Supporting the Transfer of Student Writing Knowledge

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Faculty who teach with writing in upper-level courses often ask about the prior literacy learning of students in their courses. Many of these faculty are uncertain about what their students have learned and what they need to learn in order to perform well on writing projects. Because they know students have taken writing courses, they want to know how best to leverage that prior learning. In other words, they are curious about how to support the transfer of prior writing knowledge. So, what can faculty who teach with writing do to facilitate that transfer?

Elon’s Center for Engaged Learning’s Statement on Writing Transfer describes writing transfer as the “application, remixing, or integration of previous knowledge” into new or unfamiliar writing tasks and contexts. Faculty who teach with writing should recognize that students are constantly encountering new writing tasks and having to adjust their writing knowledge as they enroll in new classes and progress through their majors. That is, the need to transfer knowledge is almost always present.

But, as Composition scholar Ellen Carillo points out, while writing transfer is possible, it’s not automatic. So, it’s important to understand some factors that influence transfer. According to Elon’s Statement, transfer of knowledge can either be facilitated or inhibited by prior knowledge, the new context of performance, and individual identities and dispositions of writers. However, students’ ability to describe and generalize their writing knowledge can promote transfer, and reflection on writing process plays a critical role in developing this ability.

So, a good way for faculty to promote transfer of writing knowledge is by asking students to reflect on past performances, connect those performances to current tasks, and project how they will use this knowledge in the future. This framework can be adapted and employed at the beginning, middle, and end of a writing project.

  • Pre-process: put students in groups to analyze the prompt and discuss their prior experiences with similar writing projects
  • Mid-process/Rough draft: ask students to reflect on their ongoing process – what’s working, what isn’t; where are the bottlenecks and what feedback do they need to do to push past them?
  • Peer review: ask students to reflect on the feedback they gave and received – what was most helpful?
  • Post-submission: ask students to reflect on their process and learning – what specific decisions did they make and why did they make them? what strategies did they develop that might be useful in the future?

To learn more about writing transfer, read Ellen Carillo’s “Writing Knowledge Transfers Easily” in Bad Ideas about Writing, or visit The Elon Center for Engaged Learning’s Statement on Writing Transfer. They offer a number of excellent resources at the end of the statement.

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