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Donahue & Foster-Johnson. Text Analysis for Evidence of Transfer. RTE, May 2018. Posted 07/13/2018.

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Donahue, Christiane, and Lynn Foster-Johnson. “Liminality and Transition: Text Features in Postsecondary Student Writing.” Research in the Teaching of English 52.4 (2018): 359-381. Web. 4 July 2018.

Christiane Donahue and Lynn Foster-Johnson detail a study of student writing in the “liminal space” between a “generic” first-year-writing course and a second, “discipline-inspired” first-year seminar (365). They see their study as unusual in that it draws its data and conclusions from empirical “corpus analysis” of the texts students produce (376-77). They also present their study as different from much other research in that it considered a “considerably larger” sample that permits them to generalize about the broader population of the specific institution where the study took place (360).

The authors see liminal spaces as appropriate for the study of the issue usually referred to as “transfer,” which they see as a widely shared interest across composition studies (359). They contend that their study of “defined features” in texts produced as students move from one type of writing course to another allows them to identify “just-noticeable difference[s]” that they believe can illuminate how writing develops across contexts (361).

The literature review examines definitions of liminality as well as wide-ranging writing scholarship that attempts to articulate how knowledge created in one context changes as it is applied in new situations. They cite Linda Adler-Kassner’s 2014 contention that students may benefit from “learning strategy rather than specific writing rules or forms,” thus developing the ability to adapt to a range of new contexts (362).

One finding from studies such as that of Lucille McCarthy in 1987 and Donahue in 2010 is that while students change the way they employ knowledge as they move from first to final years of education, they do not seem fully aware of how their application of what they know has changed (361-62). Thus, for Donahue and Foster-Johnson, the actual features detectable in the texts themselves can be illuminating in ways that other research methodologies may not (362, 364).

Examining the many terms that have been used to denote “transfer,” Donahue and Foster-Johnson advocate for “models of writing knowledge reuse” and “adaptation,” which capture the recurrence of specific features and the ways these features may change to serve a new exigency (364).

The study took place in a “selective” institution (366) defined as a “doctoral university of high research activity” (365). The student population is half White, with a diverse range of other ethnicities, and 9% first-generation college students (366). Students take either one or two sections of general first-year writing, depending on needs identified by directed self-placement (366), and a first-year seminar that is “designed to teach first-year writing while also introducing students to a topic in a particular (inter)discipline and gesturing toward disciplinary writing” (365). The authors argue that this sequence provides a revealing “’bridge’ moment in students’ learning” (365).

Students were thus divided into three cohorts depending on which courses they took and in which semester. Ninety percent of the instructors provided materials, collecting “all final submitted drafts of the first and last ‘source-based’ papers” for 883 students. Fifty-two papers from each cohort were randomly chosen, resulting in 156 participants (366-67). Each participating student’s work was examined at four time points, with the intention of identifying the presence or absence of specific features (368).

The features under scrutiny were keyed to faculty-developed learning outcomes for the courses (367-68). The article discusses the analysis of seven: thesis presence, thesis type, introduction type, overall text structure, evidence types, conclusion type, and overall essay purpose (367). Each feature was further broken down into “facets,” 38 in all, that illustrated “the specific aspects of the feature” (367-68).

The authors provide detailed tables of their results and list findings in their text. They report that “the portrait is largely one of stability,” but note students’ ability to vary choices “when needed” (369). Statistically significant differences showing “change[s] across time” ranged from 13% in Cohort 1 to 29% in Cohort 2 and 16% in Cohort 3. An example of a stable strategy is the use of “one explicit thesis at the beginning” of a paper (371); a strategy “rarely” used was “a thesis statement [placed] inductively at the middle or end” (372). Donahue and Foster-Johnson argue that these results indicate that students had learned useful options that they could draw on as needed in different contexts (372).

The authors present a more detailed examination of the relationship between “thesis type” and “overall essay aim” (374). They give examples of strong correlations between, for example, “the purpose of analyzing an object” and the use of “an interpretive thesis” as well as negative correlations between, for example, “the purpose of analyzing an object” and “an evaluative thesis” (374). In their view, these data indicate that some textual features are “congruen[t]” with each other while others are “incompatible” (374). They find that their textual analysis documents these relationships and students’ reliance on them.

They note a “reset effect”: in some cases, students increased their use of a facet (e.g., “external source as authority”) over the course of the first class, but then reverted to using the facet less at the beginning of the second class, only to once again increase their reliance on such strategies as the second class progressed (374-75), becoming, “‘repeating newcomers’ in the second term” (374).

Donahue and Foster-Johnson propose as one explanation for the observed stability the possibility that “more stays consistent across contexts than we might readily acknowledge” (376), or that in general-education contexts in which exposure to disciplinary writing is preliminary, the “boundaries we imagine are fuzzy” (377). They posit that it is also possible that curricula may offer students mainly “low-road” opportunities for adaptation or transformation of learned strategies (377). The authors stress that in this study, they were limited to “what the texts tell us” and thus could not speak to students’ reasons for their decisions (376).

Questions for future research, they suggest, include whether students are aware of deliberate reuse of strategies and whether or not “students reusing features do so automatically or purposefully” (377). Research might link student work to particular students with identifiers that would enable follow-up investigation.

They argue that compared to the methods of textual analysis and “topic-modeling” their study employs, “current assessment methods . . . are crude in their construct representation and antiquated in the information they provide” (378). They call for “a new program of research” that exploits a new

capability to code through automated processes and allow large corpora of data to be uploaded and analyzed rapidly under principled categories of analysis. 378


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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