Daniel Lawson, Central Michigan University
Kayla Taylor, Central Michigan University
Victoria Boyd-Jennings, Central Michigan University
Elise Beller, Central Michigan University
This quasi-experimental study examines responses to surveys distributed to writing center tutors administered after training interventions on the topic of transfer. Tutors could opt into two short training modules, the first on tutoring for transfer and the second on using transfer in sessions specific to legal briefs. After each training module was phased out, an assessment was distributed to the entire population to measure the efficacy of the interventions. This study found that after completing a training module on tutoring for transfer, tutors tended to more readily articulate explicit transfer talk for helping writers connect a writing task to past experiences. The genre-specific intervention was found to help tutors articulate explicit transfer talk strategies for helping writers connect a writing task to future writing situations. In both assessments, tutors tended to report using questions to facilitate writers’ transfer of past knowledge to a present writing task; conversely, tutors tended to report using explanation, praise, and advice for facilitating transfer of knowledge from a current task to future tasks. The study also raises questions about how tutors themselves transfer tutoring knowledge from tutor training as well as past academic experiences to new tutoring situations.
Keywords: writing center, transfer, genre, writing across the curriculum, assessment, RAD, training
In the fall of 2017, our writing center wanted to learn more about how our tutors felt about working with writers composing in unfamiliar genres and disciplines. Weighing their reported concerns against our usage data, we decided to develop some training modules that focus on one genre in particular: the legal brief. We felt transfer was a particularly useful frame for the training interventions we designed in that we were also asking tutors to transfer what they knew about tutoring in general and in genres more familiar to them to a newer, less familiar genre. Further, we wanted to use the modules as an opportunity for our tutors to learn about transfer more generally through applying the concept to the specific instance of the legal brief.
The legal brief, as taught in the Legal Environment of Business courses at our institution, asks writers to summarize a legal argument from a case and its legal precedents, and then to consider how those precedents can be applied to reach the case’s conclusion. As a genre, it has several novel features that students must navigate. For example, students are expected to address a single-sentence question based on case law, to summarize and synthesize relevant case law, to privilege brevity while still addressing a lay audience, to privilege active voice (except in certain sections), and to definitively answer the question in a terse sentence fragment—something that often feels “wrong” to students whose writing is often assessed on grammatical “correctness.” It has a highly prescribed structure consisting of brief sections: Facts, Issue, Reasoning, and Conclusion. Although some of its generic features may seem similar to many other academic genres at a passing glance, many of its conventions are at odds with the sorts of genres that college students—and writing tutors—are more accustomed to, particularly in its brevity and in avoiding legal jargon.
Our training interventions focused especially on Hill’s (2016) examination of implicit and explicit transfer talk. Hill’s (2016) research demonstrates “that after only a one-hour class on transfer theory, tutors engaged their students in transfer discussions considerably more than their peers who had not had that transfer education” (p. 78). Because we wanted to make the most of the limited time available for training, we felt her approach was the most applicable to our needs. Hill (2016) also finds, however, that despite the increase in transfer discussions in the trained group, “in both groups, the tutors relied heavily on implicit use of writing concepts rather than explicitly asking students to reflect on their knowledge of those concepts” (p. 89). Consequently, as we explain later in this report, we especially wanted to emphasize the idea of explicit transfer talk in the training. The present study shares the results of a mixed-method survey design we used to assess the interventions’ efficacy.
The intent of the research design was to determine the efficacy of short, independent transfer-based training interventions for writing center tutors as a cost- and time-effective means of fostering explicit transfer talk strategies. In our study, we sought to address the following questions:
- Can discrete, transfer-based training modules help tutors identify strategies for explicit—rather than implicit—transfer talk?
- Can genre-specific, transfer-based training modules help tutors learn to use explicit transfer talk appropriate to a given genre?
- How might such modules help tutors potentially abstract knowledge from a particular module and/or genre for use in future situations? In other words, how do tutors themselves transfer learning abstract concepts about tutoring for transfer?
Theoretical Frame: Explicit vs. Implicit Transfer Talk and Genre
Transfer theory, though originally developed in educational psychology, has become more prevalent in composition and writing center studies in the last two decades. At its most basic, as Ellis (1965) explains, transfer of learning refers to how “[t]he experience or performance on one task influences performance on some subsequent task” (p. 3). That is, learners successfully transfer knowledge or procedures when they identify relevant similarities and differences between a new situation and previous situations and apply what was previously learned in a manner relevant to the new situation.
Several studies on the implications of transfer theory for writing center practice have appeared in recent scholarship: how tutors may transfer what they’ve learned in training to other situations (Driscoll, 2015); how the writing center facilitates transfer in student writers (Bromley et al., 2016; Devet, 2015); the relationship between genre and transfer (Bazerman, 1997; Clark & Hernandez, 2011; Devet 2015; Devitt 2007; Nowacek, 2011; Reiff & Bawarshi 2011; Russell, 1995; Rounsaville 2012; Wardle, 2009; Yancey et al., 2014); the role of transfer in tutor talk (Bleakney & Pittock, 2019; Mackiewcz & Thompson 2013, 2018); and how tutors can be trained to understand and facilitate transfer more ably through transfer talk (Cardinal, 2018; Hahn & Stahr, 2018; Hill, 2016). Successful transfer is crucial in tutoring sessions in scaffolding students to apply what they’ve learned to the current task and to abstract what they’re learning from the current task for application to appropriate situations in the future.
As Hill (2016) explains, explicit transfer talk occurs “when tutors explicitly [ask] students to reflect on their previous or future writing experience and relate it to their current situation” (p. 85). For instance, if a writer is working on an argumentative paper, the tutor might ask that writer about arguments they have had to make in this genre and their experiences with it. If the writer has experience, they could then consider the connections the writer might make from that experience to the current task: what they understand a thesis to be in this context and its similarities and differences to what the writer may have done in the past. Explicit transfer talk is therefore crucial in facilitating high road transfer, which “happens between situations with significant differences, and thus must be consciously done” (Hill, 2016, p. 81).
Conversely, Hill (2016) defines implicit transfer talk as occurring when “the tutor mention[s] things that student would have previously learned…but [does] not necessarily ask the student to talk explicitly about that previous learning” (p. 85). For example, a tutor might mention a writing concept such as thesis statements in passing without getting a sense of the writer’s familiarity with the concept, assuming a shared understanding of what a thesis is. Such an assumption is dangerous, however, because according to Hill (2016), “Implicit transfer talk where tutors just mention writing concepts or genre names can cause students to engage in low road transfer of knowledge about that concept or genre, which may have negative effects if the student’s knowledge of that concept or genre is incomplete” (p. 95). As low road transfer occurs automatically and without consideration of the similarities or differences between the old situation and the new, implicit transfer talk can often lead to the misappropriation of old genre knowledge. In the example above, based on their previous experiences with expository writing genres from their schooling, the writer might understand a thesis to be more of a topic or signposting sentence than an arguable claim.
Indeed, Amy Devitt (2007) has demonstrated that “writers use the genres they know when faced with a genre they do not know. These genres are not in fact transferable: they do not meet the needs of the situation fully” (222), showing the relationship between genre and transfer and highlighting the problem of low road transfer—when knowledge learned from and about prior genres is inappropriately applied to the new learning situation. Writing tutors therefore need specific strategies to help facilitate successful transfer of genre knowledge. The present study thus considers how tutors articulate their own talk strategies to determine the efficacy of short training interventions on the topic.
Rather than observing sessions, we chose to focus on self-reported frequency of use of transfer-talk and descriptions of that transfer talk. Although we acknowledge that there were other ways to gather data related to this topic, our focus was on the efficacy of the interventions and tutors’ ability to articulate explicit tutor talk strategies. As Hill (2016) explains, the “abstracting of knowledge from particular situations for use in others might be aided by focusing…on teaching broad, abstract concepts that transcend individual situations” (p. 81). We thus felt that focusing on self-reported survey data would not only give us a broader sense of our center’s perceptions of its practices but would also enable us to examine our tutors’ ability to clearly articulate and apply transfer theory—that is, to abstract the principles from the modules and thus facilitate transfer in their knowledge of the peer tutoring genre. We speak more to other methods for future researchers and the limitations of this approach later in this report.
The present study took place at a large Midwestern state university’s writing center with the approval of that university’s IRB. In brief, this quasi-experimental, multi-methods, survey design introduced two training interventions for writing center tutors and assessed the entire population after each intervention to determine the efficacy of the interventions. The training interventions were optional, and thus those groups self-enrolled. Each training intervention consisted of a PowerPoint presentation with voice-over narration. Each had multiple points in which tutors would pause the presentation and respond in writing to prompts in an accompanying digital handout. Table 1 summarizes the number of participants in each phase of the study.
Training and Study Participants
|Training Module||Total Tutors in Center||Participated in Training Module||Completed Assessment Survey|
|1- General Transfer||49||18||44|
|2- Transfer in Legal Briefs||46||23||34|
Of the 34 tutors who completed the second survey, fifteen reported taking both training interventions. Eight of the 34 reported taking only Training Intervention 2, and four tutors reported taking only Training Intervention 1. Seven tutors reported taking neither training.
Training Intervention and Assessment 1, Fall 2018
The first of these training interventions was introduced in the fall of 2018. The PowerPoint summarized Heather Hill’s (2016) article “Tutoring for transfer: The benefits of teaching writing center tutors about transfer theory.” Writing Center tutors who had an open hour could opt to take the training intervention in lieu of other work, reviewing the PowerPoint and script (or watching the video) and responding in writing to prompts in the accompanying handout. These prompts asked them to connect the concepts, terms, and theories in the article to previous experiences and to potential applications in future sessions as well as to reconsider current practices. Some of the prompts included questions such as:
- Can you think of any situations in which you engaged in “negative transfer,” bringing old knowledge to a new situation, whether or not that old knowledge was appropriate? Think in terms of writing genres or practices or tutoring genres or practices.
- How often would you say you engage in explicit discussions of the writing concepts described on this slide? What might you do differently in sessions now?
At the end of the semester, a staff-wide questionnaire was distributed electronically. This questionnaire asked for certain demographic information from the subjects—years of experience at the center, familiarity with transfer theory, and major(s)/minors(s). The survey itself consisted of three questions comprised of two parts: 1) a Likert-scale question (ranging from 1 for “never” to 5 for “always”) regarding tutors’ perception of their frequency of transfer-related talk and 2) an open-ended prompt asking them to provide examples of that talk.
Although we asked several questions, we focus on two areas for the present study:
- How tutors described facilitating transfer from writers’ previous experience to their current task.
- How tutors described facilitating transfer from the current task to future writing tasks.
The open-ended questions were our primary focus for this study. Because our focus was on identifying types of transfer talk, we coded each for either implicit transfer talk, explicit transfer talk, or no transfer talk. We typically coded a response as “no transfer talk” if it did not include any concrete or discernable examples of such (as asked in the prompt). Two members of our team gathered the data while the other two coded without having to worry about identifying participants.
We first independently coded and then met several times to discuss how we applied the codes before finally coming together to finalize their application. We thus have no Kappa statistic, having applied them collaboratively after discussion and refinement. Hill’s (2016) definitions of “implicit” and “explicit” transfer talk informed how we collaboratively applied these codes. This discussion also informed how we applied the codes in the second assessment.
For example, responses that qualified as “demonstrated explicit transfer talk” include instances such as the following in response to the prompt about connecting writers’ previous experiences:
I always like to begin a session by asking the writer how familiar they are with the assignment and that style of writing, in the style of “explicit transfer talk.” This will often give me information about their comfort level with the style, as well as information about what kind of writing they are used to. For example, last week a writer told me they were in BIO 110 as a UP, and as a History major, they were very unfamiliar with the conventions of scientific writing. This helped me not only to know that we should discuss the conventions of APA and lab reports, but also what parallels I could draw that they would be comfortable with, as I knew the kind of writing they normally had to engage with.
In this response, the subject describes learning more from the writer and prompting that writer to articulate and activate prior knowledge and relate that knowledge with the current task, which in turn maps to Hill’s (2016) definition of explicit transfer talk (p. 85). In short, the subject describes explicitly facilitating transfer with this writer.
Conversely, a response was coded as implicit if the tutor mentioned things the writer may have experienced or if the tutor asked about that experience without referencing particulars in that experience or “reflect[ing] on their previous or future writing experience and relate[ing] it to their current writing situation” (Hill, 2016, p. 85). For example, in the following response, the tutor describes asking about previous experience, but does not explain how they might work with the writer to reflect on or relate the prior experience to the current task:
I ask questions about their major and year to get an idea of their experience level. I will also ask directly if they have done an assignment like this before.
Consequently, the response was coded as implicit. Though the tutor’s example does reference a student’s prior experience, it doesn’t reflect engagement in talk about “how the writing strategies would need to be employed.” (Hill, 2016, p. 87). Had this response included examples of open-ended questions prompting such or an indication that the tutor would elaborate on their questions, we would have coded the response as explicit.
Finally, responses that did not clearly provide examples (as asked for in the prompt) of strategies were labelled as “No Clear Transfer Talk Demonstrated.” Often these responses drew on terminology from the practicum course but did not provide examples of what these terms might look like in practice, such as in this response:
Motivational Scaffolding, Praise, Advisory Directives, Explicit Talk.
Although the concepts listed in this response may be associated with transfer, without clear and specific examples, we could not gauge if the response actually conveyed explicit transfer talk strategies. “Explicit Talk,” for instance, is largely tautological.
Due to the number of responses in the first assessment that we could not clearly code as clearly demonstrating explicit or implicit transfer talk, we revised each of the open-ended questions in the second assessment to include the sentence “Please refrain from jargon or one/two-word responses and write at least a few sentences to explain.” This revision almost completely ameliorated the issue in the second assessment.
Training Intervention and Assessment 2, Spring 2019
The intervention and assessment in the subsequent semester were specific to the genre of the legal brief associated with the Legal Environment of Business course. Although the training intervention was based on transfer theory, it was couched in examples grounded in the legal brief genre. The intervention included a brief refresher on transfer theory but focused primarily on the genre features of the legal brief such as its FIRAC structure (Facts, Issue, Rule, Analysis, Conclusion), rhetorical affordances, stylistic conventions, etc. The training module examined features that students often struggled with. For example, despite asking students to summarize and synthesize case law, audiences tend to expect “plain English” rather than legal jargon. As characterized by the instructors of the course, the purpose is to persuade rather than to argue, and paraphrasing is preferred to direct (and especially extended) quotation.
As with the first training, the prompts were intended to facilitate transfer in the tutors. For instance, prompts such as those below asked tutors to draw on previous experience and/or abstract what they learned in the intervention to future situations:
Have you worked with writers on Legal Briefs before?
If so, what do you understand now about the genre itself that you didn’t understand when you began? What difference does knowing that make?
If not, what genres do you think are similar to this one? What do you imagine is different about this genre than other genres you’ve worked with? Why?
How might you apply some of what is on Slide 18 (“Tips for Writers”) in sessions with students working on Legal Briefs? For example, how might you explain the difference between persuading and arguing in this genre? Or how might you work with a writer to “condense” their prose?
The questions in the prompts therefore attempted to encourage tutors to consider where they might engage in low road transfer while also working with writers to avoid the same.
The follow up assessment covered similar ground to the first, in that it was comprised of two parts: 1) a Likert-scale question (ranging from 1 for “never” to 5 for “always”) regarding tutors’ perception of their frequency of transfer-related talk with this genre and 2) an open-ended prompt asking them to provide an examples of that sort of talk. Like the first assessment, several areas were covered, but we focus on two here:
- How tutors described facilitating transfer from writers’ previous experience with legal briefs (or similar writing) to their current task.
- How tutors described facilitating transfer from the current task to future writing tasks related to legal briefs (or similar writing).
As with the first assessment, the open-ended responses eliciting examples enabled us to code for descriptions of implicit or explicit instances of transfer talk. On this round, however, we also began to look for other emerging patterns across both assessments. In particular, we began to notice and discuss the “mode” of the feedback the response described. That is, we looked at how the tutor would provide feedback, whether through asking questions, explaining concepts directly, praising the writer, explanation, or through other modes.
Training Intervention and Assessment 1
Of the 18 participants who took the training, two reported previous experience with transfer theory from their coursework. Of the 26 participants who did not take the training, seven also reported previous experience with transfer. To control for previous experience, we thus discarded those responses to focus on the difference made by the intervention.
We used MS Excel to run t-tests to determine any statistically significant relationship between attendance to the trainings and self-reported frequency of use of strategies (the Likert scale questions). This test did not disclose any statistically significant relations. In short, there was no statistical significance in any difference in the self-reported frequency of transfer-talk between those who attended the interventions and those who did not. The responses, however, to the open-ended questions revealed some notable patterns and differences.
Responses Describing Strategies for Transfer, Trained Group, Assessment 1
|Trained Group (16 Responses)||Response
Explicit Transfer Talk
Implicit Transfer Talk
|No Clear Transfer Talk Demonstrated|
|Strategies to Explore Previous Experience||9 (56.25%)||3 (18.75%)||4 (25%)|
|Strategies for Application in Future Instances||7 (43.75%)||7 (43.75%)||2 (12.5%)|
|Total Distribution||16 (50%)||10 (31.25%)||6 (18.75%)|
Responses Describing Strategies for Transfer, Untrained Group, Assessment 1
|Untrained Group (19 Responses)||Response
Explicit Transfer Talk
Implicit Transfer Talk
|No Clear Transfer Talk Demonstrated|
|Strategies to Explore Previous Experience||1 (5%)||12 (63%)||6 (32%)|
|Strategies for Application in Future Instances||8 (42%)||6 (32%)||5 (26%)|
|Total Distribution||9 (23.68%)||18 (47.36%)||11 (28.94%)|
Perhaps the most striking difference between the two groups is in the open-ended responses providing examples of “strategies to explore previous experience.” Therein 56% of the trained group (nine out of sixteen respondents) replied with language mapping to explicit transfer talk compared to the 5% of the group without training (one out of nineteen respondents). Although the trained group provided substantially more responses mapping to explicit transfer talk regarding previous experiences, there was no discernable difference in the responses regarding strategies for applying what was learned in the session to future writing situations.
Finally, one notable similarity between the groups emerged in the mode of the talk described: an absence of “questioning” modes for facilitating transfer to future situations. That is, when describing strategies for exploring previous experiences, respondents from both groups primarily described using questions, whether the responses were coded as explicit or implicit:
Rather, I try asking open-ended questions to gauge their knowledge about the topic…
In contrast, when describing strategies for facilitating transfer for future situations, respondents in both groups tended to describe using explanation, praise, and similar instructional and motivational strategies such as conveyed in responses like this:
I always stress to writers that the reader should always be assumed to know nothing of the topic that they are working with.
Explicit future-oriented transfer talk demonstrated a similar preference for explanation over questions:
…I often find myself saying things like “so, if you’re ever looking for sources in the future, you can usually tell if they’re credible by…” or “that was a really clear transition between paragraphs!”
In brief, when it came to describing strategies to facilitate transfer for future situations, tutors described instructional strategies as explained by Mackiewicz and Thompson (2014) such as telling, suggesting, and explaining in lieu of questions (pp. 59–61).
Training Intervention and Assessment 2
To determine the cumulative effect of the interventions, we compared the group that had participated in both training interventions to the group that had participated in neither. As with the first assessment, no statistical significance among any of the comparison groups was found in their self-reported frequency of transfer-talk. Our coding of the open-ended responses asking for examples, however, did yield some notable patterns and results. Comparing those two groups’ self-reported examples of transfer-oriented talk in sessions yielded the results in tables 4 and 5.
Responses Describing Strategies for Transfer, Fully Trained Group, Assessment 2
|Both Trainings Group
Explicit Transfer Talk
Implicit Transfer Talk
|Strategies to Explore Previous Experience (15 total)||11 (73.33%)||4 (26.66%)|
|Strategies for Application in Future Instances (15 total)||10 (66.66%)||5 (33.33%)|
|Total Distribution (30 total)||21 (70%)||9 (30%)|
Responses Describing Strategies for Transfer, Untrained Group, Assessment 2
Explicit Transfer Talk
Implicit Transfer Talk
|Strategies to Explore Previous Experience (7 total)||2 (28.57%)||5 (71.42%)|
|Strategies for Application in Future Instances (7 total)||2 (28.57%)||5 (71.42%)|
|Total Distribution (14 total)||4 (28.57%)||10 (71.42%)|
Table 4 shows the results of the trained group. For example, in response to the prompt asking tutors to share strategies to explore previous experiences with writers, 11 provided instances of explicit transfer talk, and four provided instances of implicit transfer talk. Table 5 summarizes the responses from the untrained group. Proportionately, the group who took both trainings provided more instances of explicit transfer talk regarding both past and future writing experiences. Perhaps most notably, those who participated in both trainings reported more instances of explicit transfer talk for future applications than those who took only the first training. For example, those who reported taking only the general training relied heavily on general advice such as
Based on if the writer is going into Business or Law, I might talk about how this is a good form to know for future use.
In short, these instances tended to point toward transfer talk, but that talk was frequently implicit rather than explicit.
By comparison, those who took both trainings tended to focus on specific genre parameters or rhetorical modes common to the genre such as the following example:
I would say how what parts of they’ve written/learned could be redone in future briefs (method of summarizing, lengths of sections since those are supposed to be different, etc.). I might say how the ethos/logos/pathos could be used again in other types of papers, because those are more about modes of thinking that come in handy than concrete points, if that makes sense.
In this instance, the tutor points to specific rhetorical and genre features to consider how the writer might apply what they have specifically done in the session to future situations. Legal briefs, for instance, have several subsections that necessitate having different levels of development, which is at odds with what newer undergraduates typically expect. The tutor also describes abstracting concepts, taking what the tutor calls “concrete points” and turning them into “modes of thinking.” This response, then, demonstrates an identification of the work of future-oriented transfer talk.
As tables 4 and 5 indicate, the untrained group tended to offer responses that erred in the vein of implicit transfer talk, even if they had a great deal of experience working with legal briefs such as in responses like this:
This is a bit more difficult in an online environment, but I do actually do this a lot. A lot of my global comments about purpose usually end with the phrase “This is something that’s going to be applicable for any brief that you’re doing in the future for this class!”
This response matches Hill’s (2016) definition of implicit talk in that it doesn’t explain “how the writing strategies would need to be employed” (p. 87). Had some examples been provided (for example, explaining what they meant by “purpose”) or some instances of pumping the writer to consider application, it may have. In the first sentence, the tutor acknowledges the difficulty of facilitating explicit transfer talk in asynchronous online environments due to the inability to ask questions (and have them answered in real time) to identify the writer’s understanding of the task at hand. Still, a nod toward encouraging the writer to identify what they found most useful or prompting them to consider how they might apply specific instances would not be outside of the capabilities of online writing tutoring.
Assessment 2 echoed Assessment 1’s finding regarding the absence of questions to facilitate future-oriented transfer talk. Nearly all of the respondents reported relying heavily on questions for encouraging writers to relate previous experience to the current task and for discussing writing concepts. However, when discussing strategies for facilitating transfer into future situations, tutors once again reported relying primarily on more direct instructional modes of talk. Of the 15 tutors who took both trainings, only four described using questions, whereas the rest relied on other modes: explanation, suggestion, praise, etc. Of those who only participated in the initial general training and those who hadn’t participated in any training, none described using questions. Of the nine who took only the Intervention 2, only one described using questions. Though these responses may not necessarily be indicative of their general practice, they do indicate those strategies that the tutors go to first in these abstract scenarios—the tutoring commonplaces they draw upon. As we were more interested in tutor metacognition than the particulars of tutor practice, these descriptions gave us a sense of our tutors’ ability to clearly articulate and apply transfer theory.
Our goal was to determine the efficacy of our training interventions were a cost- and time-effective means of fostering explicit transfer talk strategies. In that regard, they were successful. Perhaps the most notable finding in this research is that tutors who were trained even briefly for explicit transfer talk seemed more effective at articulating explicit transfer talk strategies. First, the training appeared to equip them to work with writers to establish connections between writers’ previous experiences and the current writing task. Second, tutors who were trained for facilitating transfer in a particular genre (such as the legal brief in Intervention 2) appeared more capable of articulating explicit strategies that could help writers establish connections between their current writing task and future situations. Third, we found that tutors tended to describe relying on questions to foster connections between writers’ past experiences and writing concepts; however, those tutors described almost exclusively on other modes such as explanation, advice, and praise to facilitate writers’ connections to future writing situations.
These findings extend and complicate theory and research done in related areas—in particular, Nowacek’s (2011) notion of transfer understood as recontextualization. As Nowacek (2011) explains, transfer is an act of recontextualization mediated by genre. Nowacek (2011) argues that “The fundamental constraints and exigencies for transfer come not from the black box of metacognitive knowledge but from, among other sources, genres that shape and are shaped by the social and rhetorical interactions of individuals” (p. 17). As the present study confirms, transfer is facilitated—and often frustrated—by genres.
For example, the genre features of the legal brief provided a site for tutors to apply what they learned earlier about transfer in general. That is, they were able to take the abstract principles they learned about transfer from the first module and affix them to concrete instances of practice and genre in the second module. They could, for instance, point to things like how credibility is established through briefly and objectively relaying case law and extend that discussion with writers to understand ethos more broadly. Those who completed both sets of training responded with far more instances of explicit transfer-talk strategies. Put another way, the results seem to demonstrate Nowacek’s (2011) assertion that “the recognition of unexpected similarities and connections can be cued by the routinized epistemic spaces genres provide” (p. 18). Although writing center directors may not have the time or resources to train tutors to be experts in all of the disciplines and genres they may encounter, directors can use discipline-specific genres as sites to provide tutors concrete instances with which to understand recontextualization.
Admittedly, the iterative, cumulative nature of taking both sets of training likely also had an effect—encountering the concept of tutoring for transfer on more than one occasion likely contributed to the greater frequency of instances of explicit transfer talk strategies. And although simply coming into contact with transfer concepts twice would certainly account for some of this growth, the use of discipline-specific terms in the responses coded as “explicit” spoke directly to that training. Whereas the general transfer training asked tutors to generalize about their practice and to abstract what they learned in the intervention for later use, the genre-specific training allowed them to point to specific features of the genre as applicable in future situations involving that genre, and other genres with similar features or rhetorical situations. Over the course of two training interventions, we saw tutors begin to successfully transfer knowledge about transfer from the first session to the second. To be clear, we are not claiming that tutors should take a training module on legal briefs to understand transfer. Rather, we found that a genre-specific transfer training to a more general tutoring for transfer training session provided tutors with new exigences to consider transfer.
And though it may seem an anomaly in the first assessment, the reliance on terminology from the practicum in many of the responses may be telling in their own way. Responses that did not necessarily answer or engage with the prompts but instead relied on a form of shorthand such as “scaffolding,” or “mitigate the FTA,” or “advisory directives,” may indicate a form of “low road” transfer, wherein the new tutors drew on their nascent knowledge from the practicum course, even when it was not applicable to the new situation.
Most of those who responded in the first assessment primarily with terminology rather than responding directly to the prompt were in their first semester at the center, and thus in the middle of their training practicum. The terms they used came directly from the material in the course, and it may be that in attempting to answer the questions these students drew on an antecedent genre (the academic exam) which resembled the current task (a questionnaire). That is, they drew on what they knew from the course in response to a genre that resembled a test. Familiarity with that antecedent genre, however, did not meet the needs of the new rhetorical situation. The tutors possessed knowledge about writing center practice from both the course and from the training intervention, but when applying it in and through the new genres—both the genre of the questionnaire and in learning a new mode of writing center tutoring—they drew instead on prior genres and knowledge. When prompted about their knowledge, they may have attempted to apply terms from the course as if it were an exam rather than directly addressing the prompt asking for a few sentences of explanation. As designated by Nowacek (2011), “Intertextuality describes the interrelations of genres; transfer describes the individual act of cognition that recognizes those interrelations” (p. 29, italics hers). Here, the tutors recognized interrelations between the course and the training, recontextualizing one set of genres to address the new genre.
Modes of Transfer Talk
Antecedent genres may also be an influence in the tutors’ responses to the assessment’s questions regarding fostering transfer in writers to future situations—that is, favoring modes of response such as telling, suggesting, and explaining over modes such as questions. At a glance, the reliance on more “instructional” or “directive” forms of tutor talk may seem at odds with the traditionally “non-directive” ethos typically associated with writing center practice. However, as Kjesrud (2015) points out, the directive/non-directive paradigm can limit research paradigms, focusing overmuch on practice rather than outcomes. Similarly, these modes may actually be a more useful topoi for tutors than questions. Although most of the future-oriented responses in the second assessment, for instance, may have lacked questions, those responses were still examples of explicit transfer talk in that they pointed to future situations and identified explicit elements of the paper or rhetorical situation to discuss.
Although tutors could have described asking writers to project how they might apply what they learned into future situations, the explicit transfer responses indicate that tutors intuited the more complex nature of that transfer task. Asking students to speculate about the future asks to create new connections is cognitively a much more difficult task then asking them to draw on already acquired knowledge. By contrast, creating new knowledge sits at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy and requires the most scaffolding (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001). Thus, these modes may seem more natural to tutors as a tutoring commonplace in future-oriented situations.
As an exploratory, quasi-experimental design, this study has several limitations. Unlike a true experiment, there was no randomization of subjects to groups; rather, it relied on the groups that established themselves through opting into the trainings. We attempted to account for this by establishing equality in the comparison groups through eliciting data from those groups that would help us make valid comparisons, such as asking about years of experience at the center, major/minor, and their experience with transfer theory. We also attempted to control for maturation by comparing those who opted not to take either training, those who took one or the other, and those who took both. In short, if those who opted for the training(s) showed growth comparable to those who did not, we could assume that maturation was the primary factor in determining growth rather than the interventions. Although the study may seem to qualify as what Lauer and Asher (1988) categorize as a “pseudoexperiment” because the “experimentally treated group is compared to a nontreated group with no attempt to show that either group was initially equal or unequal,” we attempted to use the demographic questions to show that “the criterion differences between the groups were either smaller or greater than the initial differences between the groups” (p. 188). Although the groups lacked any appreciable difference in the class standing, majors, and years of experience at the center, those who self-selected the training clearly had a different intrinsic motivation than those who did not.
Another limitation we acknowledge is the self-reported nature of the study. Transfer (and the ability to facilitate transfer) cannot be neatly measured in self-reported Likert scale units nor simply distilled into brief responses to questions regarding abstract hypotheticals. However, given theorists’ interest in the metacognitive aspects of transfer, we felt that assessing tutors’ ability to articulate a burgeoning understanding of transfer would contribute to theory-building about the role of meta-awareness in facilitating transfer. Though Nowacek (2011) asserted that meta-awareness “is an important, but not a necessary, element of transfer” (30), we felt the tutor articulations of their strategies would give us some sense of their ability to abstract that knowledge. Given our focus on explicit transfer talk and high road transfer, we were thus especially interested in this facet of the data.
Future Research and Conclusion
There are several avenues for future research based on this study. First, a clearer sense of the efficacy of the intervention(s) could be gleaned by conducting a true experiment with randomized populations in the control and experimental groups, utilizing similar methods. Larger populations may show different results in the Likert results than what we obtained, given our small n. Research collaborations across different centers to cultivate a large enough population to conduct such research would be necessary, also contributing to empirical research in this area. Future research based on the data derived from such a cross-institutional study might also demonstrate meaningful comparisons between those participants who only took one training intervention. Our sample sizes were too small to provide any generalizable claims other than theory-building.
Future research might also study the cumulative effects of these sorts of training interventions. One session alone may assist tutors to understand a given concept, but as our data indicate, it is unlikely to change a tutor’s ability to articulate explicit transfer talk strategies. Mapping out the effects of repetition and the cumulative effects of related trainings could provide much more insight into how tutors actually incorporate and apply transfer-related knowledge into their actual practice. This study thus invites more qualitative research to examine how tutors draw on antecedent genres in their practice and how their meta-awareness of genre evolves with experience and training. Other data could also be developed and coded with explicit transfer talk in mind.
Given that transfer happens through talk, transcripts of actual tutoring sessions could be coded longitudinally to determine the long term effects—if any—of such interventions. These could also be paired with interviews for a fuller data set. Such data may provide more context for some of the trends that we found in our results. For example, tutors who may not be able to articulate explicit tutor talk strategies may still intuitively use such strategies in actual sessions. Opportunities for these strategies may arise more organically over the course of an actual session versus the sorts of hypotheticals prompted in assessments such as we used.
Finally, some research should be done to determine if there is something more to the relationship between modes of tutor talk—questions, explanation, advice, praise, etc.—and the kind of transfer tutors seek to foster—between previous experience and the current task, and between the current task and future instances. The prevalence of questions as a mode in facilitating transfer from previous experience and their absence regarding future tasks in the surveys seems fertile for theory and empirical research.
To conclude, the training interventions have shown our tutors that we need to more mindfully consider how we are fostering transfer—not just for the writers in our centers and not just in the academic genres they compose in, but for our tutors themselves. Although “one off” training interventions such as those described in this study can contribute to fluency in that genre (particularly if they are themselves informed by theories of transfer), alone they are insufficient for the task. As Beaufort’s (1999) work demonstrates, genres are not acquired piecemeal or through a simple “inoculation” such as a discrete training intervention; rather, acquisition requires immersion in the discourse community to which the genres are tied. Given the diversity of genres and discourse communities that intersect in writing center practice, however, genre-specific training can provide new sites for tutors to practice recontextualization and meta-awareness and to foster the same in the writers with whom they work.
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