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Composition Forum 26, Fall 2012

The Question of Transfer

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Kara Taczak

Abstract: This video captures the reactions of selected writing researchers at the Elon Research Seminar as they are asked to consider the problem of transfer and how it relates to the teaching of writing. As a research area and pedagogical concept, transfer is poised to create a lasting impact in the way writing is studied and taught. In this video, scholars who focus on how writing knowledge is transferred share their questions, insights, and goals as they move forward their research efforts on transfer.

Framework for “The Question of Transfer”

Preview for the video “The Question of Transfer;” the full video is below.

Transcripts for both the preview and the full video.

Kara Taczak with Liane Robertson

In the summer of 2011, a group of approximately 40 scholars in rhetoric and composition, all with an interest in transfer, gathered at Elon University in Elon, North Carolina, to discuss the challenges around the concept of transfer and the future of transfer research. This Elon Research Seminar is a three-year-long multi-institutional seminar that features 40 participants from across four continents. Participants spend six days collaborating about the critical transitions for transfer, including first-year composition to general education, the major to the workplace, the writing center to writing sites, and many more. Despite a variety of backgrounds or foci within the field—literature, literacy studies, writing studies, academic support and instructional resources, education, and professional writing, to name a few—all participants shared pedagogical experience in which the question of knowledge transfer arose, repeatedly and consistently, in the teaching of writing.

The Elon Research Seminar was established to grapple first with the definition of transfer, a term borrowed from psychology and education, as it relates to composition studies. For example, see the segments featuring Jessie Moore (0:45), Cecilia Dube (1:28), Carmen Werder (2:22), Alison Farrell (2:49), and Jennifer Wells, Dana Driscol, and Ed Jones (3:44). Composition scholars generally define transfer as the knowledge learned in one context successfully applied to another, but there is little consensus beyond this definition of what transfer is, to the more complex questions of how to ensure transfer and why some students are successful at it while others are not (5:18). As Moore, Kathleen Blake Yancey (8:45), and Linda Adler-Kassner (10:31) demonstrate, there are a number of approaches to transfer research being taken up around the world to address these complexities, all of which consider a myriad of mitigating factors affecting transfer, such as prior knowledge and points of departure, and the different critical transitions at which writers make and transfer knowledge.

While the researchers featured in this video explore transfer in different ways, they all agree on the need to develop more theorized and consistent research that bridges the gaps between our understanding of transfer and our pedagogical approach to it, as Adler-Kassner (11:25), Stuart Blythe (11:49), and Chris Anson (12:35) explain. It is the goal of these researchers to ensure that transfer is fully mined as a means of facilitating relevant pedagogical practices in the writing classroom, and it is their collaborative questioning of transfer as a means of potentially greater efficacy in the teaching of writing that this video suggests.

Artist’s statement from Kara Taczak

Rhetoric and composition scholars continue to debate and classify, research and explore, and define and redefine terms that add to the understanding of writing and writing practices. As noted by Kathleen Yancey in her inaugural CCC editorial, terms can help us communicate with students, administration, colleagues, and the public (409). Over the past two years, “The Poster Page” inside of CCC has included some of the very terms that help define our field’s teaching and researching. Terms, though unifying, are complex as they can hold layers of richly researched histories. Writing itself even bears the mark of such histories as scholars attempt to keep up with things such as changing literacy practices and fast-moving technologies.

Transfer seems to offer its own level of complexity, as each scholar, researcher, and educator brings with them a differing perspective as to what transfer means to our writing classrooms—both in and beyond first-year composition classes. Adding to the complexity are the constraints brought by students—varying prior knowledge experiences and external benchmarks—that often makes their ability to transfer more difficult.

The question of transfer is one that the field struggles with and upon which the Elon Research Seminar centers. Working in multi-institutional groups, cohorts develop plans to research many of the questions and issues surrounding transfer. In the third and final year, the Seminar will host a conference on transfer. The videos, both the preview and the extended version, capture the essence of the Seminar, where scholars come together to debate and classify, research and explore, and define and redefine the term referred to as transfer.


Transcripts for both the preview and full video are below.


Moore: There’s really an opportune moment for us as a field to stop, figure out this underlying assumption, if it really holds and move forward collectively to explore what really moves from setting to setting, moves with students into our courses and out of our courses.

Yancey: The idea behind transfer is that students are making knowledge, and are repurposing that knowledge, remixing that knowledge, and so forth.

Farrell: I, and my institution, would become interested in the idea of transfer. And to some extent it’s a resource issue.

Anson: We have talked a lot here in this seminar about what we can do to help students develop rhetorical awareness and contextual awareness, particularly through new kinds of pedagogies.

Jones: What is it down the line that affords the student being able to access or transform the knowledge that he or she has already gotten earlier on?

Werder: I think it’s a function of the scholarship and the study of rhetoric and comp.

The Question of Transfer

Anson: This seminar is giving us an opportunity to bring together some very smart people who are interested in similar questions about transfer, about the ability to move from one context to the other as a writer and communicator. And because of that sort of collective energy, I think we’re going to be able to do some really good things both collectively and individually. The projects are pretty wide-ranging, but they are really united in this common interest in this sort of meta question: What happens when people move across contexts? What are they bringing with them?

Moore: Well, how would I define transfer? I think that is one of the challenges of the whole seminar... to bring people together to answer that question. My initial understanding of the term is thinking about what students bring with them that informs their actions in the class and what students carry out to future settings, whether it’s informal context, whether it’s future classes, whether it’s the future non-academic settings. but I think that has a lot of assumptions in that understanding of transfer, and I don’t think it’s a very rich definition.

Dube: Because my own understanding had been what I just said, I thought it was whatever the students had transferred from high school that they could apply in university, and then build on that. But from the discussion that went on, it appeared that there is difficulty pulling apart transitions from transfer in our question. One of our questions was, we’ll go into administer a survey which would try to establish what the students experience, and what dispositions were being brought into university.

Werder: OK, transfer is the ability, the capacity to move from one situation to another and use, adapt, and apply knowledge skills, and beliefs from another situation.

Farrell: Because of my background in teaching and learning, I was looking to see where transfer would overlap with taxonomies of learning. From that discussion, my working definition would be the application of learning from one place to another, although I was thinking about it yesterday and I thought, although I don’t teach motor skills or anything, I have experience in that area. And in motor skills, it seems quite clear. So if you can hit an overarm in badminton, you might be well able to throw the javelin. They’re very different, but the same sorts of things are used. So if you can do the overarm in badminton, you can bring that with you to learn the javelin. So it’s the information that you can bring from one area to the next, to kind of springboard you into where you want to be.

Wells: What I started to think about yesterday is the classic definition of transfer, is something learned in one time or location is then applied to another location or time. That’s the most straightforward definition, but there are also all of these elements that are involved in the transfer situation. So, the learner, the instructional context, the instructional task, the transfer context, the transfer task. So I started thinking about it almost like a graph, where you have have the thing learned, the thing applied. But then you have vertically these different elements, so you can sort of plot out what element is affecting the transfer at what point, or how are they all playing out together so it makes it more complex.

Driscoll: And I think to add to Jenn’s definition, you know the traditional definition being you take something from one place to another, but that only works for measurement and research purposes, and so as researchers we have to say, "Okay, I’m going to look at how this applies to this other context." And we have to sort of put on a beginning and an end. But the concept as a learning concept is much more convoluted and complex. It’s not just that learners begin at one place with nothing before, and end at one place with nothing after. And these two places are not all the two places that learners are being. So we sort of see this river that weaves in and out, that adds much more layers of complexity to the actual learning of transfer versus the study of transfer.

Yancey: There are several key concerns and I think that they have shown up in the literature which is what the CCCC Research Initiative is about. What does the literature have to say? So there is a general literature that comes out of educational psychology, largely, represented by a book like How People Learn. And terms there that show up, or things like prior knowledge, metacognition, explicitness, that might be one set more specifically relative to composition. We might look at work like Beaufort. I think it’s pretty well known that Beaufort’s model has five knowledge domains to it, and so knowledge would be, even be a key term. But those knowledge domains, if I recall correctly, composing, composing process, knowledge, genre knowledge, rhetorical knowledge, content knowledge, discourse community knowledge. And so that’s interesting, and another term which is the point of tension actually in my own view is awareness. So is it, for instance, genre awareness or rhetorical awareness? Or is that really knowledge? So I think some of the key terms are key terms that function have a heuristic value, is the way I would put it. So it’s not the case that people have necessarily signed off on them, bridging and hugging, which is a mechanism that allows people to associate to texts. I think adaptation is another key term because even here at this institute there is something, on the part of some anyway, a kind of dissatisfaction with that, with the term transfer itself, in that it can be interpreted as a kind of mechanical application, not mindful, the opposite of mindfulness. Mindful, the opposite of mindfulness. So the notion of abstraction and intentionality is very much a part of this as well, and I think I’ve alluded to the idea of context and I’ll say then another key term here that we haven’t actually spent a lot of our time on that I think is fundamental: actually composing. What do we actually mean by composing? Do we mean words on a page, or do we mean something that is fully multimedia? So, the really great thing is that there is so much good work to do and it’s very exciting to be a part of it.

Moore: Because my experience with transfer research, my interests in it, really grew out of reading the field’s literature and feeling like we’re talking around it and starting to grapple with it, but not really digging in our heels and figuring out what is really happening. We’ve had a lot of assumptions that things do transfer, but very few folks have really jumped in and explored it. What does transfer if it transfers? And I think there’s really an opportune moment for us as a field to stop, figure out this underlying assumption, if it really holds, and move forward collectively to explore what really moves from setting to setting, moves with students into our courses and out of our courses.

Yancey: My experience with transfer research has basically taken three forms. I started using portfolios in 1999, And they do provide a pretty interesting picture, how students are using what they find in different contexts, just because they welcome a set of texts. But it’s also the case that in their reflective texts students have been pretty explicit about how what they’ve done in this context relates especially to what they have, so an interest in prior knowledge. But the other thing is that I have historically asked students to include, is text from another context. So I am able to see through the inclusion of that text and their commentary how what they are using in our class is working or not working. So, inadvertently, I think my work with e-portfolios fostered in me an interest in transfer. So that would be point one. Second, I was able to use some of that work in the book I did, Reflection in the Writing Classroom, which is very interested in how students make knowledge. So the idea behind transfer is that students are making knowledge and and are repurposing that knowledge, remixing the knowledge and so forth, so there’s that. And more recently, my work on transfer was informed by, so this is the third point, informed by a CCCC Research Initiative where or in which I did a synthetic study on what had been done on transfer before, and started developing a theory of transfer.

Adler-Kassner: I’m looking at, what are threshold concepts, particular kinds of concepts in first-year writing classes or composition, and then whether developing practice with those concepts will foster student success in writing classes beyond first year writing. So I’m gonna flip that for second, too, some work that’s been done by people who are here and elsewhere, suggesting that learning bottlenecks in classes beyond first year writing are tied to students inability to master threshold concepts. So I’m interested in looking at whether that work that explicitly addresses threshold concepts in first year writing can help students move through those bottlenecks in other courses.

Adler-Kassner: I hope it’s both more developed, more thoroughly conceptualized, and theorized in more consistent ways. Not that it’s not consistent now, but we are starting to build a sort of baseline of knowledge and theory, and I hope there are more studies addressing questions that stretch across disciplines and context. Very much like what we are doing here.

Blythe: Where I’d like to see transfer in about five years is looking at larger scale studies. So I’m really glad we that we are talking about doing multi-institutional studies. I’ve seen some really nice single institutional, smaller scale work. And to be able to start, I think realistically, I think we need to start with a single institution, smaller scale work. But if we can start to combine our efforts and then begin to draw bigger pictures, see bigger patterns across multiple institutions with larger sets of students. That’s where I’d like to see it go. You know, we’ve done some exploratory stuff. It’s time to start, it’s time to start looking bigger to see if the patterns are more than a local manifestation.

Anson: Well, I hope in terms of research that we are engaged in, that we have a better understanding of the nature and processes involved in transfer. I think one of the key questions is that if we know that transfer is never easy, particularly when there is distance between the contexts, and in terms of familiarity and unfamiliarity, we need to understand what helps writers to move more quickly into those new contexts and cope with unfamiliar genres. And I think those questions can help us pedagogically, in particular. I don’t think we have a really good handle yet on what we should be teaching in order to help facilitate transfer smoothly. And I think we have talked a lot, here in this seminar, about what we can do to help students develop rhetorical awareness and contextual awareness, particularly through new kinds of pedagogies, such as writing about writing courses. I think we need to explore those more fully, and see to what extent they are effective. And that’s part of what’s going on here, part of what people are studying that we can experiment with that can become effective. And I think the jury is still out on what we can do to facilitate transfer, and if there are some things to facilitate it.

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