Transfer research design

I mentioned the transfer research project Neil Baird and I have started when I discussed my sabbatical retooling, but I haven’t written much about it here; just a brief outline long ago when I discussed my application to the Dartmouth Seminar. Since then, things have changed quite a bit. So here’s a more in-depth look at the evolution of our research design over the past year.

In October 2010, not long after I committed to retooling, I approached Neil to see if he wanted to collaborate to study transfer, since I knew from our research group he had experience with qualitative research. Like me, he was interested in the transfer research of Elizabeth Wardle and other scholars, and agreed that our writing program needed to better understand transfer student needs and other changes reverberating from WIU’s adoption of the “2+2” model. I outlined the work I imagined doing to Neil, shared the Dartmouth Seminar application, and suggested we apply for a University Research Council (URC) grant as well. This is WIU’s featured internal grant, up to $5,000 “intended to promote research or its scholarly equivalent in appropriate fields by providing ‘seed’ money for the initiation of new projects.” We began meeting regularly in November, sharing readings in writing transfer, methodology, and working on the grant application as a way to begin designing a study. As Neil and I talked, we realized our long term research interests shared a key commonality:

  • I was refocusing on ease, the array of specific practices which favor simplicity and transparency over complexity and difficulty, and discovering strong correspondences between qualities discouraged by ease yet conducive to transfer.
  • Neil had long studied the negotiation of writerly identity which occurs when writers learn the particular worldviews, genres, and tools associated with the communities in which they seek membership. Imagined as conflict, this negotiation could hinder transfer.

That is, we realized both ease and negotiation might operate as barriers to transfer, and we could shape our study around this concept and the institutional needs we agreed were most pressing. Thinking big, and with some previous studies we liked in mind, we begin imagining a multi-year project which sought to collect data from multiple sources, answering the oft-discussed difficulties of studying transfer: surveys, interviews with faculty and students, and case studies which included analysis of student writing. Piloting the research would begin in 2011-12, most of the work would take place in 2012-15. We named the project “Transfer @ Transfer,” since our target is writing transfer in the upper division, and it’s a given at Western that includes many transfer students. By December 15, we had our application to the Dartmouth Seminar ready to go, and we were thrilled to see our acceptance in early January. At the time, these were our research questions:

  1. What successes and failures do students have as they move from writing in general education courses to writing in their majors?
  2. What strategies do students use to transfer writing skills and knowledge from writing in general education to writing in the major? Baird: how do students negotiate rhetorical and ideological conflicts between two or more activity systems? Dilger: does ease (making easy as a strategy for mitigating complexity and difficulty) play a role?
  3. What differences in transfer of writing skills and knowledge, if any, exist between students who satisfy writing requirements at two-year and for-profit colleges, and those who do so at WIU?

In January, Neil and I began writing the URC grant. We began to articulate our research design more explicitly: we sought to collect data which would allow us to understand the activity systems involved in transfer. For this reason, we imagined a three-stage research design: surveys designed to generate preliminary data and help us recruit students and faculty for more in-depth interviews and case studies. We planned to interview faculty and students at WIU and area community colleges which send large numbers of transfer students to WIU, followed by case studies of students at WIU and perhaps community colleges as well. Given the many different student and faculty demographics in which we were interested, we thought a fairly large number of participants would be required to be able to effectively answer questions raised by our institutional exigences. Faculty interviews would allow us to understand how transfer was (or was not) discussed in the classroom, and would help us understand better understand students’ experiences. We assumed, based on the literature, that talking with faculty would be needed to help us understand what students could or could not transfer–to get access to students’ thought processes, and to help us learn more about things students might not even be conscious of. With methods on our minds, Neil and I proposed a roundtable on transfer research methodology for the Midwest Writing Centers Association conference, October in Madison.

In March, the online component of the Dartmouth seminar began–email, telephone consultations, and group video chats with Dartmouth facilitators and other participants. These conversations helped Neil and I begin to see the limits, or rather the over-extensions, of our research design: the amount of work we imagined was just too large. (After one email exchange with Charles Bazerman, I checked a spreadsheet I had built to project our workload, and discovered an error which underestimated some required time by a factor of 5. Doh!) So we began to scale back the size of our study while keeping our diverse data collection methods. That is, we still felt that our research required a rich set of data to work with in order for us to understand the activity systems in which our writers moved, and to gain access to the discursive processes involved in transfer. We believed workload could be addressed by reducing the number of participants in each leg of the study, and finding ways to be more efficient (including more than one student from the instructors in the study). By the time we submitted the URC grant in April, we had made changes which reflected this thinking, and we submitted a research design to our IRB as well.

Three items of good news came in May when we found out our proposal for MWCA was accepted, we were awarded the URC grant, and our IRB protocol was approved. At this time, we were still planning to use surveys for the first stage of the study, with the hopes of targeting summer courses, but it soon became clear that wouldn’t work, since there were so few writing in the disciplines courses being taught. We also had trouble scheduling interviews: there just weren’t that many people around WIU or our local community colleges. My travel schedule didn’t make things any easier. We did get to interview four WIU faculty, and those interviews gave us a lot to think about. But we didn’t get as much work done as we planned.

When I traveled to Hanover for the Dartmouth seminar, I had the opportunity to sit down with Chris Anson and Neal Lerner, describe our intentions in detail, and get feedback about our plans. Independently, both Anson and Lerner suggested further changes would be wise. They agreed that Neil and I needed to find ways to get at information which would not necessarily be articulated by students. But they suggested that we didn’t need to work both sides of the problem–community college and writing in the major–to fully understand it. And, again independently, they suggested a different approach: rather than multiple kinds of data collection, turning to stimulated recall or techniques like those used by Flower and Hayes. Over the next few days of the seminar, I realized we might drop everything but the case studies, reconceptualizing those around interviews, and reintroducing other types of data collection if needed. Rather than spending a lot of effort to develop and execute surveys, interviews, and other instruments, then building an analytical framework to bring their data together, we should focus on interviews with a small number of students, and broaden data gathering only if it became necessary. I wrote up my ideas and shared them with Neil, and we quickly came to consensus about a new design.

That brings us to the current time. Neil and I recruited participants by visiting writing in the disciplines classes in August and September, building a pool which satisfied us in terms of demographic and curricular diversity. We made contact with ten students and interviewed them all once, with very interesting preliminary results. We’ve continued refining our design and our goals, and submitted a proposal for the CCCC Research Initiative.¬†Over the next year, we’ll interview our participants four or five more times, collect their writing, discuss it in depth, talk to their instructors, and learn how writing transfer happens for them. As we move forward, I hope to keep up with our study here. Reconstructing what we did from email, meeting notes, and other archives is possible, but it would be far better to have a more formal record.

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