Last month, we featured a few highlights from the Center for Engaged Learning’s research seminar on Critical Transitions: Writing and the Question of Transfer. Multi-institutional research by seminar participants suggests that:

  • In first-year writing courses, content matters;
  • Students need reiterative opportunities for reflection throughout their education;
  • When considering students’ abilities to transfer or adapt writing strategies, personal identities matter; and
  • Across the university, expectations for student writing often are misaligned.

The first three findings offer hope that it is possible to teach in support of transfer and reaffirm an underlying assumption in university curricula that students can transfer what they learn in one course to future university, workplace, and community contexts. The fourth finding reminds faculty and administrators not to take that underlying assumption for granted; as last month’s preview hinted, writing transfer is not guaranteed for every student at every critical transition point.

Building on these findings, the two-year, multi-institutional research projects also demonstrate that:

  1. Writing transfer is a complex phenomena, and understanding that complexity is central to facilitating students’ successful consequential transitions, whether among university writing tasks or between academic and workplace or civic contexts. Writing transfer is the phenomenon in which new and unfamiliar writing tasks are approached through the application, remixing or integration of previous knowledge, skills, strategies, and dispositions. Any social context provides opportunities and constraints that impact writers’ use of this prior knowledge, and writing transfer successes and challenges cannot be understood outside of learners’ social-cultural spaces. Furthermore, prior knowledge is a complex construct that can benefit or hinder writing transfer. Yet understanding and exploring that complexity is central to investigating transfer, which is why Randy Bass (in the video below) encourages researchers not to be paralyzed by that complexity (httpvh://
  2. Successful writing transfer requires transforming or repurposing prior knowledge for a new context (even if only slightly) in order to adequately meet the expectations of new audiences and fulfill new purposes for writing. Successful writing transfer occurs when a writer can transform rhetorical knowledge and rhetorical awareness into performance. Students facing a new and difficult rhetorical task draw on previous knowledge and strategies,  and when they do, they must transform or repurpose that prior knowledge. Students also must have relevant prior knowledge, which reiterates why first-year writing content matters. Students’ meta-awareness often plays a key role in transfer, and reflective writing promotes preparation for transfer and transfer-focused thinking.
  3. University programs (e.g., first-year writing programs, writing across the curriculum programs, majors, etc.) can “teach for transfer.” Enabling practices that promote writing transfer include focusing on rhetorically-based concepts, asking students to engage in metacognitive awareness, and explicitly modeling transfer-focused thinking. With explicit rhetorical education, students are more likely to transform rhetorical awareness into performance. Giving students the tools to think about how writing functions in communities can potentially aid them in drawing effectively on prior knowledge when they encounter writing in new settings, whether writing for a major, writing in a workplace, or writing for extracurricular activities. Modeling application, remixing or integration of previous knowledge can demonstrate when and how “experts” draw on their prior knowledge to successfully navigate tasks in new settings. The transfer of rhetorical knowledge and strategies between self-sponsored and academic writing also can be encouraged by designing academic writing opportunities with authentic audiences and purposes and by prompting students to engage in metacognitive reflection.
  4. Recognizing and assessing writing transfer requires using a mix of qualitative and quantitative methods looking at both critical transition points and longitudinal patterns of learning. Writing transfer studies use a variety of research methods to identify and measure transfer, including: surveys, focus groups, interviews, classroom observations, composing-aloud and think-aloud protocols, group discussion logs, and analyses of students’ course work and faculty comments. Using mixed methods across multiple contexts facilitates a “scalable” understanding of writing transfer – enabling teacher-scholars both to “focus in” on detail on specific communities of practice and activity systems and to “zoom out” to examine working principles of writing transfer that apply across multiple contexts (across colleges and universities, across disciplines, across workplaces, across community settings). Both short-term and longitudinal studies are necessary for a rich assessment of students’ writing transfer, particularly as scholars examine learners’ development as writers, not merely their transitions from one context to another. As Carmen Werder, Megan Otis, and others have argued about Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, adding student voices as participants, or even as co-inquirers, in writing transfer studies facilitates these more holistic examinations of learners’ development, boundary-crossing, remixing, and integration. This mixed-method, multi-perspective approach to recognizing writing transfer for research purposes also leads to dynamic, multi-faceted data collection for programmatic assessment.

Collectively, the Critical Transitions research seminar studies demonstrate that colleges and universities can teach (and assess) for transfer if higher education stakeholders remain attentive to the key concepts presented above. To learn more about these research seminar findings, visit the seminar showcase and review the materials shared by Critical Transitions: Writing and the Question of Transfer conference presenters.

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.

How to Cite this Post:

Moore, Jessie L. 2013, July 15. Critical Transitions: Writing and the Question of Transfer – Research Highlights (Part 2). [Blog Post]. Retrieved from