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Tips for Teaching

Promoting Transfer in the Writing Classroom


Much has been said and written, especially as of late, about the problems that our students have in adapting writing strategies that they have learned in our writing classrooms for new and complex writing situations that they encounter after they leave freshman writing. Despite our best attempts at constructing engaging, entertaining, and enthralling lesson plans to encourage our students in the dynamic process of writing practices, many of our students leave class thinking that what we just talked about was “just English stuff.” Seldom (though it pains many of us to admit) do our students see a connection between Instructor A’s discussion on a rhetorical analysis of mainstream advertisements and the writing practices that they have to perform tomorrow in Instructor B’s biology class (for a more in depth discussion on the problems of transfer see Salomon and Perkins’ study “Transfer of Learning”). As Ann Beaufort explains in her book, College Writing and Beyond (2007), “writers will not automatically bridge or bring forward, appropriate writing strategies and knowledge to new writing situations unless they have an understanding of both the need to do so and a method for doing so” (177). It becomes our job then as writing instructors to facilitate in the process of transferring knowledge from our own writing classes to other writing practices our students are asked to do across the university.

Beaufort offers up three suggestions for facilitating this transfer (all can be found in Appendix A of her book):

  1. Teach learners to frame specific problems and learnings into more abstract principals that can be applied to new situations.
  2. Give students numerous opportunities to apply abstract concepts in different social contexts.
  3. Teach the practice of mindfulness, or meta-cognition, to facilitate positive transfer of learning.

While these three principals of transfer are further elaborated by Beaufort in Appendix A of College Writing and Beyond, the down and dirty nature of it all is that as instructors we need to allow for multiple opportunities in the classroom in which students can see how these writing strategies relate to the variety of writing practices that are expected of them in the very near future and opportunities for students to critically reflect on the material that they have encountered in 1020. Easier said than done!

So what are some simple things that we can do (perhaps immediately) to bolster some of this transfer goodness?

What I, as well as several other instructors in the department, have started doing is assigning a “writing process journal.” While this type of assignment could easily tumble into narrative commonplaces that depict a woeful story of chronic writers block (or worse, writer’s constipation), if directed toward questions of transfer these reflective journals can help students see connections between current writing assignments and later projects (either in class or beyond).

I have personally found it useful to have students do a weekly reflective response (2 pages or so) which answers the prompt:

What is one key concept/term/idea/strategy that you learned this week? How does this concept connect with the material we have discussed previously in class? Explain how this concept might be useful in future writing situations. Have you used this idea in the past without realizing it? If so, how (and did it have another name)?

Highlighted in this prompt is the notion that our students may already be using certain writing strategies, but they have different terms for these concepts. Also, this prompt asks our students to critically assess the information that they have encountered in the writing classroom and how this new information might be useful in future situations. A question that I also throw in from time to time is: How might I have to adapt this concept to fit writing practices in my job, or another course that I am taking?

The questions posed in the prompts can’t be left undiscussed, however. As almost all of the discussions on transfer tell us, students need reinforcement of these ideas. We need to make explicit connections between the ideas we teach them in class and the writing practices beyond our classroom in order for transfer to happen. Take some time out at the beginning of class each week to talk about these reflective prompts and highlight some of the ways in which internal and external connections can be forged throughout the semester. It’s a long process to develop writing skills that are flexible enough to work in a variety of situations and this is only one small method that you can use to help foster that growth.

What are some things you all use to foster elements of transfer in your classroom?

Suggested Reading:

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

Salomon and Perkins. “Transfer of Learning.” (1992) [free download with google search!]

Joe Paszek is a PhD candidate in Rhetoric and Composition. His research interests include Gay and Lesbian studies, Queer theory, and Composition history. He has taught ENG 1020 in the department for several years and is currently teaching a pilot section of ENG 3010.

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  1. Pingback: Passion and Principle: Syncing Teaching Priorities with Transfer Strategies « WSU Teaching - October 4, 2011

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