Professor and author Howard Tinberg studies student and faculty perceptions of writing transfer. See more about his scholarship at his Academia.edu page.
Tinberg, Howard. “Reconsidering Transfer Knowledge at the Community College: Challenges and Opportunities.” Teaching English in the Two Year College 43.1 (2015): 7-31. Web. 5 Oct. 2015.
While disagreement exists about transfer, including the argument that all knowledge is rhetorical and dependent on context (9), Tinberg says some argue that first-year composition should offer “a localized knowledge set that transfer to, and can be re-purposed for, different contexts . . .” (8). As such, the central question is, then, “What exactly is it that students take from their required writing course that could enable success in those other domains” (8)? Tinberg says this is a timely question what with the focus on persistence and completion in community colleges. With that in mind, Tinberg leaps into discussion about research on transfer. He explains the difference between near transfer (applying tasks in similar contexts) and far transfer (applying tasks in distinctly different contexts), and he provides background knowledge on transfer research, including work by Downs and Wardle; Donahue; Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak; and Adler-Kassner, all of whom promote the “metacognitive awareness that will enable students to re-purpose their knowledge in writing situation” (9). Tinberg also discusses recent studies of transfer that look more closely as what goes on from first-year composition to other general education courses taken in the first two years of college. While prior studies looking at writing transfer essentially among community college curriculum have demonstrated weakness in this area, they, too, point to “metacognition as a foundational step to transfer, and that faculty who assign writing in general education courses need to be cognizant themselves of what they and their colleagues value in student writing” (9).
A number of studies on transfer indicate the importance of metacognition related to writing. Photo Credit: Jack Lyons
With that background information in mind, Tinberg sets out to produce “a naturalistic study of transfer” at the institution where he teaches: Bristol Community College (10). Borrowing from Wardle, he poses the same four questions as she does in her 2007 study (see PAB #3.1). For his study, Tinberg ends up with 110 respondents for an online survey, out of an initial 3800+ contacted. These students are roughly in their sophomore year, having taken first-year composition and some general education requirements but not so many that they are almost graduating. He also has five students, recommended by faculty, that like Wardle’s study, represent different disciplines across the curriculum through their majors but generally are homogeneous in gender (four are women). Of course, because self-perception can sometimes not provide the clearest picture, Tinberg also sees fit, as part of his study, to review at least one sample of post-first-year-composition writing assignments from each of the five interviewees. Additionally, he interviews faculty about the values important to them in student writing and understanding.
First, let’s take a look at the results of his survey of 110 students regarding first-year composition and its impact on future studies and careers (see chart below for a break down of the questions and highest responses). As Tinberg concludes from the survey, students who have progressed in their academic careers beyond composition class certainly have recognized first-year composition’s place as a boon to writing in college in general. Moreover, responses show that faculty still assign writing-intensive projects, which Tinberg says is in contradiction to anecdotal information at Bristol. Then, in a small veering from the importance of first-year composition, responses to question three show that students feel they found new knowledge about writing in other courses, leading Tinberg to wonder what that new knowledge looks like. Tinberg admits some difficulty with question four’s phrasing, and again he calls into question the differences between writing in composition and other courses. Are the differences in style, genre, audience? And speaking of audience, the last question in the survey about workplace writing plays well to the community college audience, Tinberg says, because so many community college students–unlike those on a residential campus–work at least part-time. In addition, the legislative focus on workforce development in community college adds extra value to question five.
While the survey provides some perhaps interesting findings, the question of transfer is not immediately addressed in its Likert-scale results; however, one open-ended question at the end of the survey asking students what they learned in first-year composition that helped them in other courses is definitely telling. The answers run the gamut, and Tinberg provides a chart categorized into 17 responses within the article. The highest response, by far, is citation format at 56%, which is, Tinberg admits, alarming since researching, summarizing, evaluating, and integrating sources is a mere 16% of the results. In addition to citations, the other leading responses (and note: multiple responses were allowed and coded, so the results don’t add up to 100%) side on what Tinberg labels as “formalistic concerns” and include grammar, diction, and mechanics (43%), structure and organization (43%), and formats of writing (35%). Items such as critical reading and thinking, peer review, revision, expressiveness, and audience awareness fall in the single digits (these findings will be important when looking at faculty goals for student writing). These responses lead Tinberg to question “whether students surveyed have the ability to articulate what Meyer and Land . . . . have called ‘troublesome knowledge’ or, more precisely, ‘threshold concepts’ . . . (15).
Turning to faculty interviews, Tinberg sets out to find out two things:
- What skills or knowledge sets do [faculty] assume students will have acquired from their ENG 101 course that might be useful in your course
- What new knowledge sets as expressed in [student] writing do [faculty] wish students to acquire in [their] own course? (17)
After speaking with faculty, Tinberg codes their perceptions of what they value/expect in student writing into four different categories: formalistic, boundary crossing, critical, and expressive. Formalistic, as mentioned, deals with conventions, citations, and structure; boundary crossing means writing in different contexts and genres; expressive relates to writing with feeling and confidence, summarizing and reflecting; and critical involves reading and writing deeply and intensively (19). Tinberg also interviews students and reviews their writing samples, coding them in the same way he does with faculty values or expectations with student writing. Below, I provide a chart that combines two of Tinberg’s into one. The differences between student perceptions and faculty expectations are stark, but they make apparent that faculty are “primarily to be taken by critical reading and writing” (20) while students, as Tinberg suspected would happen, “name surface features in their writing as evidence of achievement and transfer” (22). Still, Tinberg–as well as his audience–should be struck by the second and third areas students show as signs of transfer: boundary crossing and critical reading and writing. Perhaps boundary crossing gives at least a nod to rhetorical agency on the part of students, with their thinking about audience and context (Tinberg says he does teach rhetorical practices in his own courses); and the value on critical reading and writing speaks to realization of the need to be analytical. The expressive category is an interesting one with faculty expectations skewing slightly higher than the students’ recognition of their achievement. Regarding expressive writing, Tinberg says that faculty “spend a good deal of time finding ways to increase confidence” (20), and the value placed on expressive writing may very well indicate that goal as faculty get them to work with feelings around texts and events.
Tinberg concludes his study by offering a detailed assessment of two student writers’ works: Ann and Ash. Tinberg reviews Ann’s annotated bibliography for a sociology class and discusses it with her. He notes the difficulty in which she depicts the genres in which she has written since composition class, and he identifies the absence of rhetorical analysis and source evaluation in her work. Tinberg sums up Ann’s work noting how she “spends more time in exposition than in critique of the argument or evidence, but the signs are clear that she is beginning to establish a critical presence as a writer and reader” (24). That said, Ann does mention that she would like her instructors to challenge her more in her writing.
Tinberg, then, turns to Ash who also, when asked, struggles with genre, just ticking off paper formats, such as a research paper, but Ash does move to a deeper conversation about the requirement to adapt to “form” and “criteria” when writing for different classes. Tinberg thinks he might be on to a discussion about true transfer here, but he examines two of Ash’s writing samples to find evidence. One is a definition essay from composition class, where he defines faith by constructing “an audience that is both reasonable and open to faith” (26). Tinberg calls this “a winning construction.” The second piece of Ash’s work he reviews is, as the student defines it, “a non-research opinion paper about anything we consider to be a social problem” (26). That said, the assignment still required students to cite five sources, although Ash cites mostly from popular press, rather than scholarly articles. The subject of the paper is the moral decline of America. Tinberg determines that while, in form, Ash begins with an abstract, like a scientific paper, he turns to more “glib and unexamined stereotypes” (27) and provides little support or qualifications. Additionally, Tinberg questions if Ash gives any thought to the audience for his piece, despite his earlier comment about adapting. Interestingly, Tinberg says, “In the end, Ash, like Ann, might very well welcome the challenge of complex and specialized reading and writing tasks and the chance to model their own writing on strong, scholarly work” (27).
So what are the implications of the study? The good news, Tinberg says, is that students and faculty see first-year composition as critical to work done in future courses and in the workplace. In addition, it is heartening to know that students are able to articulate “a range of outcomes from ENG 101 that they view as transferable and useful in varied contexts” and that faculty value “thoughtful, critical reading” (27).
Unfortunately, however, Tinberg’s list of barriers to transfer at the community college level is much longer than the recognized achievements of composition. He identifies the lack of coordination among faculty about writing skills that might transfer from composition to future courses; the rise of contingent faculty teaching composition who have no interaction with other faculty or their curricula; the focus on “formalistic concerns” as what mostly transfers from composition to other courses; the dismissal of instruction in threshold concepts that affects “the kind of reading that students are given (mostly textbook reading) and the genres in which they are expected to write (nonspecific to the discipline)” (28); and students’ inability to articulate key concepts from their courses, focusing more heavily on formalistic matters. Tinberg thinks these obstacles to identifying transfer are “especially challenging at community colleges–a point that transfer scholars in composition, whose gaze so often seems to be on universities and liberal arts colleges, overlook” (28).
Honestly, Tinberg’s findings do not surprise me at all. Having taught first-year composition for the past six years and having instructed students in both libraries and writing centers with a variety of writing-intensive assignments across the curriculum for the past seven years at a community college, I have seen first hand the absence of transfer of critical reading and writing skills, much less rhetorical analysis and adaptability, from first-year composition to other coursework. Instead, as Tinberg identifies, formalistic concerns pervade the expectations and execution of assignments on the part of both faculty and students.
The most alarming concern has been how when students move into specialized programs, such as nursing, the largest focus for writing becomes citation. In fact, I have been privy to our health sciences librarians admonishing general education librarians about supposedly providing wrong advice on APA style, which resulted in upsetting both a student and faculty member. The argument I have heard about the focus on citation, especially as it is often associated with a puristic representation of the style manual (meaning un-checked citation generators are a no-no) is that when students become nurses or healthcare providers they will be expected to carry out detailed, meticulous work, and this type of formalistic concentration now forces them to get into that mindset for the future.
Personally, I find this formalistic philosophy difficult to swallow; rather, as our staff of tutors in the writing center have discussed numerous times, I would rather see higher order thought in their writing. Perhaps ironically, our last topic of the college’s quality enhancement program (we’ve passed the interim reporting period) was critical thinking, and the college worked diligently to implement assignments and practices in critical thinking across all curriculum. It is odd how we say one thing but assess another, which to speak to that point is probably why citation is so heavily scrutinized, as it is far more black and white than the subjective complexity of critical thinking. Still, I also have to think outside the box here for a minute and ask: What’s the difference between formalistic concern related to writing conventions and citations and formalizing expression of thought, such as was encouraged by the whole critical thinking process? Both seem to belittle the higher-level of thinking and, by virtue, writing that composition instructors might encourage and hope to see transfer to other courses; however, admittedly, we have to begin the conversation somewhere; it just shouldn’t end with a hurrah for formalistic constructs.
Clearly, studying transfer is nebulous, but Tinberg’s study gets at it much more than Wardle’s does, and it should open up further specialized investigations at transfer related to particular areas, such as Tinberg defines through his critical, expressive, boundary crossing, and formalistic labels. One has to wonder if, like Berlin and his categorizations of rhetoric some thirty years ago, Tinberg’s coding will catch on with future scholars of transfer. Groundbreaking or not, however, Tinberg’s gaze moves writing instructors, especially in community colleges, closer to understanding their own audiences and the value of their work within the college as a whole.
Connections to OoS
I would like to make an addendum here, connecting both Wardle and Tinberg’s studies to my object of study. I would like to sum up their investigations by saying that it seems that transfer can be approached in two ways: pedagogically and programmatically. Now, certainly, there is crossover in those areas, but let me explain the details of each before seeing any intersections. First, Wardle’s suggestions regarding a composition class that is more rhetorical and auto-ethnographic in nature prescribes a pedagogical approach to transfer. Additionally, Tinberg’s findings that knowledge that transfers from first-year composition includes mostly lower order skills — or “formalistic concerns” as he refers to them — demonstrates a need for perhaps different pedagogical methods, especially as Tinberg’s study suggests that faculty are more concerned with critical reading and writing. Now, on the programmatic side, I turn mostly to Tinberg, since his study is broader in scope. His recommendations about better sequencing of classes and greater coordination with other non-composition-faculty offer a programmatic approach to improving transfer. Of course, as mentioned, pedagogy and programs are not un-linked and might intersect in the areas of technological and academic support. Here, I am thinking about digital learning objects used both in the classroom and outside of it, as curated and/or created through a tutoring or library division with input from faculty and administrators. I will suss out this intersection of ideas more in my actual paper, but these two studies have informed me significantly, although I still think transfer can be elusive as an object of study.