduced form), and more recently, ethos, pathos, logos. I have a suspicion about why this is so.
In Thinking and Writing in College: A Naturalistic Study of Students in Four Disciplines, (a very interesting book, available here at the WAC Clearinghouse) Barbara Walvoord and Lucille McCarthy describe longitudinal studies of four classrooms. They collected assignments and student writing and interviewed instructors and students. One of their findings was that
Students in all four classes typically used the assignment sheet as a kind of recipe for completing the assignment. The sheet seemed often to supersede other models or instructions given in class or remembered from other situations. Students usually kept the assignment sheet beside them as they composed, consulting it frequently,especially when they felt confused. They tended to see themselves as following step-by-step the explicit instructions contained in it, and they often interpreted it very literally. (57)
This led to serious miscues. In the business class they studied, the students were asked to go to two different fast food restaurants and observe how they dealt with customers. At the bottom of the sheet, the instructor had written “Chapters 7 and 8 in the Stevenson text can provide guidance” (62). Because this instruction was at the bottom, many students made their observations before reading the chapters, but the categories they were supposed to use were in the assigned reading, so their data was almost useless.
This finding indicates that when students are confronted with a task, especially a task they have not done before (a common experience in higher education), they look for a step-by-step solution to the problem of doing the task, one that they can deploy in the moment. Eventually they realize that some of the tasks in their discipline, such as writing a lab report in biology or analyzing a case study in business, are recurring problems that require them to develop routine strategies.
Rhetorical Strategies as Solutions to Recurring Problems
However, before they get to that point, essay-writing in Language Arts is the most common recurring writing task they have encountered. The five-paragraph essay provides a solution to the recurring problem of “how to write an essay.” The Toulmin model, presented as a checklist, offers a solution to the “how to structure an argument” problem. It doesn’t really matter that students often fill in the checklist incorrectly, citing warrants that aren’t really warrants and backing that is just further supporting evidence rather than reference to a body of knowledge or a system of rules, as Toulmin intended. The model still serves as a content-generating device for making claims and supporting them.
Recent changes in standards for Language Arts have made rhetorical analysis assignments much more common. The Aristotelian appeals have become the standard solution to that recurring problem, generating a paragraph about each appeal.
ERWC 3.0 attempts to teach a broader range of rhetorical concepts, such as audience, purpose, exigence, kairos, rhetorical situation, and stasis theory. I do not think that these concepts will transfer unless students see them first as solutions to doing the immediate task at hand, and second, as possible solutions to recurring problems they will face in the future. We cannot teach them as simply content to be mastered.
What to Do?
How do we help them see these new strategies as useful? The ERWC template as currently structured does not reveal the writing task until the middle of the module, in the “Connecting Reading to Writing Section.” Though we may see the reading tasks as at least equal in importance to the writing task, the students are unlikely to see it that way. They think that the culminating task is the problem they have to solve. They will be thinking, “How will this weird new concept of ‘kairos’ help me write this essay? Will the essay be about kairos?”
The ERWC template is still one of the best vehicles we have for designing teaching units and courses that are conducive to transfer. It just needs a little adjustment. If the writing assignment is at least previewed in the “Preparing to Read” section, it will give the students a clear idea of where they are going, making the tools and experiences that are provided by the module more relevant to doing the task as they perceive it. Second, if the new concepts and strategies are presented in the context of possible future tasks and problems to which they may be relevant, students are more likely to remember them.
I am still exploring how this might be accomplished. But as a first step, I created a Flexible Module Planner that is a bit less linear than the current template. Comments and suggestions, as always, are welcome.
Smith, Michael W., & Jeffrey D. Wilhelm. Going with the Flow. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2006. Print.
Walvoord,Barbara and Lucille McCarthy. Thinking and Writing in College: A Naturalistic Study of Students in Four Disciplines. Colorado State Univ. WAC Clearinghouse. Accessed 2 Dec. 2018.
Yancy, Kathleen. Writing across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing. Logan, UT: Utah State Univ. Press, 2014. Print.