Writing-Intensive Courses and Insights from Writing Transfer Research

written by admin on March 21, 2014 in Writing with no comments

by Jessie L. Moore

George Kuh (2008) identifies Writing-Intensive Courses as a high-impact educational practice – a practice that facilitates both student retention and engagement. The Association of American Colleges and Universities describes Writing-Intensive Courses as “emphasiz[ing] writing at all levels of instruction and across the curriculum, including final-year projects. Students are encouraged to produce and revise various forms of writing for different audiences in different disciplines.”

Yet what do higher education stakeholders know about supporting student writing across the curriculum? How can universities best prepare students to write “for different audiences in different disciplines”? How can general education courses equip students with knowledge and strategies for writing in their majors and beyond? Writing transfer research tackles these questions.

“Writing transfer” describes the phenomenon of using prior writing knowledge in new ways that entail change, transformation, repurposing, and expansive learning. For many scholars “transfer” both accurately describes the phenomenon of using prior knowledge in a routinized way and functions as an umbrella term, connecting writing transfer research to other multi-disciplinary inquiries about transfer of learning.

Of course, there are limitations with the term. For many, “transfer” doesn’t adequately convey the complexity of transforming and repurposing prior knowledge for new situations. As a result, writing transfer scholars have embraced a number of terms that highlight varied theoretical and research-informed connections, including generalization, consequential transitions, boundary crossing, and integration, among others. Using “writing transfer” as an overarching term is not intended to strip the concept of this complexity; rather the overarching term keeps writing transfer conversations connected to discussions about learning in other disciplines.

Writing transfer research offers several insights that should inform curricular decisions about writing-intensive courses:

Students do not expect their writing knowledge to cross contexts. The participants in studies by McCarthy (1987), Bergmann and Zepernick (2007), and Driscoll (2011) all identified writing for first-year composition (FYC) as distinct from writing in the disciplines. On the surface, that’s not a bad conception of writing, since we want students to understand that writing should be responsive to “different audiences in different disciplines” (to return to the AAC&U description of Writing-Intensive Courses). Unfortunately, the students in these studies did not identify the writing strategies learned and practiced in first year composition as relevant and applicable to writing in the disciplines. As Bergmann and Zepernick write, “the primary obstacle to such transfer is not that students are unable to recognize situations outside FYC in which those skills can be used, but that students do not look for situations because they believe that skills learned in FYC have no value in any other setting” (2007, p. 139).

Faculty don’t expect students’ FYC writing strategies to transfer either. Writing Intensive faculty in Nelms and Dively’s (2007) study expressed concern about lack of transfer and asserted that they did not have time to incorporate writing assignments and instruction into their courses. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, then, that participants in Wardle’s “Understanding Transfer” (2007) study encountered few opportunities to use their writing knowledge in their first two years of college beyond first-year composition. When students do encounter opportunities to write in the disciplines, both Nelms and Dively’s study (2007) and Nowacek’s (2011) suggest that differences in writing terminology between first-year composition and the disciplines can compromise students’ writing transfer attempts.

Genre knowledge is important but not sufficient on its own to facilitate writing transfer. Reiff and Bawarshi (2011) introduced the idea of “not-talk.” They suggest that one part of repurposing prior writing knowledge is recognizing when a new task calls on writers to compose a genre that’s unlike a genre composed before. In other words, successful transfer requires writers to recognize when the new task is not a five-paragraph essay, not a literary analysis, not a lab report, or not memo… Beaufort (2007) cautions, though, that genre knowledge should be accompanied by knowledge about: writing processes, disciplinary subject matter, adapting writing for specific audiences and purposes, and disciplinary conventions for writing.

Reflection and meta-awareness activities offer bridging structures for students’ writing transfer. Perkins and Salomon (1988) use the term “bridging” to identify teaching activities that support high road transfer – transfer that requires “mindful abstraction” of knowledge from one context to another. Nelms and Dively (2007) speculate that reflective activities built into transfer studies might facilitate transfer that otherwise would not have happened. Yet more and more, writing transfer scholars are seeking ways to integrate reflective activities into all writing across the curriculum. Wardle (2007; 2009) advocates investigating how writing curricula can promote opportunities for meta-awareness (e.g., reflection about writing strategies, reflection about how to learn about and adapt for different audiences’ expectations, etc.), and Nowacek (2011) talks about students as “agents of integration” to emphasize the role of intentional, meta-awareness in facilitating high road transfer.

Collectively, these and other prior studies have informed theoretical conceptualizations of writing transfer, including those explored by researchers in the Elon Research Seminar on Critical Transitions: Writing and the Question of Transfer. Sponsored by Elon University, the 2011-2013 Elon Research Seminar supported 30 institutional and 10 multi-institutional research projects conducted by 46 scholars from across the United States and from Australia, Denmark, Ireland, and South Africa. The seminar culminated in a working draft of the Elon Statement on Writing Transfer which highlights teaching practices that promote writing transfer. These include:

  • Constructing writing curricula and classes that focus on the study of and practice with concepts that enable students to analyze expectations for writing within specific contexts. These include rhetorically-based concepts (such as genre, purpose, and audience);
  • Asking students to engage in activities that foster the development of metacognitive awareness, including asking good questions about writing situations and developing heuristics for analyzing unfamiliar writing situations; and
  • Explicitly modeling transfer-focused thinking and the application of metacognitive awareness as a conscious and explicit part of a process of learning.

Next week’s post will examine these practices in relation to Writing Intensive Courses, and the Center for Engaged Learning will continue to showcase writing transfer research from seminar participants. Check back often for updates.



Beaufort, Anne. (2007). College writing and beyond: A new framework for university writing instruction. Logan, UT: Utah State UP.

Bergmann, Linda S, & Zepernick, Janet. (2007). Disciplinarity and transfer: Students’ perceptions of learning to write. Writing Program Administration, 31(1-2), 124-49.

Driscoll, Dana Lynn. (2011). Connected, disconnected, or uncertain: Student attitudes about future writing contexts and perceptions of transfer from first year writing to the disciplines. Across the Disciplines, 8(2).

Kuh, George. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Nelms, Gerald, & Dively, Ronda Leathers. (2007). Perceived roadblocks to transferring knowledge from first-year composition to writing-intensive major courses: A pilot study. Writing Program Administration, 31(1-2), 214-40.

Nowacek, Rebecca S. (2011). Agents of integration: Understanding transfer as a rhetorical act. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP.

Perkins, David N., & Salomon, Gavriel. (1988). Teaching for transfer. Educational Leadership, 46(1), 22-32.

Reiff, Mary Jo, & Bawarshi, Anis. (2011). Tracing discursive resources: How students use prior genre knowledge to negotiate new writing contexts in first-year composition. Written Communication 28, 312-337.

Wardle, Elizabeth. (2009). ‘Mutt genres’ and the goal of FYC: Can we help students write the genres of the university? College Composition and Communication, 60(4), 765-89.

Wardle, Elizabeth. (2007). Understanding ‘transfer’ from FYC: Preliminary results from a longitudinal study. Writing Program Administration, 31(1/2), 65-85.


Jessie L. Moore (@jessielmoore) is the Associate Director of the Center for Engaged Learning at Elon University and associate professor of Professional Writing & Rhetoric in the Department of English.