Teaching for Transfer: Enhancing Teaching of Writing
AUC’s liberal arts curriculum promises to develop in our students habits of the mind that characterize well rounded-individuals, with a breadth of knowledge in various fields that develop transferable skills which enable them to think critically, communicate articulately, and live purposefully. The structure of the curriculum found at AUC is typical of many American liberal arts universities - students cover content knowledge through their schools and departments of major, and select from categories of courses that cultivate the liberal arts skills in the Core Curriculum. This separation has many benefits, allowing departments to focus on their disciplinary mission, while the Core lays the ground for lifelong learning by introducing them to fields and perspectives outside of their majors, with skills-based learning outcomes.
While practical, separation may create a perception in students and faculty that the skills acquired in the Core do not relate to majors or careers, and are instead, more theoretical and academic, removed from real-life application. In other words, it is precisely this division in structure that may be a hindrance to transfer of skills. A more meaningful and purposeful integration of learning to reflect the relevance of both areas for addressing complex real-world problems needed to bring about enhanced learning and natural transfer of learning across the curriculum.
Our role as educators in the AUC’s Core Curriculum - the university's embodiment of its support for liberal arts education - is to demonstrate to students that these concepts and values naturally integrate with what they are learning in their majors, careers, and lives, and are a vital part of being competent in any field. If our claims that liberal education skills are needed across the curriculum will stand, curricular design needs to intentionally integrate the core with the majors, such that skills naturally transfer from one learning context to another without students having to switch gears from one mode of thinking to another, or be reminded that, for example, critical reading or persuasive writing is needed in a particular situation. In other words, faculty in the Core Curriculum must develop in students the learning habit of integrative thinking, where all coursework, career preparation, and activities complement each other for meaningful preparation and participation in academic and professional life.
Integrative learning that facilitates transfer has several key characteristics (Ferren & Paris, 2015). In addition to targeting holistic learning outcomes that enhance intellectual and personal growth, it encourages students to contextualize their learning in real-life situations, and is not bound by disciplinary restrictions. Learning activities present problems to solve and engage students in conversation with sources from various backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences. Employed pedagogies and assessment encourage inquiry and research, reflection and evaluation, and steer away from close-ended solutions.
Written communication is among the most critical outcomes of a liberal arts curriculum. Writing is also one of the most challenging areas for our students, in that they have little preparation to view writing as an act of communication through which all knowledge is made meaningful. Despite strategic positioning of writing courses within first-year curricula and much institutional emphasis on the importance of developing proficient writing skills, our students are still challenged in mastering this critical cognitive and social skill, or recognizing it as a skill that needs lifelong development no matter what they are studying.
A large-scale study that analyzes characteristics of effective writing assignments (Anderson et al., 2015) indicates that writing assignments that engage students in an iterative writing process require critical thinking and integration (as opposed to straight reporting) and provide students with clear writing and grading expectations, which bring about more effective learning. Quality rather than quantity is significant in achievement of outcomes. Students exposed to this kind of reflective writing also become more aware of the benefits of effective communication in being more holistically competent in thinking and approaching problems.
Integrative learning thus invites us to think of teaching writing as being less about familiarizing students with the conventions of writing for different purposes, and more about nurturing a mindset of metacognition that encourages students to think of the effectiveness of their communication, ask themselves what they can do to better achieve their purpose in writing, and engage in an evaluation of their goals in each assignment - in other words, deep engagement with the writing process. Tinberg (2017) recommends that students do a post-writing reflection on assignments in order to develop the habit of metacognition and encourage integration of the act of writing with a broader goal of effective communication. These reflections invite students to think about the writing skills they used and begin to develop a personalized theory of writing that enables them to understand how they approach writing tasks.
Creating an integrative learning culture that fosters effective writing and communication on our campus will require reexamining all of our curricula through this lens. It also requires a positioning by our writing faculty to present writing less as a specialized convention-bound discipline, and more as a necessary thought process that is versatile, personal, and attainable by all students in order to become better learners and participants in dialogues across the disciplines and professions. This will enhance natural connections between content knowledge and cognitive and communication skills and enable students to experience the benefits of a liberal arts education while preparing for life in the real world.
- Anderson, P., Anson, C. M., Gonyea, R. M., & Paine, C. (2015). The Contributions of Writing to Learning and Development: Results from a Large-Scale Multi-Institutional Study. Research in the Teaching of English, 50, 199–235.
- Ferren, A. S., & Paris, D. C. (2015). Faculty Leadership for Integrative Liberal Learning. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
- Tinberg, H. (2017). Teaching for Transfer: A Passport for Writing in New Contexts. Peer Review, 19 (1), 17-20.