This week the Center for Engaged Learning launches Critical Transitions Online, a free online seminar focusing on the common curricular assumption that students will take writing knowledge and strategies gained in one context (for instance, a first-year writing course) and apply them (or “transfer” them) to other contexts (for instance, a course in a major, or a future workplace). This three-week online event leads into the Critical Transitions Conference at Elon University, June 24-26, which is the culmination of a two-year, multi-institutional Elon Research Seminar (ERS) on writing transfer.

At the mid-point of the research seminar, in June 2012, ERS participants developed the graphic below to illustrate the recurring process inherent in writing transfer research. Briefly, the descriptive model assumes circularity among the three layers: conceptions, definitions, and theories inform practices and evidence, and practices and evidence inform each other and shape the working principles. In addition, ERS participants noted that the descriptive model can apply to four distinct views of learning and transfer experiences: the student perspective; the faculty or classroom view; the program or institutional view; and the domain, workplace, discipline, or community of practice view.

Descriptive Model of Writing Transfer Research

Given the complexity of these multiple views, writing transfer theories must be both robust enough to explain the overlaps among these multiple perspectives and flexible enough to zoom in on a specific context or zoom out to examine the bigger picture of a student’s learning journey. The following broad learning and transfer theories – part of the “Theories of Transfer, Learning, and Writing” layer in the model above – have helped ERS participants work towards this theory-building goal (more on their progress next week):

  • Communities of Practice – Etienne Wenger and others remind us that when communities form around shared goals and interests, those communities include both novices and experts. Part of the dialogic process of moving from novice to expert involves learning how to learn within communities. As we think about learning transfer, then, we should look for the enabling practices that help students develop those learning-how-to-learn strategies that apply across contexts or communities.
  • Cultural-Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) – As the Center for Research on Activity, Development, and Learning explains, cultural-historical activity theory builds from the concept that “A human individual never reacts directly (or merely with inborn reflects) to environment. The relationship between human agent and objects of environment is mediated by cultural means, tools and signs.” Students routinely move among activity systems (including curricular, co-curricular, and extra-curricular contexts), and language functions as one of their mediating tools, but they must learn how to adapt their use of the tool to each activity system.
  • Threshold Concepts: Jan (Erik) Meyer and Ray Land, building on David Perkins’ notion of troublesome knowledge, challenge educators to identify “transformed way[s] of understanding” that function as a “portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something.” Once educators identify threshold concepts that are central to meaning making in their fields, they can prioritize teaching these concepts, in turn increasing the likelihood that students will carry an understanding of these core concepts into future coursework and contexts. (Glynis Cousin offers another helpful introduction to Threshold Concepts.)

As writing transfer scholars (including ERS participants) explain in the video below, this small sampling barely scratches the surface of the theoretical frameworks informing transfer studies – and the next challenge for these scholars is developing a common vocabulary to help us move among these interlaid theories.

Join week one of CEL’s Critical Transitions Online to learn how ERS participants have adapted these three theories and other borrowed legends for understanding transfer (broadly) in their own research on writing transfer (specifically).

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, June 3. Theory-Building: Borrowed Legends for Understanding Transfer. [Blog Post]. Retrieved from