Academic journal article WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship

Transfer Two Ways: Options and Obstacles in Staff Education for Transfer

Academic journal article WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship

Transfer Two Ways: Options and Obstacles in Staff Education for Transfer

Article excerpt

Scholars in composition (e.g., Beaufort; Nowacek) and writing center studies (e.g., Devet; Hill) posit that writing centers are on the front lines of transfer with unique opportunities to help students adapt writing knowledge and skills from prior to current and current to future writing tasks. (1) Since transfer is more readily achieved when learners are prompted to transport knowledge across contexts (Ambrose et al. 111), tutors are well positioned to facilitate transfer by helping writers access prior and current writing knowledge and identify new uses for it.

To consider how tutors might effectively be prepared to fulfill this important role, my colleague Christopher Petty and I sought to explore what pedagogical methods tutors find most helpful in understanding and applying the concept of transfer. (2) At our writing center, new and returning tutors attend a two-day initial training followed by four professional development meetings each semester. Accordingly, we investigated what strategies might be effective at facilitating tutors' understanding of transfer without the benefit of a semester-long training course. Since our initial training does not cover transfer, I introduced transfer theory in two subsequent professional development meetings after which tutors responded to a survey about the meeting activities and potential changes to their tutoring. Results show that tutors perceived changes in their tutoring and valued a variety of active learning approaches. At the same time, introducing transfer theory after initial training posed challenges ironically related to the complex process of transfer for the tutors themselves.


In spring 2017, I devoted two ninety-minute professional development meetings to tutoring for transfer. Building on Heather Hill's recent work on transfer-focused tutor training, I similarly grounded our staff education in the concept of "transfer talk" developed by Rebecca Nowacek (qtd. in Hill 79, 85). For Nowacek, transfer talk occurs when tutors discuss the relationship between writers' prior knowledge and a current task, or between their current learning and future writing, thus helping writers adapt learning about writing to new contexts (Hill 85).

While Hill used lecture and discussion for staff training (80), I aimed both to concretize the abstract concept of transfer talk by breaking it into component parts and to provide activities through which tutors could actively engage in learning and applying the concept. As described below, I used five activities across the two transfer meetings: presentation of transfer theory via a PowerPoint and handout, small group analysis of a hypothetical dialogue using transfer talk, small group dialogue writing, watching of role plays using transfer talk, and an improv activity.

PowerPoint and Handout: In a handout (first meeting) and a PowerPoint (second meeting), I introduced Bonnie Devet's definition of transfer as "The ability to take something learned in one context and apply it in another" (119) and clarified key terms. I noted that positive transfer occurs when "learning from one situation assist[s with learning] in another situation" while negative transfer occurs when "learning from one situation interferes with learning from another situation" (Melzer 80, 79). Tutors shared examples of positive and negative transfer from their own learning and tutoring experiences. We discussed, for instance, how generating ideas for a history paper using brainstorming strategies learned in first-year composition is an instance of positive transfer: such strategies facilitate learning in the new context. On the other hand, avoiding personal pronouns in an application essay because "I" was forbidden in research papers is an instance of negative transfer: prior knowledge impedes success in the new context.

I also divided transfer talk into three parts labeled Prior, Future, and Transparent (PFT):

* Ask about similarities and differences between PRIOR writing tasks and the current one. …

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