PAB #3.1 “Understanding ‘Transfer’ from FYC “

Wardle, Elizabeth. “Understanding ‘Transfer’ from FYC: Preliminary Results of a Longitudinal Study.” Writing Program Administration 31.1-2 (Fall/Winter 2007): 65-85. Web. 7 Oct. 2015.


Elizabeth Wardle is currently professor and chair of the writing and rhetoric program at University of Central Florida (UCF). During the time of the study presented here, she was assistant professor and director of writing programs at University of Dayton. Source: UCF

Summoning the work of Smit, Wardle posits that we know very little about “the transfer for writing-related skills from first-year composition to other contexts” (65).  While some research has weighed in with theoretical concepts, only three case studies, she says, discuss FYC writing-related transfer.   Despite the near ubiquity of FYC in higher education, we do not have any evidence that FYC facilitates transfer.

With all that in mind, Wardle first addresses, in a theoretical way, options for studying transfer.  She offers three definitions of transfer, including task, individual, and context conceptions regarding this point of study.  She further breaks down context conceptions into situated, which examines “patterns of participatory processes across situations” (67); sociocultural, which focuses on actions between people involved in constructing tasks; and activity-based, which not only examines interactions between learners and context but also expands transfer to “systematic activity of collective organizations” (68).  Wardle continues her discussion of theories related to transfer saying that “activity and sociocultural theorists avoid the term ‘transfer’ because of its association with task-and-individual-based conceptions”; instead, some, like Beach, use the term “generalization” (68).

For her pilot study, Wardle chooses to utilize the activity-based approach and associated language, choosing generalization as the term of choice instead of transfer.  She feels this approach best takes into account “the crucial relationships between persons and situations over time” (70).  That said, Wardle explains her longitudinal pilot study that commenced in fall 2004 with seven traditionally aged, first-year students—four females and three males representing four separate majors in the sciences and social sciences–from her honors FYC course at University of Dayton, a private Catholic, liberal arts school of about 10,000 students. This study sought to answer the following four questions:

  1. What do students feel they learned and did in FYC?
  2. What kinds of writing are students doing elsewhere?
  3. How do students perceive that writing and what strategies do they use to complete it?
  4. Do students perceive FYC as helping them with later writing assignments across the university? (70)

The way Wardle establishes the study is that she meets with the students either individually or as a group and reviewed their writing for their courses, coding “transcripts for themes stemming from [her] research questions, categorized the writing according to genre and purpose, and compared student comments about the writing to the writing itself” (71).  While Wardle details her findings, we can shorten them by saying that she found that students rarely generalized from FYC.  Moreover, her study bears out that for the first two years of college, “students rarely reported the need for writing-related knowledge and behaviors learned and used in FYC” (73).  They felt much of their writing was summary, and therefore, they did not perceive that they needed “to adopt or adapt most of the writing behaviors they used in FYC to other courses” (76).  The students in the study said they would only use the skills, such as process writing, from FYC when they were “engaged” by a writing assignment.  By that term, Wardle concludes that students refer to “difficult” or “challenging” writing assignments.  Speaking of which, in these “engaging” assignments, Wardle concludes that even if a new writing task mirrored earlier ones, students still needed “contexts-specific” support (79).  Mentioned supports include reading and writing in the discipline, talking with peers, and gaining feedback from teachers. Now, while generalization (or transfer) of FYC skills shows up rarely in her research, one area Wardle concludes that generalization does occur from one writing task to the next is in the ability for students to maintain a meta-awareness about writing (76).

So, what are the implications of the study?  Wardle conveys that if meta-awareness of writing is the most transferable skill, then students in FYC should be encouraged to “write rhetorical analyses of various types of texts across the university, as well as to complete auto-ethnographies of their own reading and writing habits . . . “ (82).  She also argues that this study demonstrates the importance of discussions with faculty members outside the disciplines of composition. She suggests collaborative research projects to “better understand what goals they do and do not share for assignments and outcomes and to closely examine how students interpret assignments from various courses” (83).


While I have to admit puzzlement by her study’s population, which, even by Wardle’s own admission, is largely limited, I still think her findings offer grist for valid discussion about writing transfer.  Her advocacy for a pedagogy focused on rhetorical analyses, which looks to gain awareness of and harness the discursive exigencies of the moment, perhaps piggybacks on Tinberg’s recommendations for less focus on formalistic concerns and more disciplinary discussions in non-first-year-composition courses about threshold concepts.  Those elements may not look immediately like they work together, but encouragement and application of rhetorical adaptability, as advocated by Wardle, should lead–students at least–to less concern about conventions and more involvement in contexts.  What’s more, a focus on rhetorical analyses in composition and other courses could open the doorway for greater talk about threshold concepts, if, as Tinberg seems to say, faculty tend to not engage with these difficult disciplinary questions because they are worried about building general student confidence. Here, I think, instead, about how rhetorical analysis gives language and substance that allows for sociology students, for instance, to act like sociologists (ethos), talk like sociologists (logos), and wrestle with sociological texts and concepts as they arise (kairos). Rhetorical analysis, to use the language of Meyer and Land, can certainly move students from a liminal state to a transformative understanding of the discipline. Is this not one of the highest forms of transfer obtainable?

Also, to comment on Wardle’s other recommendations based on her findings — the auto-ethnograpy about writing — I assume here that she is championing her other seminal work with Douglas Downs, Writing about Writingas a way for students to find the language to discuss their discourse. The Writing about Writing (WAW) movement dovetails nicely with understanding of threshold concepts, at least within first year composition, and it opens up student-writers to discussing their own strengths and weaknesses. Without a doubt, the task of student’s identifying language around writing has proven difficult. I can’t think of a more common clause from students when they come to me or the writing center than, “I need help with my grammar.” Grammar, of course, to them means almost everything.  In fact, in the writing center, we have sheets that ask students why they are visiting, in order to help them reflect a bit on their writing before just leaping into a review session, and I made sure when we put these sheets together that we did not include the word “grammar” because my experience informs me that they would choose it almost every time.  All that said, that’s why being able to talk about writing, especially as it relates to transfer, is so critical, and that’s the reason why Wardle’s study, although not demonstrating much occurrence in the area of transfer, still offers a powerful message in its recommendations for pedagogical strategies that are often so obvious that they are probably overlooked.

Connections to OoS

I connect PAB 3.1 & PAB 3.2 to my object of study here.

3 thoughts on “PAB #3.1 “Understanding ‘Transfer’ from FYC “

  1. Pingback: PAB #3.2 Reconsidering Transferas | Matthew Bodie

  2. Pingback: PAB #4.2: “Transfer, Transitions, and Transformation?” | Matthew Bodie

  3. Pingback: Paper #4: Theories and Methods | Matthew Bodie

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