Dr. Dana Lynn Driscoll
Writing and Rhetoric
Dana Driscoll's Professional Website
I recently completed my dissertation research, a mixed-methods qualitative and quantitative study that examines the relationship between student attitudes and transfer of knowledge. All of my research is tied to my teaching--in the case of transfer, I have worked hard to develop a pedagogy that addresses some of the issues.
The following is a summary of my dissertation research:
Dissertation Summary: Pedagogy of Transfer: Impacts of Student and Instructor Attitudes
Transfer, or how much knowledge from one context applies in new contexts, is a longstanding issue for writing program administrators (WPAs), researchers, and teachers of writing. It is important to rhetoric and composition because so much of our scholarship, research, and funding, including that of writing centers and graduate students, is based on the first-year composition (FYC) course. Administrators and faculty across the disciplines sustain FYC because they see it as a solution to a host of literacy problems and writing woes—a solution that they assume helps students become better writers in the many situations and careers in which they may find themselves. Therefore, how well the knowledge gained in FYC is able to transfer to other contexts—disciplinary, civic, personal, and professional—should be of paramount concern.
Work from within rhetoric and composition has provided ample evidence that students of all levels have difficulty with the transfer of writing knowledge including from course to course, field to field, and from the university to professional workplace contexts. Furthermore, research from the fields of education and psychology suggests that attitudes students bring with them or develop in classrooms can impact successful learning transfer. This dissertation ties together theories of student attitude and motivation with transfer to investigate their connection. Using this connection, I develop a model and methodology for studying these concepts and describe ways in which we might better teach with transfer in mind. The framework for this study was inspired by Bergmann and Zepernick (2007) and Beaufort (2007). Bergmann and Zepernick ran a series of focus groups at a small Midwestern technological university that suggested students may not perceive the skills they gain in FYC as transferable to their work in other disciplines and that FYC did not teach them writing skills they could use in courses other than “English.” Beaufort’s (2007) findings in her longitudinal study of one student writer in college and beyond indicate that students need to be taught writing with transfer in mind. Research in this dissertation builds directly on these scholars’ work by testing and extending their findings through a mixed methods inquiry.
Chapter one argues that student attitude and transfer are intertwined and that the field of rhetoric and composition needs a better understanding of this connection. Although students often have been taught writing processes and skills that would assist them, research from within the field demonstrates that students are unable to draw upon that knowledge. Instead, students see each situation as entirely new and foreign, failing to recognize the similarities between prior and current writing contexts. The mechanism that causes the difficulty in transfer is not yet very understood. However, several theories from outside of the field, including work in educational psychology and cognition, can help us better understand the transfer problem. Salmon and Perkin’s (1989) forward-reaching and backward-reaching transfer theories, where successful transfer is mitigated by how much knowledge students have of previous and future contexts helps demonstrate the connection of transfer to student attitude. Additional literature from outside of the field that indicates that student motivation and attitudes are key factors in the ability to transfer knowledge successfully. I conclude the chapter by examining the gaps addressed by my research and provide an overview of the study research questions which examine the relationship of transfer and attitude.
Chapter two addresses the methodology of the study and provides contextual information about the institutional context and myself as a researcher. This research is mixed-methods (qualitative and quantitative) study which includes beginning and end-of-semester surveys of eight diverse sections of FYC at a, interviews with students after they completed FYC, a rhetorical analysis of textbooks and course materials used in the composition classrooms, an analysis of student writing samples, observations of the classrooms, and interviews with instructors teaching the courses. The study examines several factors in relationship to student attitude and transfer including the impact of teaching approach, the impact of student major, and the impact of writing confidence on transfer. It also examines students’ and instructors’ definitions of writing and attitudes towards writing to help better understand the connection to transfer.
Chapters three and four describe results and discuss findings from the various study data. This research suggests that students in this study have difficulty seeing how writing knowledge they learn in FYC transfers to other college coursework, their majors, and beyond. The teaching approach of the instructor seems to have less of an impact on student attitudes and transfer than the major of the student. Furthermore, students starting out with initially high expectations concerning transfer experience more significant declines in their expectations as time passes in their FYC course and degree progress. The cause of these declines can be partially explained through the students’ limited definitions of writing. Findings suggest that students in the study in fields outside of English limit their definitions of “writing” to the types of writing commonly found in English classes (such as formal research reports, reflections, and essays). These students have difficulty transferring writing knowledge to the many types of disciplinary writing partially because students don’t see their disciplinary writing, such as lab reports or memos, as writing at all.
I argue that fostering positive student attitudes and expanding students’ definitions of writing are both teachable and can contribute to more successful transfer. Chapter five describes my model for transfer that provides implications for teaching and program-level curriculum design. In this chapter, I discuss Transfer Pedagogy, pedagogical techniques and strategies that instructors and WPAs can use to facilitate transfer. These include building bridges to future possible writing contexts, bringing underlying attitudes and motivations to the forefront of the classroom, and expanding students’ definitions of writing. In addition to specific pedagogical suggestions, the model of transfer presented can be used in teacher training and research contexts to better understand the complexity of writing transfer.
My discussion of Transfer Pedagogy presents the field with new pedagogical principles that can help instructors teaching in FYC and across the disciplines better facilitate positive student attitudes and the transfer of writing knowledge. These techniques, while developed for the FYC classroom, can also be used in writing in the disciplines (WID), writing center, and writing across the curriculum (WAC) contexts. Second, the dissertation provides a rich methodology for studying transfer that can be expanded and tested in other contexts. It also provides an extensive set of possibilities for future scholarly inquiry into related issues, some of which I plan on investigating upon the conclusion of this dissertation. Finally, it brings in research on learning, transfer, and student motivation/attitudes from multiple other fields from which scholars and teachers in rhetoric and composition can benefit.
Pedagogy of Transfer
Why do students have difficulty transferring writing knowledge to other contexts? My dissertation research shows that part of the reason is that students do not understand their future writing contexts and that they have limited definitions of writing. The Pedagogy of Transfer I have been developing directly addresses both of these issues by asking students to directly investiate their future writing contexts and how writing is done in their fields. It also works to expand students definitions of what it means to write in various rhetorical situations.