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Reflecting on How We Talk About Transfer

What word, term, phrase, or concept helps you think about what it means to teach for transfer in ENG 1020 or across our sequence?


Preparation for Future Learning, or PFL, is an integral term in my dissertation, because I am researching students’ ability to take knowledge from one assignment or experience in the course and apply or recontextualize it for another assignment in the course. Because my research does not extend beyond the limits of the semester, that is, because I did not pursue work with students past the end date of my course, a term like PFL is useful for making predictions about whether and how students are likely to work with writing-related knowledge when they encounter new writing situations.

Bransford and Schwartz (1999) identify five key characteristics that evidence students’ preparation for future learning:

  • Using prior knowledge to define learning goals
  • Evaluating new information
  • Working collaboratively with others
  • Reaching conclusions based on evidence
  • Reflecting on learning processes and strategies

In my research and my work in the inquiry-based composition course, I have added the following:

While I cannot positively say that students can or will transfer the knowledge they develop in my course to other courses, I can use PFL as a predictor of whether and how they are likely to do so. The qualities listed above also represent rhetorical moves that students can identify themselves, making the concept of PFL more tangible. Making this distinction between students’ preparation to transfer and actual transfer seems important to me for the way I talk about how I “teach for transfer” in my 1020 course.


I like the word toolbox.” I think it’s helpful as a metaphor for students because it provides a simple but concrete image of what I’d like them to take from ENG 1020 to their other courses and experiences. I also like the metaphor of the toolbox because it facilitates an instrumental, functional context for critical course concepts like genre, discourse community, and argument. For me, it’s key that students understand that these objects can do work in many different settings in and out of the classroom. To be good at using any tool, however, requires awareness, practice, and adaptation. For me, those are all core to successful transfer.


I just finished grading my students’ Project 1s, and I think there are some interesting potential implications there in regard to transfer. To briefly describe the assignment, I will simply say it is a Multi-Genre Analysis. To explain in a bit more detail: I have students identify a Habit of Mind from the WPA Framework, and make a claim about how they identify with it as a writer. They must then support that claim with examples from their own writing, in the form of 3-5 genres. The conclusion of the MGA asks them to analyze the genres and synthesize how the genres demonstrate and support the students’ claims about themselves. Though I’ve taught many Multi-Genre assignments, I have never taught this assignment in this way before. Here’s what I noticed while grading these first attempts:

1. Though given the choice of any of the 8 habits, many students chose to claim that they were “flexible” writers.

2. Students overwhelmingly chose to represent their current writing with digital social media genres (i.e., Facebook, Twitter, and text messages).

3. However, many students–especially those who claimed flexibility–contrasted their digital genres with an example of academic writing (i.e., an assignment).

4. Students who claimed to be flexible pointed to differences in rhetorical situation, especially audience and purpose, as variables accounting for the differences between their writing in the genre examples.

5. In their reflection letters, many students claimed that they grew most in the course learning outcome of Reflection, citing the assignment parameters that call them to awareness and analysis of their own writing via. specific genre examples.

6. Students are beginning to do the same moves in their MGAs that I will ask them to make in their Reflective Arguments.

So, what’s going on here? I’m thinking that I have the seedbed of transfer, though, I’m not sure my students are quite demonstrating knowledge transfer…yet. When a few students pointed to using and applying rhetorical knowledge in other classes, I might call it knowledge transfer. Or, it might be accessing prior knowledge, since students often described writing in other past courses… But, I am probably most interested in how knowledge demonstrated in this assignment might find its way to the Reflective Argument (if at all). Stay tuned.


When Adrienne prompted this brief post, I read it as thinking about what terms we use because of how they took shape in our experiences teaching, rather than the concepts we bring to our teaching practices from scholarship.  But in reading your responses, I see that it’s either or both.  Oddly, I feel that excepting the term ‘transfer’ or Ade’s term above, the concepts I use as tools to make transfer happen are most often deployed without ever sharing these concepts with students. Then, I thought of the term ‘trend’ which a class and I ‘came to terms’ with in my first year as Lecturer.  I kept using ‘broader exigence’ to refer to a number of practical things (the reasons for writing, the motivations shaping the text, etc) and for more esoteric things (like the common or cultural affective responses to texts that create more texts, or ‘rhetorical circulation’ in media).  The basic meanings of exigence stuck with students as they were interested in analyzing/studying such exigencies, and in thinking about/reflecting on their own exigence for writing — which often comes into play at a moment in a draft when they need to take control of their sense of purpose, audience and exigence if they are to accomplish a rich or complex writing task.  The more esoteric meanings simply got replaced by ‘trend’, or persuasive trends.  As you recall, I currently teach my first assignment on persuasive texts and persuasive trends, but why does this help me think of transfer you ask?  The term exigence is well equipped to help students reflect on their own motivations for writing, and for charting this as a trend in reflections from one project to another.  But when students are frequently reminded to connect content to context in writing, to look for persuasive trends affecting people or shaping discourse communities, it gets easier later in the term to ask them to analyze trends in their writing process across projects, and to mark key trends in the (rhetorical) results.  This, to me, is a quotidian way of preparing students to think about ‘transfer’ and how this has happened already quite a bit in a semester designed to continue trending their progress as readers/writers.

Adrienne, Thomas, Nicole, and Jared teach ENG 1020. They invite you to join the conversation in reply to this post!



4 thoughts on “Reflecting on How We Talk About Transfer

  1. It’s *really* interesting to see the range of terms and approaches being used to talk about transfer with 1020 students. In the last week or so, I’ve been rereading some sources on transfer or closely related topics (especially Carter’s 2007 piece on metagenres; Bergmann and Zepernick; Wardle’s “Mutt Genres”), and that’s been making me think about the importance of eventually reaching out to Writing Intensive instructors to discuss how our efforts in Composition Program courses can intersect with theirs. One key theme is the need to create conditions that can help students make connections across courses. One way to do that is to use the kinds of approaches described here, by priming students in 1020 and 3010 to think about how the concepts they’re learning can serve them in future courses (and situations) that require writing. Another is for WI instructors to prompt students to draw on knowledge from 1020 and 3010. In the next few years, we’ll want to think about which of our terms might be useful for WI instructors to use with students and how they could use the terms to help students succeed in understanding and meeting the demands of their WI writing contexts. It’s great to see that we have a start toward that work in the way we’re already talking with students about transfer.

    Posted by gwengorzelsky | October 28, 2013, 12:05 pm
  2. Gwen, it hits me that one of our cohort projects for this year (the description of the sequence) would be a great site for examining/describing this transfer talk for an audience of WI instructors and other interested parties.

    Posted by firstgradepicture | October 28, 2013, 4:53 pm
  3. Reblogged this on Adrienne Jankens, Wayne State University and commented:
    1020 cohort talking about transfer.

    Posted by firstgradepicture | October 28, 2013, 5:30 pm

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