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Subject:

Chron of Higher Education 4/7

From:

Norman Stahl <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Open Forum for Learning Assistance Professionals <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 7 Apr 2014 15:01:33 -0400

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April 7, 2014
Students Can Transfer Knowledge if Taught How


By Dan Berrett
One psychologist described it as education’s holy grail. Another called it "the very measure of learning itself."
They were talking about the transfer of learning. Such transfer occurs in its most cognitively valuable forms when students draw on something they learned in one context, ideally by generalizing its core principles, and apply it appropriately to a situation that is far different from the original.
For example, a student in a military-­history course might learn about a general who attacked by dividing his army into many small groups so they could safely move through terrain infested with land mines. In a biology course that student might learn how a doctor treats a tumor by using many low doses of radiation to damage the tumor while preserving the tissue. The underlying strategy was the same.
While it is a longstanding goal, transfer of learning has gained renewed appeal as critics press institutions to prove the worth of a college education.
Teaching students to transfer their knowledge, say many faculty members and administrators, is also imperative in a world in which troves of information are a mouse-click away. If professors continue to see themselves as dispensers of content, they will have little of lasting value to offer.
But if they can train students to transfer their knowledge, students will be endowed with a skill that can serve them long after they graduate.
Unfortunately, knowledge transfer is notoriously difficult to teach, Robert E. Haskell wrote in Transfer of Learning, his 2001 book.
"We’ve failed to achieve significant transfer of learning, historically or currently, on any level of education," wrote Mr. Haskell, a professor of psychology at the University of New England who died in 2010.
The allure of knowledge transfer as a fundamental educational process has persisted even as it can be elusive. The topic has emerged at recent meetings of scientists and education researchers. Lately it has also flourished among scholars of writing, in particular.
First-year composition courses, which are required of huge numbers of students, are mainstays of the curriculum and staples in the teaching portfolios of writing scholars. The courses’ prevalence can make them unloved, and their presumed value sometimes opens them to criticism.
Some of the toughest questions about the courses come from within the field.
Those first-year composition courses are intended to prepare students for the kinds of writing they will do later, both at the university and beyond, wrote Elizabeth Wardle, a professor of writing and rhetoric at the University of Central Florida, in a longitudinal study, "Understanding Transfer: Preliminary Results From FYC."
"Yet," she added, "we have no evidence that FYC facilitates such transfer."
The courses can contribute to knowledge transfer, she continued, if they can teach students to reflect on their learning.
At the annual meeting last month of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, more than a dozen research papers and sessions dealt with the topic of transfer. Many of the presentations described its value, while also suggesting how slippery knowledge transfer can be.
The tools that make the process educationally valuable can also get twisted around, and the concept often overlaps with other factors, like students’ motivation or ability to reflect, that also affect learning.
Still, Jessie L. Moore, an associate professor of professional writing and rhetoric at Elon University, sees hopeful signs. "We’ve had enough studies," she said, "that demonstrate that, at least in writing, we can teach for transfer."
Ms. Moore is also associate director of Elon’s Center for Engaged Learning, which operated a research seminar on writing and transfer from 2011 to 2013. She draws on the findings of recent knowledge-transfer research in her own teaching.
Expecting students to grasp the core aspects of a skill like writing requires being explicit, she said. Ms. Moore asks her students to identify rhetorical concepts, like speaker, audience, and purpose, and how they apply to the new pieces of writing they are about to do.
She will ask students to tap into their prior knowledge by thinking about the writing they’ve done in the past. Who was the audience and what was the purpose of those past works?, she will ask, and how are they similar or different from what they face now?
The process has affected the thinking of Hillary H. Dooley, a student of Ms. Moore’s who is majoring in professional writing. Ms. Dooley, a senior, recalls learning a little bit about rhetorical theory when she was in high school. But mostly, she said, she wrote book reports and literature reviews.
Learning to identify fundamental rhetorical concepts in college has helped her write better academic papers for her statistics and history courses, as well as to produce work in her major, including marketing analyses and materials for a local arts council, she said.
"We have the basics of being able to analyze audience, purpose, and mode of delivery," said Ms. Dooley, who is thinking about life after graduation. "I would be confident that I could write for almost anything."
Ms. Moore’s teaching draws in part on research she finds especially promising by Kathleen Blake Yancey, a professor of English at Florida State University; Liane Robertson, an assistant professor of English at William Paterson University of New Jersey; and Kara E. Taczak, a lecturer at the University of Denver.
They have developed a pedagogical strategy called teaching for transfer and have begun studying its effectiveness.
To teach in this way, instructors make the transfer of writing skills an explicit goal. Their students spend the semester developing a theory of writing, which they test by applying it to different contexts. Students also write a research paper on a topic they choose, and they create three additional works on the same topic but in different genres, tailoring each one by audience and purpose.
Thinking carefully about the different aims and forms of writing is necessary, the scholars note in their forthcoming book, Writing Across Contexts, because there is no single mode of academic writing. And, because faculty members don’t always teach the conventions accompanying their discipline, it often falls to composition instructors to equip students with the principles of writing they need to take with them into their majors and across fields.
That explicit approach to writing differs from how writing is often taught in college classrooms. Many colleges teach writing by embedding it in courses built around themes or faculty members’ areas of interest, like globalization, madness, or wilderness.
The content is intended to engage students, and skills like communication and critical thinking become byproducts that are supposed to develop along the way.
"I like teaching cool content, too," Ms. Taczak said at the composition meeting, describing a course she teaches on monstrosities in American culture. But, she added, "Do you know what students leave my class knowing about? Vampires."
Springboard and Crutch
At the conference, a team of researchers from George Washington, Oakland, Seton Hall, and Wayne State Universities described how some approaches to teaching writing in general-education courses can help produce gains in students’ ability to transfer their knowledge. The researchers found encouraging signs of writing-skills transfer after the first year of college. The track rec­ord after two years, though, was less hopeful.
The numbers of students examined by those scholars were relatively small—58 were studied at the end of the first year, and a different group of 35 after the second year. But the materials the researchers examined were varied and their analysis extensive.
They conducted interviews, assessed students’ skills by administering a knowledge-transfer survey, and read the students’ reflective essays and formal papers, assigning codes to nearly 400 pieces of writing.
Two things surprised the scholars. The first is that, among the range of strategies, dispositions, and attitudes they studied, just three things explained nearly half of the variance in the students’ knowledge-transfer skills. The change in transfer was driven by how well students drew on their prior knowledge, used ideas from a source text to interpret another text, and engaged in metacognition, which is stepping back to assess their thinking.
Even more surprising was that, in the second year, the students showed a significant drop in their transfer skills. "This is the thing that shocked us the most," said Edmund Jones, an associate professor of English at Seton Hall.
A few members of the audience who conducted similar research on transfer at their institutions had seen drop-offs in transfer between students’ first and third years. Perhaps, the attendees said, students regress because they are too busy immersing themselves in the disciplinary content of their major.
Others wondered whether writing assignments given in the second and third years carry the same expectations as those in first-year composition courses. When seniors complete capstone projects, they tend to show a resurgence of the transfer habits they developed in the first year.
Other complex dynamics also seemed to be at work. The presenters said that students’ prior learning became a hindrance after the first year. Background knowledge, which was supposed to serve as a springboard for students as they solved problems in novel contexts, became a crutch. In their second year, students appeared to stop examining that knowledge when they weren’t asked to do so. They leaned on old habits, reverting to the kinds of writing they used in high school.
Still, the idea of transferrable knowledge continues to draw many faculty members’ interest—and skepticism.
Ms. Taczak, of Denver, said colleagues have asked her why they should worry about the transfer of learning. Isn’t it enough, they wonder, that students learn during their course?
"Why wouldn’t we want to give them something more?" she has answered. "As educators, we have a unique opportunity to provide students with knowledge they can carry forward."

Norman Stahl
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