Studying transfer

About a month ago Clancy suggested transfer is a hot topic in writing studies right now. Certainly, there’s a lot of interest: CompPile will publish three bibliographies on transfer in 2011, and Elon’s “Criticial Transitions” research seminar received 125 applications–more than even they expected. Yesterday I found out mine wasn’t one of those selected. Ah well. Fortunately, I’ve got another in the pipeline, targeting Dartmouth’s Summer Seminar for Composition Research. The Dartmouth seminar is a little different than the Elon program, since it doesn’t have a topical focus, and is more likely to include people like me with less experience conducting empirical research. I’m applying with the hopes of improving my knowledge of research design and methodology–a task I’ve been doing on my own during my leave.

I’ve already started working on the project I’m proposing to take to the Dartmouth seminar. Starting in the Spring 2011 semester, Neil Baird, Joan Livingston-Webber, and I will be collaborating on research with several overlapping objectives. I’m happy to say my department and college are eagerly supporting this work, and I’m building a large network of other interested parties, from our professional development center to our WID committee.

Our first and most important goal is establishing structures which will address what might be called the data problem. Recently, a large number of WIU students failed the Illinois Basic Skills Test. As you might imagine, this is causing some consternation, since passing is required for graduation. (Update 12/15: See my comment below.) Unfortunately, we don’t have enough data of our own to help us better understand the test scores–or the way writing at the university works in general. We aim to change that through collection of student writing, interviews with students and teachers, and other forms of direct observation. During the Spring 2011 semester, we will begin this work on a small scale, honing our methodology in preparation for a wider deployment come Fall 2011.

Secondly, we are hearing a lot of anecdotal reports about problems with student writing, particularly in upper-division classes, as students move from writing in gen-ed to writing in their majors. Given current research on transfer (the sources Clancy names, and others like Downs & Wardle), we suspect difficulties arise when students go to the transfer well, and come up dry. With this in mind, we want to find out what strategies students use, or attempt to use, as they try to write for courses in their majors. Do they even try to adapt what they were (presumably) taught in composition? When they run into problems, how do they react? What support networks do they call upon? Neil and I will call upon earlier research (for him, negotiation; for me, ease) to understand students’ attempts to move between the different activity systems involved in these transitions.

I’ve previously discussed some implications of “2+2” model, which imagines bachelor’s degrees as two years at community colleges followed by two years at universities. (Assuming perfect progress, availability of courses, etc.) As Western whole-heartedly embraces this approach, more of our students are satisfying writing course requirements at community and for-profit colleges, rather than in our writing program’s two-year composition sequence. This is our third focus: what differences, if any, exist between students who take required writing courses at Western, and those who take them at community or for-profit colleges? In other words: how do transfer students transfer writing skills and knowledge?

More to come–a lot more–as we hone research design, invite others to get involved, and share local applications and generalizable findings.
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8 Responses to Studying transfer

  1. Alison says:

    Wow. What a worthy, interesting (if daunting) project.

    Also, I just had to say, these two articles I read for my capstone are really relevant, especially to your 4th & 5th grafs. You probably already know this and/or have read. But just in case you haven’t:
    “Transfer Institutions, Transfer of Knowledge: The Development of Rhetorical Adaptability and Underprepared Writers,” Holly Hassel and Joanne Baird Giordano
    Teaching English in the Two-Year College Sept. 09


    Hilgers et al. “As You’re Writing, You Have these Epiphanies:
    What College Students Say about Writing and Learning in their Majors”

  2. cbd says:

    Thank you, Alison. A little daunting, yes, but in a good way: better to do the work than to stay at the level of the anecdote. And it was very cool to be able to connect ease to this work. I’m interested to see how that pans out.

    I plucked the Hassell & Baird off your capstone list a few months ago, and it’s in my “read this” pile — along with a few of the sources they work from. I haven’t read the other piece, but I will, as I plan to shamelessly borrow that methodology (broadly speaking): finding out what students think they learn from them, in addition to using instruments of our own making.

  3. cbd says:

    So originally, I said the students who failed the IBST were English Education students. Now I hear that’s not true. Sigh. Talk about anecdotes, as opposed to data . . . original post modified. Maybe I’ll update it again once I figure out what’s going on.

    • jlw says:

      Thanks for correcting the Eng Ed info re Basic Skills testing at WIU. I’d like to add that in the September 2010 test (the one I have info on), 18 of the 19 passed Writing and none of these were Eng Ed. The 19th did not take the Writing part. (They are allowed to count the scores on parts they passed earlier.) What they failed was primarily Math. I don’t know what the writing prompts look like. In fact, I don’t know for certain that the writing test includes actual writing. I’ll see what I can find out on that.

  4. jlw says:

    “The Basic Skills test consists of 125 multiple-choice questions
    in reading comprehension, language arts (grammar and writing),
    and mathematics; and a constructed-response writing

    I don’t know what a “constructed-response writing assignment” means. When we’re looking at students writing for their majors, Education majors have to do a lot of writing that isn’t disciplinary but is about passing a test, meeting state standards and other bureaucratic mandates. That makes them either a complicated population to avoid or an interesting complicated situation to explore. Other vocational majors may have similar non-academic writing requirements for certifications, etc. For ed, this writing is mostly non-curricular. A practice test which I will not look at till I’m done grading for the semester. But it does include a writing prompt.

    • cbd says:

      Thanks, Joan. There’s a PDF you can download. I looked at the sample writing prompt last night. It’s crap:

      Should advertising of alcohol and tobacco products be banned in the United States? Those in favor argue that alcohol and tobacco are known to be addictive and to cause serious health problems, and that any policy that discourages the consumption of these products is in the public interest. Opponents maintain that the government has no right to tell businesses how to promote their products, and that as long as drinking and smoking are legal, these companies should have the right to use advertising to sell their products to as many customers as they can.

      Your purpose is to write an essay, to be read by a classroom instructor, in which you discuss whether or not advertising of alcohol and tobacco products should be banned in the United States. Be sure to defend your position with logical arguments and appropriate examples.

      Here we are, back at Three Reasons for Stopping X. The highest rated sample response is a five-paragraph essay, and all but one of the scores correlate with length (125 words = one point). When this kind of vapid crap becomes part of a discipline’s institutional discourse, we have a very big problem.

  5. Michelle wardlow says:

    Yes, I WISH I had learned academic writing ealrier on and maybe I wouldn’t have suffered so much! Looking forward tio the results of this investigation, and if I get into the program, possibly help with research?

    • cbd says:

      Michelle, the theoretical foundation we are working from believes there is no generalized “academic writing.” Rather, we see writing as heavily context dependent, tied to the situations and institutions in which it’s produced. That’s part of the reason we want to study transfer: we are doubtful that traditional writing courses provide students a lot of help writing in their majors.

      We will definitely be looking for folks interested in helping us with the project, so I’ll keep you in the loop.

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