Scaffolding Students’ Use of Prior Writing Knowledge in Writing Intensive Courses
by Jessie L. Moore
As described in last week’s post, the Elon Statement on Writing Transfer 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.
Although these practices could be relegated to first-year writing courses, writing transfer research suggests that students need to encounter these practices across the curriculum in order to transfer prior writing knowledge to disciplinary contexts. What might these practices look like in writing intensive courses?
Faculty across the disciplines can help students identify the parameters of and expectations for writing in their classes by explicitly discussing discipline-based writing conventions. Expert writers are familiar with their audiences’ expectations, but novice writers are still learning about their audiences and the purposes for writing in the discipline (e.g., to convey information to other members of a lab, to make recommendations to a client, to track patient’s symptoms, to share a new theory with other members of the field, etc.). Novice writers also still are learning what constitutes “good writing” (e.g., acceptable types of evidence, citation practices, active or passive voice, etc.) for each of these disciplinary audiences and purposes.
Fortunately, students’ first-year writing courses often equip them with vocabulary to ask questions about the audience, purpose, and genre expectations for new writing contexts – if they are invited to pursue this inquiry about their new writing tasks. Faculty in writing intensive courses can create opportunities for students to tap prior writing knowledge by explicitly talking about audience, purpose, and genre expectations when introducing new assignments. Ideally, assignment guidelines should include this information about the rhetorical situation for each new writing task.
Faculty across the disciplines also can scaffold students’ use of prior writing knowledge by integrating opportunities for metacognitive reflection. Faculty could start a class with an ungraded 5-minute write, for instance, asking students to freewrite about the writing situation the assignment presents (e.g., How are they interpreting the audience for and purpose of the assignment, and how will they adjust their writing to this context?). This low stakes writing activity both helps faculty assess students’ understanding of the assignment and prompts student questions about audience expectations.
Devoting a few minutes to a class discussion about students’ previous writing strategies that they might be able to repurpose for this assignment reminds students that they do have relevant prior knowledge. Similarly, taking a few minutes of class time between writing assignments to ask students to reflect on how the feedback they received can inform their future writing in the class and the discipline can foster near transfer by calling attention to expectations that carry across the writing tasks. As Andrew Joseph Pegoda notes, these post-grading discussions also can be timesavers; faculty can share strategies for writing in the discipline once rather than writing them on paper after paper. (Rubrics also help!)
Visit the WAC Clearinghouse for additional resources for teaching writing across the disciplines, and check the Center for Engaged Learning’s site often to learn how the latest research about writing transfer can inform writing intensive courses.
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.