More than Just a General Education Requirement:
Transfer in the First-Year Writing Classroom
Early on I knew that my student Kevin would push me as a teacher. His introductory paper the first week of class indicated that he thought of himself as a bad writer because his past teachers had always told him so. Writing, he said, was his Achilles’ heel. I felt challenged to help him realize that he could learn to write well and succeed at BYU. Although Kevin demonstrated initial frustration with the opinion editorial, after practicing various prewriting strategies and receiving responses from me and his peers on drafts, he seemed to gain confidence as a writer. In a reflection after a peer review he wrote, “I found that I am not as bad of a writer as I thought I was. . . . I have really enjoyed writing this paper because I have always pictured myself as a poor writer but this essay writing step-by-step process has changed that.” After reading this, my first thought was, “Success!” I thought that by having taught Kevin options for a writing process, I had unlocked the writer in him. The final draft of his opinion editorial was excellent. However, both his confidence and quality of writing quickly deteriorated as he struggled to transfer the skills he had learned in the first assignment to the second, the rhetorical analysis. He declared that analysis of someone else’s ideas was too different from an analysis of a personal situation, and therefore he could not do well on this assignment. Ultimately, he received the lowest grade in the class on this paper.
Kevin’s quick and dramatic transformation puzzled me. I assumed that because he had learned in the first paper how to successfully analyze the audience of his writing, brainstorm and outline, and draft and revise, he would transfer those skills to a new writing assignment and be successful again. I took for granted that he would be able to interpret and respond well to this new rhetorical situation. He did not. I asked myself, if Kevin was unable to transfer skills from one assignment to the next in my class, how could he possibly transfer these writing skills to an entirely different course? I found that the literature on transfer indicated that students are rarely successful in applying the skills they learn in first-year writing (FYW) to new contexts, which has led several scholars to suggest either the abolishment of FYW courses or significant changes in the program. However, there is some hope for the ability to increase transfer in FYW courses. Scholars tend to agree that emphasizing an awareness of the students’ rhetorical situation rather than a particular genre, encouraging metacognition through reflection, and emphasizing the relevance of new skills to future work or study can collectively increase the likelihood of transfer. I want to explore how these three methods can be better incorporated into the BYU composition program.
Transfer in the Crossfire
While transfer has been a topic of varying interest since the early 1900s, it picked up steam in the late 1980s with the work of David N. Perkins and Gavriel Salomon. While their interests were not specifically in composition studies, their research indicated the low probability of classroom learning transfer; in light of these findings, they presented a silver lining through methods they believed would improve the likelihood of transfer. In 1995, however, a group of “abolitionists” emerged; due to the problematic nature of transfer, they drew the conclusion that FYW should be either abolished from universities or significantly altered in its form. In Reconceiving Writing, Rethinking Writing Instruction, Joseph Petraglia cites a group of scholars who largely agree on the failures of FYW. Unlike Perkins and Salomon, who recognized the problems with transfer and offered some solutions, Petraglia questions whether FYW holds any real value at all (89). In the same book, Aviva Freedman argues that writing is context specific and that discipline-specific writing courses can do a better job of creating a rich context for writing (137). In 2004, David Smit took up the torch of the abolitionists with his book, The End of Composition Studies. He advocates for a series of writing courses that are discipline-specific as a replacement for the current system.
Even though Smit’s analysis leads him to dismiss FYW, other scholars find the ability of teachers to inspire students to approach writing as a rhetorical situation to be hopeful. Amy J. Devitt writes in Writing Genres (2004) that teachers can help students become more rhetorically aware by teaching antecedent genres in writing courses, which students can then interpret to determine the constraints and choices available when encountering new writing genres (198). Australian graduate students Alf Lizzio and Keithia Wilson conducted a study of 275 first-year students to determine how students perceive their own skills; their primary finding was that “students’ perception of the relevance of skills to their future work was the strongest predictor of their motivation for further learning” (109). Since 2004, the debate has continued with scholars on both sides of the fence: some call for the end of FYW, while others call for improving our teaching methods in order to increase transfer. I intend to let the scholars continue to debate while I take their suggestions to improve the likelihood of transfer and apply them to what I teach: first-year writing at Brigham Young University.
Emphasizing the Rhetorical Situation
Despite the tendency for some composition scholars to jump ship after analyzing the troublesome results of the research on transfer, most seem to agree that teaching students to approach writing as a rhetorical situation will aid in transfer when students encounter new rhetorical situations. Anne Beaufort argues that teachers need to recognize and explain to students the “socially situated aspect of the writing they assign” so that students can understand the connection between writing strategies and the application of writing skills to new situations (149). This idea is supported by the work of such scholars as Julie Foertsche, David Smit, and David Billing. It is not necessarily the assignment itself—say, to write an opinion editorial suitable for BYU’s The Daily Universe—that is most important, but rather the interpretation of the assignment as a rhetorical situation in which the students must choose how to address the situation. When a new assignment or situation arises, the student must evaluate how this situation is similar to or different from previous situations and decide what changes he or she must make in order to successfully meet the needs of this new rhetorical situation.
The concept of approaching writing as a rhetorical situation is not absent from FYW at BYU, but more can be done in this area to encourage the transfer of writing skills. In Writing Genres, Devitt offers a method for teaching genre awareness, or antecedent genres, rather than particular genres as a “way of helping students transfer general rhetorical understanding to particular rhetorical tasks” (202). Devitt essentially argues that, though writing is always done in a genre, by presenting multiple options or samples of a particular assignment and emphasizing a wide range of creative choices when approaching the assignment, instructors may increase the likelihood of a student understanding how to transfer writing skills to new genres or situations. An “essay” may not always have the same meaning to different instructors, but if students learn from the beginning that each new “essay” presents options and choices in how to respond, they may be more likely to appropriately interpret the needs of each new writing situation.
The Supplemental Guide for FYW at BYU is a valuable resource for explaining each major assignment and offering a sample paper for each, but as instructors we can make a greater effort to bring in additional examples to the classroom as a way to emphasize the rhetorical situation. It seems that in the opinion editorial unit we make the greatest effort to bring in multiple examples of letters to the editor and opinion editorials, in part because they are easily accessible from multiple resources online and in print on campus. While these efforts should be encouraged, our efforts to bring in multiple examples should not drop off when we reach the rhetorical analysis and issues paper. It is likely that our students have never written a rhetorical analysis as we teach it and likely never will again; however, they certainly will need analytical skills no matter what their future course of study may be. We can teach this assignment as an “antecedent genre” by bringing in other examples of written analysis and pointing out the similarities and differences between these examples and the current assignment. Devitt suggests, “Teachers can help [increase transfer] by providing multiple examples of each assigned genre, samples demonstrating a variety of approaches within the genre and showing as wide a range of creative choices as possible. Such textual input will help students move beyond a simple formulaic treatment of them as models” (209). Examples of analysis found in online movie reviews, book reviews written for other courses, or interpretations of political speeches from newspapers can easily be brought in to class, projected on a screen, and then read and discussed with the students. These examples will not be identical to the students’ assignment, but they will serve as examples of analysis and the responses of different people to particular rhetorical situations. The students will hopefully better understand the meaning and significance of analysis and will thereby be able to complete their current and future analysis assignments with greater ease.
Teaching Metacognitive Skills
Researchers commonly identify students’ ability to employ metacognitive strategies as an element that can increase transfer of writing skills. Metacognition, or thinking about thinking, can help students gain greater self-awareness of their learning. Perkins and Salomon, two of the most frequently cited researchers on transfer, emphasize the benefit of metacognitive strategies in promoting transfer through active self-monitoring skills: “Metacognitive reflection on one‘s thinking process appears to promote transfer of skills . . . this activation of self-monitoring helped the children [in their study] later to recognize when they might apply the strategy they had learned” (7). David Billing offers some approaches to teaching these skills: “Meta-cognitive skills can be taught, e.g. through ‘learning journals’, discussion groups about self-appraisal, modeling and coaching; meta-cognitive skills result in better conceptions of learning, greater awareness of cognitive strategies, more complex and integrated knowledge structures, and more accessible and usable knowledge” (509). Instilling students with “accessible and usable knowledge” ought to be a primary goal of instructors interested in teaching transferable skills. The specific approaches that Billings mentions can be easily built into the FYW system as long as instructors are committed to encouraging metacognition.
FYW at BYU has an aspect of metacognition built into the program through the “writing reflections” due in each portfolio of the four major assignments. However, the assignment is vague and often unproductive as it currently stands. Former BYU English master’s student Jessica Green became interested in how to make reflection more useful and developed her thesis project accordingly. In her study, Green taught two sections of FYW simultaneously, one class as a control group and the other as a test group with whom she emphasized reflection. She found that students do not naturally engage in high-level reflection, but through explicit instruction on how to evaluate their own work and set goals for themselves combined with instructor feedback on how to improve their reflection, student reflection did improve. The “writing reflection” associated with each major assignment became a one-page response in which students were encouraged to move beyond a plea for a higher grade or basic comments on their experience, pushing them to determine their progress in meeting class objectives and personal goals. Green actively encouraged class discussions regarding reflection, employed a weekly in-class rush- write in which students evaluated their progress on drafts and assignments, responded to reflection assignments to push students to think more deeply about the implications of their reflections, and had students turn in a portfolio in which they evaluated their progress throughout the semester. While responding to students’ reflection assignments, encouraging classroom discussion, and assigning weekly reflective rush-writes does require time and commitment from the instructor, this study demonstrated that the benefits students receive by recognizing their skills and progress is surely worth the effort.
Due to the research done by Green about this particular program and supportive research conducted by other scholars on the value of reflection in increasing metacognition and transfer, BYU‘s FYW program can and should improve the way it approaches reflection. A change in the way that reflection is taught will take time from both instructors and students, inside and outside of the classroom; therefore, activities that instructors can identify as less valuable to learning will need to be foregone. First, instructors will need to be trained on how to teach reflection, which can be accomplished in either the August training or in WIM (Weekly Instructor Meeting). Instructors will then need to give students a clear understanding of what constitutes high-level reflection by creating and distributing a taxonomy of reflection (an example of which can be found in Green’s thesis). To make additional time in class for instruction on reflection, instructors will need to limit the length and number of media clips and supplemental materials that they deem to be excessive or primarily entertainment based. Some aspects of class time can be slightly altered to focus more on reflection, such as rush-writes. Several FYW instructors already employ daily or weekly rush-writes for the simple, though valuable, purpose of encouraging students to write regularly. By altering the rush-write prompts to encourage reflection on the students’ writing processes and progress and then briefly discussing the implications of their reflections, instructors can better teach reflection. Students will need to write short, thoughtful, reflective papers with each major assignment, and instructors will need to respond to these papers instead of simply giving credit to the students for including a reflection in their portfolio.
Though making reflection an active part of one’s pedagogy may be time consuming, the results of Green’s study are worth considering. She writes, “Through the results of my study, I confirm my hypothesis that when higher quality reflection is actively taught and promoted by the instructor, reflection becomes a much more useful tool for composition students in terms of their ability to integrate assignments into the course objectives, to extract personal significance from assignments, and to plan for future projects” (2–3). If instructors commit to reflection, cut out supplemental entertainment, and make slight alterations in class time, the ability of their students to transfer the skills they learn in FYW may significantly improve.
Teaching the Relevance of Skills
Emphasizing the value of skills learned in FYW for future study and work can increase a student’s motivation to learn and, similarly, improve the likelihood of transfer. In a study measuring 275 students’ perceptions of their own skills, Lizzio and Wilson found that “Students’ perception of the relevance of skills to their future work was the strongest predictor of their motivation for further learning” (109). FYW instructors can employ techniques to emphasize the necessity of research, writing, and analytical skills to future work as a way to inspire students to learn and transfer skills. A common complaint I hear from FYW instructors is that students will never again encounter an assignment like the rhetorical analysis; perhaps not, but students will certainly encounter experiences in which they need to write, analyze, and think critically. Even students who will never take another writing course at the university will encounter the need to write and analyze information in the future.
While some students may naturally see how writing skills will apply to their future study and work, other students need explicit instruction to help them make these connections. FYW instructors can demonstrate the value of writing skills to future study by sharing personal examples of their writing and encouraging students to speak to professionals in various fields about how they use writing. By sharing personal examples of research papers, testing center exam essays, blog posts, facebook notes, or other forms of writing that employ skills taught in FYW, instructors can help students see how their skills apply beyond the English 150 classroom. While it would be wonderful if each semester we could have a day to bring in the future professors and employers of our students to directly demonstrate how writing will be used in our students’ futures, this is neither practical nor possible. However, each fall and winter semester BYU holds various internship and career fairs. By assigning students—for either regular or extra credit—to attend these fairs and interview presenters about how writing is used in their fields, students can hear from someone other than their instructor how these skills apply to their futures. The career or internship fair assignments can be followed up by rush-writes and class discussions about what the students learned, pushing them to analyze and reflect on how this information applies to their lives.
More than a General Education Requirement
First-year writing at BYU is a valuable program, and working within its already strong frame to increase the transfer of writing skills for its students is not a particularly difficult venture. Three of the major areas that scholars identify as likely to increase transfer—emphasizing the rhetorical situation, employing metacognitive skills through reflection, and demonstrating the usefulness of skills to future work and study—are already built into the program to one degree or another. If instructors are willing to make the extra effort to improve these areas of the course, then hopefully the course will become more valuable to their students in the long run. By increasing the likelihood of transfer, hopefully future students will struggle less than my student Kevin did in transferring his skills from one assignment to the next. Ideally, students will come to see the course as more significant to them than merely a checkmark on their list of general education requirements. Scholars may not agree on what the future of FYW programs may hold, but while FYW is still present at BYU, we as instructors should do all we can to make the course the best that it can be.
Beaufort, Anne. College Writing and Beyond. Logan: Utah State UP, 2007. Print.
Billing, David. “Teaching for transfer of core/key skills in higher education: Cognitive skills.” Higher Education 53.4 (April 2007): 483–516. Print.
Devitt, Amy J. Writing Genres. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2004. Print.
Foertsche, Julie. “Where Cognitive Psychology Applies: How Theories About Memory and Transfer Can Influence Composition Pedagogy.” Written Communication 12.3 (July 1995): 360–83. Print.
Freedman, Aviva. “The What, Where, When, Why, and How of Classroom Genres.” Reconceiving Writing, Rethinking Writing Instruction. Ed. Joseph Petraglia. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 1995. 121–44. Print.
Green, Jessica. “Adjusting the Rearview Mirror: Higher Level Reflection Strategies in First-Year Composition.” MA thesis Brigham Young U, 2007. Print.
Lizzio, Alf, and Keithia Wilson. “First-year Students‘ Perceptions of Capability.” Studies in Higher Education 29.1 (February 2004): 109–28. Print.
Perkins, David N., and Gavriel Salomon. “Transfer of Learning.” International Encyclopedia of Education. 2nd ed. Oxford: Pergamon P, 1992. Print
Petraglia, Joseph. Reconceiving Writing, Rethinking Writing Instruction. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 1995. 79–100. Print.
Smit, David W. The End of Composition Studies. Urbana, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 2004. Print.