College Composition Weekly: Summaries of research for college writing professionals

Read, Comment On, and Share News of the Latest from the Rhetoric and Composition Journals


Leave a comment

Andrus et al. Teaching for Transfer at Two-Year Colleges. TETYC Sept. 2019. Posted 12/13/2019.

Andrus, Sonja, Sharon Mitchler, and Howard Tinberg. “Teaching for Writing Transfer: A Practical Guide for Teachers.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 47.1 (2019): 76-89. Print.

Sonja Andrus, Sharon Mitchler, and Howard Tinberg report on participating in a study to examine the effects of Kathleen Blake Yancey et al.’s teaching-for-transfer curriculum (TFT) across a range of institutions and student populations. Andrus et al. applied the curriculum from Writing across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing at three community colleges, one “small, rural,” one “suburban,” and one “urban” (77).

The study group consisted of nine writing professionals at different institutions who taught “parallel courses” in fall 2017. The curriculum from Writing across Contexts had been deemed useful in first-year writing courses at a “large research university”; the study considered how the assignments and scaffolding materials could be effectively adjusted for a wider sample of settings (77).

Arguing for the importance of helping students understand the usefulness of their learning beyond the college-writing classroom (76), the authors note the students who are likely to enroll in community-college courses may differ in age, experience, and life situations from students at four-year institutions. They write that differences in institutional structures, such as class sizes and higher class loads, can also affect the efficacy of the transfer curriculum (77).

Andrus et al. report that the TFT curriculum includes three components: key terms, reflection requirements, and four major assignments (77). The key terms, which are meant to provide students with “a single vocabulary for talking about writing in the classroom and for thinking about writing,” are

  • Audience
  • Genre
  • Rhetorical situation
  • Reflection
  • Discourse community
  • Purpose
  • Context
  • Knowledge (78)

The authors endorse the reflection component for its power to “slow student writers down” so they can become more “self-aware” and develop metacognitive sensibilities that will allow them to understand the process of writing as well as themselves as writers. All assignments come with reading lists and reflective elements that act as “perpetual glue” supporting the curriculum’s scaffolding (80).

The authors explain how they believe that each of the first three assignments leads students toward the final task, which is

[a]reflective composition, in a genre of the student’s own choosing, . . . [that] state[s] a fully developed theory of writing drawn from the course’s key terms and grounded in the course’s readings, a theory upon which students may draw when asked to write in new contexts. (80)

The first assignment is a “source-based definition and synthesis essay” (78) in which students apply the terms genre, rhetorical situation, and audience to assigned readings and in the process “describe the relationship among the terms” (79). The rationale for basing an assignment on sources early in the term is to introduce students to addressing varied perspectives “from the start” (79).

This assignment, the authors aver, is “daunting” and “unfamiliar” for students and for instructors, who, like Tinberg, may be unsure their classes are ready for the synthesis required (84). The requirement to relate the unfamiliar terms to each other and apply them to a challenging reading, the authors believe, immediately confronts students with the need to explore “what writing is and how it works” beyond the basics of a specific college requirement (84).

The second assignment also “flips” traditional practice by asking for research into “large, genuinely interesting questions rather than simplistic thesis-driven answers” (79). Andrus et al. state that teachers may need to support students in a process that not only presents the basics of research writing but also confounds their expectations by asking them to explore an issue rather than working to support a preconceived opinion (85). Included in this assignment is an emphasis on a key term, “discourse community,” as students are asked to see research and writing as important elements of knowledge-making in context (85).

In the third assignment, students recast their prior work in three different genres (79). The authors caution that it may be tempting to limit students with tight semester schedules to a single genre, but they argue that “at least planning the work for multiple genres is significant here” (86). One recommendation is to allow students to work in genres they already understand so that students who may be disoriented by college have a “stable” starting place for the new learning required (87-88).

The authors encourage instructors to prepare for a range of responses to the final assignment, noting that some students may repackage the reflections they have already completed while others may try to frame the assignment in more familiar forms (86-87). They provide an excerpt that they believe illustrates a student “conspicuously and knowingly deploying critical terms from the course” in which she articulates increased awareness of the importance of audience, genre, and rhetorical context (87).

The authors discuss ways they adjusted the TFT process to serve their community college environments. They emphasize the importance of conferencing and illustrate ideas for managing the time demands of one-on-one interaction with students (80-81). The assignments differ from those students have experienced previously, and both the cognitive load and pace of the work can benefit from enhanced “reassurance” and “direction” (81), in the authors’ view.

In addition, the authors changed some of the required readings, emphasizing their efforts to meet the goals of the curriculum while finding a balance between readings that were too long or dense and those that were too “short and easy” to accomplish the curriculum’s goals (81). These decisions, they write, allowed students to address readings in more depth (82). Andrus et al. analyze the effects of some of the listed readings, including students’ resistance to articles that cast them as “objects to be studied” and their appreciation of works in which the challenges they faced as community-college students were seen as “important and central to the course” (83). The authors also provide ideas for increasing the reflective writing considered essential to the course goals (83-84).

A list of recommendations includes as well the importance of being “frank and upfront” with students about the course and of being flexible and innovative within the bounds of the curriculum goals in order to make the course more effective for the particular students involved (87-88).

 

 


Leave a comment

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.