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Shepherd, Ryan. Digital Writing and Transfer. C&C, June 2018.

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Shepherd, Ryan P. “Digital Writing, Multimodality, and Learning Transfer: Crafting Connections between Composition and Online Composing.” Computers and Composition 48 (2018): 103-14. Web. 4 Apr. 2018.

Ryan P. Shepherd conducted a survey and interviews to investigate the relationship between multimodal writing students did outside of school and the writing that they did for their classes. Shepherd focuses on students’ perceptions as to what constitutes “writing” and whether they see their out-of-school work as “writing.” He argues that these perceptions are important for transfer of in-school learning to new contexts (103).

He notes that scholars in the field have argued for the importance of drawing on students’ past writing experiences and their knowledge of those contexts to enhance their classroom learning (104). Some scholarship suggests that students do not see a relationship between the writing they know how to do for social media and school assignments. This scholarship indicates that one implication of this disconnect is that students may not apply the knowledge they accumulate in the classroom to the broader range of their writing activities (104).

Shepherd sent survey links to composition instructors and received 151 replies from first-year-writing students. He reports that the responses were skewed toward larger, doctoral-granting schools (104-05). In choosing 10 students from among 60 who were willing to be interviewed, Shepherd included Research 2 and Masters 1 institutions but found his population did not fully represent a diverse range of students (105). Interviews took place in Shepherd’s office or on Skype.

A principle question in both the survey and interviews was students’ definition of “writing.” Shepherd notes an emphasis on “expression” and “creativity” in these definitions, with 25% referring explicitly to the use of “paper” (105). In contrast, of the 132 definitions of writing in the surveys, only five brought up “digital” or “computer” and all five also included the word “paper” (106). The word “digital” did not occur in the definitions provided in the interviews.

At the same time, 92% of survey responses indicated experience with social media and 99% had used email (106). Forty-six percent of survey respondents had posted on four digital platforms: Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter, while only 5% had not posted to any of these venues and “only one participant had not written on social media at all” (106).

Similarly, interviewees reported extensive experience with social media. Students on both the surveys and in the interviews reported that they wrote “as much or more” outside of school than in class (107). In addition, students seemed uncertain as to whether they had done multimodal writing for school, “sometimes saying they ‘might’ have used images or charts and graphs with their writing at some point” (107).

Shepherd concludes that the students he studied did not connect the multimodal writing they commonly did outside of school with their schoolwork and did not include this use of social media in their definitions of writing. However, when encouraged to think about the relationship between the two kinds of writing experiences, “students were quick to make connections without prompting” (107).

For Shepherd, these finding impact recent discussions in composition studies about the transfer of academic knowledge to other contexts. He contends that many uses of the “transfer” metaphor do not completely or accurately capture what compositionists would like to see happen (108). This “incomplete” metaphor, he argues, implies that knowledge acquired in one place is simply carried to a new place. Thinking this way, Shepherd maintains, echoes the “banking model” of education in which knowledge is something teachers have provided that students can subsequently “withdraw” (108).

More appropriate, Shepherd writes, is the idea of transfer as a “bridge or connection between one area of knowledge and another inside of the learner’s mind” (108). He uses an analogy of knowing how to drive a car and later having to drive a “large box truck.” He posits that using prior knowledge in this new situation involves “generaliz[ing] the knowledge” by “creat[ing] a larger theory of ‘driving’” that encompasses both experiences (108-09). This re-theorization, he states, does not involve transporting any knowledge to a new place.

Shepherd reviews theories of transfer, arguing that similarity between two experiences is central to successful transfer. The comparison between driving a car and driving a truck is an example of “low-road transfer,” in which the two situations are easily seen to be similar (109).

Many kinds of transfer, in contrast, are “high-road transfer” in which the similarity is not necessarily obvious. Shepherd develops an example of relating knowing how to drive to learning how to ski. Theories suggest that in order to see connections between disparate activities like these, learners need to apply what Gavriel Salomon and David N. Perkins call “mindful abstraction” (109). According to Shepherd, related terms used by compositionists include “reflection” and “metacognition” (109). Shepherd argues that what matters is not so much whether or not the activities are clearly similar but rather the degree to which learners can come to perceive them as similar through metacognitive reflection (109).

In this reading, high-road transfer consists of “backward-“ and “forward-reaching” efforts. “Backward-reaching” transfer involves drawing on past experience in new contexts; Shepherd argues that composition uses this form less than “forward-reaching” transfer, which encourages students to think of how they can use classroom learning in the future (109-10). Shepherd maintains that his study supports the claim that both kinds of transfer are “quite difficult”; students need to develop a more complex “theory of writing” to see the necessary similarities and may require guidance to do so (110).

Shepherd suggests that theory-building can begin with students’ own definitions; they can then be challenged to explain why specific modes of communication, for example in social media, do not fit their definitions (111). Teachers can also ask students to teach kinds of writing in which they may be skilled but may not recognize as writing (111). Throughout, teachers can press for “guided reflection” (111) and “mindful abstraction” (112) in order to foreground connections that students may not see as self-evident.

In introducing students to multimodal work in the classroom, Shepherd suggests, teachers can show students that these kinds of assignments are actually familiar and that the students themselves “might already be experts” (112). To design curricula that facilitates the creation of these connections across writing contexts, Shepherd writes, research needs to address “two key areas”: “what students know” and “what students need to know” (112). More attention to the kinds of literacies that students practice outside of the classroom, Shepherd concludes, can equip teachers to apply this kind of research to teaching for more productive transfer.

Author: vanderso

I'm a recently retired associate professor of English in Southern Indiana. I've been teaching writing for twenty-five years, but I feel I have much to learn about how people really learn to write. In this blog, I'll be sharing research and thoughts and hopefully gathering information from others about the process of learning to write.

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