Chapter 2: Looking for Transfer across Assignments

2.3 Basic Writing with Julie

In Julie's Basic Writing course, moments of transfer across media were more subtle than those seen and heard in other courses. The students' knowledge and ways of knowing appeared at times to move in one direction and then back again as the video composition assignment and the semester went on, or else acts of transfer were small and discrete. Julie struggled at times to see transfer, and she and I discussed potential obstacles to transfer that were apparent in the course. In particular, one student, Alan, demonstrates this circular, subtle movement toward and away from transfer, and I explore his experiences in more detail below.

First, listen and look as Julie describes the assignments and goals of her first-year course, Basic Writing:

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Instructor Julie describes the goals and assignments for Basic Writing.

Descriptive Transcript

[No audio]White text appears on a black screen, reading "Julie Discusses Basic Writing".
Crystal: So, can you tell me about how you approach teaching 102?
Julie: So the curricular approach is that it's a pass/fail course for one. And it's based on a portfolio at the end. But there's three major projects.
In the corner of the screen, white text reads "Julie's Classroom." Julie's classroom and students are shown in a video clip. It is a computer lab classroom, with at least seven students in the frame. They are all working either individually or in small groups on an assignment.
Julie: The first major assignment is a learning narrative. It wasn't enough to just tell about the learning experience and what kind of a learner they were. They also had to try to make that application leap to: knowing this about yourself and your learning style,A screenshot of the assignment instructions is shown. In the top right corner in a white text box are the words "Project 1: Learning Narrative".
Julie: how are you going to approach learning in college?A clip of Julie's classroom is shown, nearly identical to the one in the beginning.
Julie: The second major project is the primary research project, a very, very small-scale primary research project,A screenshot of assignment instructions is shown. Across the top, a white text box reads "Guide to Student Services — Primary Research Paper"
Julie: looking at resources that can help students be successful in college, particularly first-year students. So they did the video project as part of that, and they stayed in their groups and did the video as a collaborative.An over-the-shoulder shot of two students working on a video project is shown. They are woking together and editing a video on a laptop.
Julie: The third major project is working with sources. The topic that's kind of in the common syllabus curriculum is digital natives.A screenshot of assignment instructions is shown. Across the top, a white text box reads "Project 3: Critical Response to Selected Readings — Digital Natives"
Crystal: How would you describe other learning goals that either you have or the common syllabus has?
Julie: Well, the process part is really very important in the course objectives. That's the very first thing. Writing is a multi-step recursive process that requires feedback, and along with that feedback, revision.
Three students are shown in Julie's classroom gathered around a laptop, watching a video they created and talking about it, as well as working together collaboratively.
Julie: Also, addressing a rhetorical situation. So we talk a lot about: what is the audience? What is the purpose? What kind of evidence do you need to use to be persuasive?Three more students are shown from a distance in Julie's classroom. As the camera zooms in, they are shown sitting at their own computers, discussing their assignment with their instructor together.
Julie: Demonstrating the ability to synthesize information and ideas in and between various texts, written spoken, and visual. So I put a lot of emphasis on that synthesis piece.
Julie, in class: Again, the green is all the information that came from the observation. The yellow is from the interview, and the blue is from the website.
A single student is shown navigating a color-coded document as Julie explains what the different color-coded sentences are. When the audio shifts to Julie in class, the words "from a class lesson on synthesis" appear in the bottom left corner in white.
Julie: The next big goal is reflection. Reflecting on their own writing process and self-evaluation as part of that. And, you know, what we're trying to get to there is a sense of metacognition. That they're able to think about their own strengths and weaknesses and apply that and hopefully transfer that across from one course to another, even from one type of academic writing to another.Three students are shown in Julie's classroom collaborating on editing a video. They are gathered around one laptop and are discussing their video as they work on it.
Crystal: Can you talk a little bit about how students get into the class? Do they elect to take it? Do they test into it?
Julie: They test in, usually with the score on the ACT. The other pathway in is through ESL.
Two students are shown sitting at a desk together and working on a video in Julie's class. They are working off the same laptop and are discussing and gesturing toward their video as they work on the project.
Julie: The other thing that's unique to 102 is the embedded writing specialist.Sam is shown walking around Julie's classroom and helping students with their projects. On the bottom center in white, text reads "Sam, embedded writing specialist"
Julie: So we have a student, an undergraduate advanced level student, comes to class once a week to do in-class peer tutoring.
Sam: much time does this use fully? As long as it's gonna be enough time to read it.
Gerry: This is three and a half seconds.
Sam: Yeah, try it, try it. But my only concern is the clip is pretty quick, so it might flash too quickly. I don't know.
Sam is shown helping two students with their projects. They are looking at a laptop and discussing the video on it as Sam answers their questions.
Julie: This class has a much larger percentage of international students and non-native English-speaking students than the previous section that I taught.Three students are shown in Julie's classroom working off their own desktops. They are gesturing to their screens as they talk about the assignment.
Student: ...the title page is blank...
Julie: And then a handful, just a very small handful, of native English-speaking students. So that has created a whole different atmosphere in the class, and that causes a huge divide, because they have different needs.
The same three students are shown from the opposite angle, working together as they try to solve the problems they are running into with their project.
[No audio]White text appears on a black screen, reading "Julie Discusses Basic Writing".

While Julie’s assignments were not explicitly linked through the content of what students were writing about, the learning objectives for the assignments built on one another, adding more complex skills related to primary and secondary research as the semester progressed, and students reflected on their learning along the way and at the end of the term. These skills and actions had the potential to set students up for acts of reconstructive transfer as they practiced them within new writing and research situations, and Julie intended that knowledge and ways of knowing related to rhetoric, research, and citation would transfer from one assignment to the next.

From the Students: Learning to (Re)Construct Audiences

I interviewed Julie’s student Alan, a 35-year-old Marine Corps veteran whose school attendance was funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program while he worked full time at a nearby automobile company. When I asked Alan what connections he perceived between the assignments in the course, he answered that each assignment correlated “to self,” or was based in his own experience. He explained how all three assignments required him to communicate personal experiences to an audience. In Alan’s words, all assignments asked him to take “a bunch of information and [...] put it in an organized fashion and presenting it to an audience that allows them to draw a conclusion or an action in some orderly fashion.” Alan’s comment indicates that the assignments in the course were pushing him to construct and reconstruct audiences each time he worked on a new project. His envisioning audiences for his work in this way demonstrates a meta-awareness of rhetoric that could lead to acts of transfer as reconstruction: Alan learned to consider the audience for each project, but the audience for which he was composing was continually shifting, drawing different conclusions, and/or taking different actions, and this required Alan to adapt as he wrote.

Other evidence from Alan’s products complicates this narrative of transfer, though. Alan’s video, composed collaboratively with two other students, was about the university’s technology center and aimed at incoming students at the university. Listen to Alan's description of his group's video and some of his authorial choices:

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Alan describes his video composition and talks about some of his authorial choices.

Descriptive Transcript

[No audio]White text appears on a black screen, reading "Transfer across Assignments: Alan".
Crystal: Can you tell me about the video that your group made?
Alan: So we did a video on Oakland University's Technology Center.
Alan and Crystal are shown together in an interview. They are sitting across from each other at a table in an office. Crystal has paper and pens for notetaking.
[Violin music plays]
Alan's video voice over: Welcome to the Oakland University Technology Center. The Technology Center is located in the Oakland Center on the bottom floor. The Technology Center offers services and technology mentoring, loaning of equipment, custom workshops, and professional software.
Alan: The video covered a broad spectrum of what exactly, in a broad manner, what the technology center is, what its purpose is,
A clip from Alan's video plays. It opens with the Oakland University logo on a white background. On the bottom of the screen in black text is "From Alan's video..." The next image is of the front desk of the Student Technology Center, with a large title going across the center of the screen reading "Student Technology Center." The next set of images are of the technology center's page on the Oakland website.
Alan: the layout of the facility, what the resources are that they offer, as well as the atmosphere. And then we did a, an interview where the three of us together came up with questions.Alan is shown in the interview with Crystal, who is off screen. He is sitting at the same table in the office.
Crystal: So what's your favorite part of the video? The way it came out in the end?
Alan: I liked the transition of it. We had a narrative part in the beginning with the violins. And then, at the end of the interview, we brought the music back through like a kind of a smooth transition.
The orginal angle of the interview clip in the office showing both Crystal and Alan is shown. At first it is only Crystal, but then pans to Alan as he begins speaking, and then ultimately zooms out. Crystal takes notes as Alan answers.
Crystal: So let's talk more about that music then. So it was like violin music, or what music was it that you guys...?
Alan: Right, it was violins. Some of the students thought it was kind of sad.
Crystal: Yeah, that's what, I think it was you or one of the girls had said, right?
Alan: Right, one of the Chinese girls said it sounded sad.
The camera zooms back in on Crystal as she asks Alan to elaborate. It zooms back out to show both of them as Alan begins answering her.
Classmate: Excuse me. Why did you choose this music? The background music. It's a little sad.A classmate is shown raising her hand to ask a question as Alan is presenting his video. Alan calls on her, and she asks about the video. Across the top of the screen, white text reads "In class after Alan's video presentation..."
Alan: So, yeah. The music was chosen because it had an intuitive tone to it. Since we were focusing on the technology center, and technology is somewhat intuitive, we decided to go with an intuitive sound.
Julie: Because you read that as sad, right? It sounded sad to you?
Classmate: Mmm-hmm.
Alan: Perhaps it was the violins.
Julie: Perhaps it was the violins, yeah.
Alan: Which I happen to enjoy violins [laughter].
Alan is shown answering the question as he stands in front of his class after his presentation.
Alan: I like the violin. To me, the violin is a relaxing instrument.Alan and Crystal are shown again at the table in the office talking about the project.
Alan: I saw it more as like an engaging, interesting, relaxing form of ambiguity.The angle of the interview switches so only Alan is shown, talking to Crystal, who is off screen.

Alan interpreted the sound of the music differently than one member of his audience, and in class he received feedback that his choice might not have had the intended effect. Even so, he did not indicate to me that his choice of music might have been improved, but instead defended his choice. At this stage in Alan’s learning, he seemed focused on his own interpretations of his compositional choices over his audience’s, even as he received and considered audience feedback.

By the final portfolio, Alan’s products reveal some evidence that he had further developed meta-awareness of audiences and their needs and that it was becoming a tool that might facilitate transfer in the future. In his reflective essay, for example, he discusses the course objective that asked students to learn to “compose their texts to address the rhetorical situation,” stating that his paper for the second project was lacking in this area. He wrote,

I believe my tone was not convincing enough or effective enough for my audience. To overcome this I restructured sentences as well as added correct citations based off of MLA as well as changed some of the terminology so that project two was more relevant to first year college students.

Here, Alan articulates his audience awareness: through his comments, he demonstrates meta-awareness of rhetoric relating to the importance of addressing and fulfilling audience needs.

In comparing Alan’s initial submission of a paper for project 2 in February to his revised paper submitted in April, though, it is clear that the changes Alan made within the paper were not as thorough as his comments in the reflection essay would seem to indicate. He changed wording in one sentence and rearranged the order of sentences once, as well as correcting one in-text citation and the corresponding Works Cited entry to conform with MLA style. Other MLA citation errors remain, and there is no evidence that he changed “terminology” with an audience of first-year college students in mind. Julie noted some of these deficiencies in her portfolio feedback, writing to Alan, “[I]n Project 2, there are still some citation errors […], and there are still editing/proofreading errors that are distracting to the reader.” While Alan did transfer the act of analyzing his audience from earlier projects in the course and demonstrates an articulated meta-awareness of audience, his enacted meta-awareness was not fully demonstrated or realized, and thus he didn’t quite reach Nowacek’s stage of “integration,” in which high-road transfer is enacted through “fully dialogized consciousness” and ends with “positive consequences for the student” (33). Alan made some changes to his work that improved it slightly, but his spoken narrative suggests a wider potential application for his audience awareness that is not fully realized in his work or his feedback and grade.

From Julie's Perspective: Seeing Audience Awareness Grow and Challenges with Transfer

Julie, too, saw evidence that Alan was learning to be more sensitive to audiences for his writing. At the end of the course, she told me, “I think Alan got better […] understand[ing] that what was clear to him wasn’t necessarily clear to the audience.” Julie saw evidence of such learning when she discussed the first project’s title with Alan as he revised the paper for the portfolio at the end of the course. Alan’s original title, “‘The Corporate Way’ 101 In Doc [name of company],” used military jargon. Julie questioned the meaning and spelling of the phrase “In Doc,” and both Julie and Alan looked it up online, discovering that the abbreviation was commonly spelled INDOC and stood for "indoctrination." Alan revised his title in his portfolio submission to read “‘The Corporate Way': 101 INDOC (Indoctrination) [name of company].”

Julie recounted that the process of looking up the word INDOC, for Alan, seemed to be an “audience breakthrough where he learned that what was clear to him in his own context from his prior knowledge wasn’t necessarily clear to the reader.” Providing appropriate information for a reader was on Julie’s rubric for the assignment, and she saw Alan catching on to the concept as he revised his title:

That was a breakthrough moment for him where he realized, “Oh, I’ve been writing this down wrong.” [Laughs] It’s familiar to me, and I know what it means, but it wasn’t coming across to the reader at all.

Julie saw Alan making moves as he revised Project 1 at the end of the course that showed that he was learning to keep his audience members and their needs in mind. But with the video and Project 2, he seemed reluctant to acknowledge audience interpretation and needs. Later, Alan talked specifically about audiences and rhetorical situations in his final reflection, and he made small changes to his work with audiences in mind.

Apart from Alan’s experiences with audience awareness, though, other acts of transfer between assignments, as either application or reconstruction, were difficult to observe in Julie's course. Julie built scaffolds into the major projects for transfer as application by having students complete online forum activities in Moodle that would directly relate or become importable into their papers. But students did not often take what they had done online and use or build on it in their papers. Julie explained,

Even when I very consciously and very explicitly say to them, "I had you look at websites, and I had you write a Moodle forum about that website, and you can take that and use it over here in your paper, or you could’ve used it in your video even," they don’t always give themselves permission to do that for some reason. They think that that was then and this is now, and they’re not supposed to reuse it. Or they forget about it. Or they don’t see the connection.

According to Julie’s interpretation, the students were reluctant to transfer at all, for application or for reconstruction. Julie’s verbal reminders of the connections she wanted them to make did not seem to be enough to cause them to see a need or to have a desire to transfer knowledge across assignments. For Julie, this seemed typical:

It’s not unusual in my experience that [students] see these assignments as discrete. It’s like, “Okay. We’ve done this Moodle forum. We’re done with that now,” rather than seeing it as part of the process that’s leading to something else.

Getting students to see an opportunity for transfer between assignments, even for direct transfer as application, was a challenge.

One obstacle Julie thought might have been in the way of transfer was the video project itself, located in the middle of a primary research process. Julie explained,

I also think unfortunately that the video interrupted that process [of researching]. They were so focused on getting the video done that I think it created even more cognitive dissonance between what we had done at the beginning of the research process, with them going and observing and looking at the website so they would know what questions to ask in their interview. That was too long ago. It was too far away in their mind.

The positioning of the video project in Julie’s curriculum, then, may have contributed to what Julie interpreted as “cognitive dissonance” that led to a lack of transfer across Project 2. Students conducted observations and interviews, gathered data from websites, composed videos as a group using the information, and then wrote their research reports. At the very least, the video project lengthened Project 2 considerably, adding more time between gathering data and writing it up. Julie saw some students forgetting to use all the data and sources they had gathered when it came time to move from video to written paper.

In Julie's view, one aspect of the students’ research activities did transfer to the video project. Julie required students to conduct an interview, record it with audio or video, and then transcribe it. When it came time to edit video, the transcripts served as an “unexpected benefit” for students, Julie said. Some students, she explained, “were smart enough to realize that they could just go back to the transcript and use that for the text on the screen. If they wanted to just take a clip but not show the entire video, that they already had done the work of transcribing it to text.” This transfer-as-application move was obvious to Julie as she watched students open their transcript files and copy and paste text as they composed their videos.

The students didn’t make a similar move, though, when it came time to write their research reports. Many students turned in reports that didn’t include quotations from interviews, and Julie was baffled as to why students didn’t once again turn to their transcripts (or videos) for material. Julie addressed me as she would her students: “You have a transcript, and you use some of that transcript as text on a screen. Why aren’t you quoting from your interview in your paper?” Perhaps the timing of composing the written report (several days later) contributed to the lack of transfer from transcript to video to paper. Julie’s comments make clear, though, that even with scaffolding and careful curricular design, students may miss opportunities for transfer and focus only on an immediate task.

Video as Catalyst for Transfer across Assignments

Looking across Lauren’s, Katie’s, and Julie’s courses, it is clear that many acts of transfer were taking place for students and that these acts were varied. Some were acts of application, in which students took course content such as the rhetorical appeals or organizational strategies and imported and directly applied them within a new assignment, sometimes through a different medium. Others were acts of transfer as reconstruction, in which students took knowledge or ways of knowing and morphed what they knew to make it useful in a different way in the next assignment. Some students moved more slowly and subtly toward transfer, did not make transfer moves, or transferred habits or ways of approaching their work that did not serve them well in the end.

Julie believed that the video work might have served as an obstacle for transfer for some of her students, coming as it did between initial research and final write-up. This lack of connection-making was not a problem unique to video or to the second project, though, as Julie thought her students tended to see all assignments as discrete. The students might have needed even more scaffolding and a more robustly articulated meta-awareness to draw connections across assignments and media. For Lauren’s students, the video and the Prezi presentation were sites where transferred knowledge about rhetorical appeals and other content could be displayed. Coming as it did at the end of the course, the multimedia career investigation project encouraged acts of transfer as reconstruction as students reenvisioned what an appeal to pathos might look and sound like, for example, through image and sound. For Katie’s students, video served as a catalyst for transfer, providing them with a multimodal space to try out expression of ideas and organizational techniques that would later be used and/or adapted for a written research essay. While video itself was of course not the only variable involved in students’ processes of transfer across assignments, it served as a positive influence for many, causing them to consider and articulate their knowledge, ways of knowing, habits, and strategies anew and pushing them toward acts of transfer as reconstruction as they composed in shifted, multimodal ways.