A.32: Making Courses Talk to Each Other: Transfer of Learning from the First Year into the Disciplines

Reviewed by Katherine Tirabassi, Keene State College, Keene, NH (ktirabassi@keene.edu)

Chair: Keith Rhodes, Hastings College, NE

Speakers: Keith Rhodes, Hastings College, NE, “The ‘Expert Schema’ of Effective Writers: How People Learn Writing as a General Education Objective”
John Bean, Seattle University, WA, “Strategies for Increasing Transfer of Academic Writing Skills from FYC to Gen-Ed Disciplinary Courses”
Carol Rutz, Carleton College, Northfield, MN, “Faculty Autonomy and Integrated Curricular Goals”

Walking toward this session, I saw a packed room and people walking away, telling me there’s no place to sit. Undeterred, I claimed a place in the aisle, on the floor. As a first-year-writing coordinator, I had been reading much of the current research on transfer, and I was looking forward to hearing from these three speakers. My hope is that this review will provide an overview of the session and themes raised, since a small room, and the need to sit on the floor for some, precluded many from attending this session.

The panel presentation began with Keith Rhodes, who talked about his work as General Education Chair at Grand Valley State University (GVSU) integrating a broader range of intellectual cognitive skills across the curriculum. This was done by revising the general education program to focus on these skills. Rhodes shared the General Education Intellectual Skills Plan (GEISP), which included a list of the intellectual skills that they had identified as goals for the general education program: written communication, critical and creative thinking, information literacy, integration, oral communication, ethical reasoning, quantitative literacy, collaboration, and problem solving. This document also included an overview of how these goals would be distributed across the general education curriculum, with some skills overlapping in each category; for instance, those teaching physical science courses could select as a first goal either written communication or quantitative literacy, and as a second goal either oral communication or problem solving. Other areas of the general education program focused on the other intellectual skills, so that they were evenly distributed across the program.

To facilitate assessment of these skills across the general education program, Rhodes shared a course assessment report form that asked faculty teaching these courses to articulate how they taught these skills to students. The general education committee reviewed and responded to these reports, noting what faculty were doing well and what they could change. Rhodes noted that faculty often realized, through this process, that they needed to teach students how to develop each skill. Rhodes pointed out that a key finding for writing program administrators was that they could, through the context of general education assessment, look at what was happening with writing across the curriculum and in their writing program, which included courses that were part of the general education program. The findings here became most concerning as writing program faculty realized that, while students may have been producing excellent course work in the context of the writing courses, they were not necessarily seeing or finding ways to transfer (or transform) what they had learned about writing into other contexts. Rhodes noted that these findings have helped the writing program to consider how to address this issue and work toward teaching for transfer more fully.

John Bean then shared his efforts in working with faculty across the curriculum to design discipline-appropriate assignments geared to help students think like historians, anthropologists, and so on. His discussion centered on his efforts at Seattle University to increase transfer from first-year composition (FYC) courses to disciplinary inquiry seminars, or courses in natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities that offer assignments designed to help students think and write in disciplinary contexts. Bean shared a handout that he uses in faculty workshops for these courses, based on backward design, deep learning, and best practices in designing writing assignments from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and Writing Program Administration (WPA); the handsouts also provided an understanding of Anne Beaufort’s (1999) domains of knowledge (rhetorical, discourse community, genre, and writing process, especially) to help faculty think about their current writing assignments. It allows faculty to assess whether the assignment and the genres called for would help students to think in a more disciplinary mindset. Bean pointed to key recommendations on the handout such as “a good assignment should have a problem-based task (not a topic),” and “the assignment should give the student a problem, or a series of problems that they could choose, or a problem of their own construction.” Other recommendations for an effective disciplinary inquiry seminar assignment included mentioning the rhetorical context—the audience, purpose and genre—for problem-based assignments, clearly stating evaluation criteria, and some element of process (drafts, writing center visits, etc.).

Bean shared and discussed some sample assignments that he had collected as part of an assessment study of the disciplinary inquiry courses, noting that some assignments were more successful than others in addressing the learning objectives for disciplinary inquiry assignments. In this study, he stated that the “good news” was that the faculty did seem to understand the importance of a problem-based assignment, that the “medium news” was that about a third of the faculty did incorporate some elements of process into the assignment and course schedule, and that the “bad news” was that faculty generally had trouble appreciating the importance of stressing the rhetorical context of the assignment. Another finding indicated that, although the final product for these problem-based assignments was not a traditional research paper, half of these assignments still required students to use evidence and conduct research. Bean ended his discussion of this survey by noting elements of specific assignments that were especially successful in addressing the recommendations for effective disciplinary inquiry assignments, and then by looking at a few assignments that were less successful. Bean pointed out an unsuccessful sociology assignment, in particular, that did not have clearly stated grading criteria spelling out what was being assessed; there was confusion about whether the genre (a letter) or the quality of the sociological content in the letter was being assessed. This assignment generated some discussion during the question and answer period about the appropriateness of the rhetorical context that the faculty member constructed for the assignment, given that the audience described in this letter assignment was not one with the ability and resources to act on the problem being explored. Bean asked the audience to consider ways to help faculty to appreciate the importance of an appropriate rhetorical context and to what extent rhetorical context should be built into problem-based assignments. While there are many considerations to these questions, one response was that students might look at a particular journal issue and consider how they might enter into the debate, or that assignments might avoid language such as “I want to see” and instead say, “In this field, we focus on and so, in this problem-based assignment, you should address ”.

Carol Rutz’s presentation broadened the focus of discussion to the importance of integrating the curricular work that we do in our institutions. She noted the considerable energy with which most institutions embrace traditions (including established and proven writing programs such as the writing across the curriculum program at Carleton), and the new initiatives, visual literacy or high-impact practices, that look like innovations. Yet, Rutz pointed out that some traditions can become fossilized to a point where they are no longer as effective as they once were, and that some innovative initiatives, while they generate a flurry of initial excitement (and even sources of funding) on a campus, cannot be sustained in the long run due to a lack of ongoing funding or long-term faculty interest (due to other pressing priorities). When a new initiative is grant-funded, for instance, the question about what happens when the funding ends often becomes the stumbling block that marks the rapid or slow end to the initiative. The scenario Rutz outlined is as follows:

A group of faculty is interested in a certain kind of learning. There is a lot of talk about how to emphasize this type of learning on campus more fully (what are we already doing, how could we develop this type of learning further, more broadly). Those especially invested in the initiative apply for and secure funding for a 2–3 year grant, with the administration of the grant falling to a faculty member with, often, a course release and summer money to do that work. But when the grant runs out, the onus typically falls to this faculty leader to make a case for the college to continue to fund and support this initiative.

Rutz noted that at Carleton College, like other institutions, there is a “formula for getting new ideas or curriculum going,” but these grant-funded ideas and curriculum are not sustainable long-term. This is due to the fact that they are often externally funded and represent a great deal of overlap in terms of people, resources, and time spent on these initiatives. Rutz shared a handout that illustrated what she saw as overlapping grant-funded curricular programs at Carleton, including Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC), Quantitative Reasoning, Visual Learning, Arts and Technology, and Global Engagement. Many of these programs incorporate similar structures and features, including hiring an external consultant, offering faculty workshops with stipends, hosting outside speakers and visiting scholars, identifying equipment needs, offering summer curriculum development, providing a course release (or more) for the faculty leader, funding travel and conference support for the faculty leader, acquiring summer student research assistants or independent studies, and designing student learning and program assessments.

Through this illustration, Rutz expressed a concern for what she called initiative fatigue, in part because new initiatives require a critical mass of people and often, that critical mass of people tends to be composed of the same or a similar group of people. With so much money, effort, and overlap (in terms of energy spent organizing, double and triple scheduling campus speakers, conflicts regarding facilitates and food services), Rutz argued that such initiatives need to be better coordinated and integrated to be sustainable. Beyond this logistical coordination, Rutz also pointed out that orphan programs with no more funding or leadership could benefit from integration with other, more established curricular programs. Finally, she added that all programs, whether orphan or established, could benefit from a more integrative and comprehensive approach to assessment. Integrating new initiatives with established programs, Rutz noted, also allows the established programs to avoid becoming fossilized, so they can remain dynamic and responsive to new trends in curricular development. While Rutz argued that coordinating curricular programmatic efforts can still honor the “integrity and agility” of the various initiatives, she said that many of her colleagues did not share her view about the importance of working to integrate programmatic efforts.

As a writing program administrator in a small public liberal arts college, Rutz’s points about integrating curricular efforts certainly resonated with my experiences with both established and new curricular initiatives. Initially, I didn’t quite see how this discussion connected with teaching for transfer, and then I realized that each of these speakers was asking us to think more broadly about, and beyond, the particular goals of our own programs, and to consider student learning across the curriculum and how we might help students transfer, or, as Rhodes put it, transform intellectual skills in and for new rhetorical contexts. Rutz was asking us to take stock of the overall labor involved in thinking beyond our own programs and initiatives, to consider the importance of addressing the labor of integration—which is the complex work of prioritizing and designing curriculum that focuses on teaching for transfer intellectual skills (including but not limited to writing) across the curriculum, in multiple genres and geared to multiple audiences. My sense from the panelists was that the labor of integration is worth the thought, time, and effort that we invest, especially for programs and institutions that prioritize teaching for transfer.


Beaufort, Anne. (1999). Writing in the real world: Making the transition from school to work. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Created by JamesJarrett. Last Modification: Thursday December 31, 2015 04:41:08 GMT-0000 by ccccreviews.