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

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


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

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.