Knowledge Transfer in the Writing Center

In the movie The Karate Kid, karate master Mr. Miyagi shows Daniel how to wax cars by making circular motions with each hand: “Wax on, right hand. Wax off, left hand. Wax on, wax off. Breathe in through nose, out of the mouth. Wax on, wax off. Don’t forget to breathe, very important…” Daniel does this hundreds of times until he complains that he signed up for Karate lessons from the old master, not to be his slave. Daniel and the audience quickly realize that the hand movements that Daniel was repeating over and over, and the breathing technique, were in fact the building blocks of the sport he hoped to master. How’s that for transferring procedural knowledge and re-purposing those waxing skills—that muscle memory—into an elevated form?

As a Writing Center consultant, one of my most vexing challenges is to incorporate transfer, commonly defined as the ability to take something learned in one context, and apply it in another, into tutoring practices. Most scholars agree that there is a correlation between successful transfer strategies and writing improvement.

In theory, the consultant can instigate “backward transfer” by asking the student leading questions such as: “Have you written something similar to this before?” or “Tell me about your writing process,” or at the end of the session—in “forward transfer” mode: “Did you learn something today that you can use in future writing assignments?” This approach is meant to prod the writer into reviewing past experiences stored in a metaphorical mental tool kit. We ask writers to find and apply that one applicable tool to the assignment at hand.

The writing consultant’s most direct strategy when applying transfer is knowing that different writing assignments rely on common rhetorical elements, i.e. logical advancement of arguments; evidence to support statements; attribution and structural organization; however, all learners (and consultants) arrive at new learning situations with a pre-established knowledge base. In addition to “declarative or content knowledge,” which is knowing of something, or “procedural knowledge,” which is knowing how to, the learner has a kind of mechanism for regulating those skills, which scholars refer to as “dispositions:” these are the beliefs and attitudes that influence learning behaviors and “processing capacity,” or cognitive ability. Some “dispositional” factors identified by writing scholars, like self-efficacy, attribution, and self-regulation, are key to understanding transfer. Self-efficacy is tied to self-esteem; attribution refers to each person’s tendencies to place blame on oneself, or on external forces like teachers; and self-regulation deals with the learner’s ability to adapt to new situations through goal-setting and time management.

The role of metacognition (learning about one’s inherent learning processes) goes hand in hand with the writing consultant’s ability to recognize each learner’s individual “dispositions.” These dispositional factors will hinder or encourage learning; and the consultant’s awareness of them will provide her with a clearer blueprint on how to instigate transfer. In one instance, an international student from China came into the Writing Center with a draft for a scholarly paper. When I pointed out a pattern of errors with articles in an otherwise well-structured and meaningful essay, the student apologized profusely and said he would work harder to correct his sentences. He also wondered if he would ever be able to publish with such “poor” knowledge of English. I realized that the student’s extreme self-criticism of his efficacy, and his inability to attribute his less-than-perfect command of English to the very real hardships of mastering a second language, were part of the dispositional factors that would influence transfer. But knowing that the student would have a high level of self-regulation, I gave him various resource links on article use and exercises to work on. I also tried to walk him through the reasons for his sentence-level errors, attempting to trigger a metacognitive awareness. When the student explained that in Chinese, articles are not used, I asked the student to think of the difficulties of learning a second language, and of how many more mistakes an American learner of Chinese probably made. He laughed heartily, and the session became more fluid.

Although writing strategies transcend genre and discipline, for transfer to occur, writing consultants need to “trigger” not only past applicable knowledge, but, more importantly, a metacognitive awareness in the learner about the usefulness of the exercise. Beyond a superficial attempt to pull information from a previous assignment, most students may have trouble even identifying relevant learned skills.  

So, how can writing consultants trigger this “mindful abstraction”?

Looking into my personal experience as  an MFA student in Creative Writing, my own “Miyagi moment” may be less cinematic, if equally telling: I am a photographer who wants to be a writer. How could I “transfer” decades of mastering a visual process to this current written one? How to upend the maxim “A picture is worth a thousand words” to serve a new master? This “transfer” miracle happened in a first-year MFA course called Creativity: Ways of Seeing. In one first exercise, I was asked to do a “free write” on a photo of a faceless man in a bowler hat. I understood the creative process behind the photograph of René Magritte’s self-portrait The Son of Man. Photographs were the end result of an almost instantaneous creative process, in which one evaluates and simultaneously captures both the reality and the in-between-the-lines truth behind the scene being photographed.  Art, like Magritte’s surrealist painting, and writing explore what hides behind what we see. By making connections between form and function, materials and subject, and tradition and innovation (goals mentioned in the class description), I was able to transfer my way of seeing to the printed page, in as many words as needed to convey what Magritte called “a conflict between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.”

This philosophical conflict points to the intangible, shifting-sands nature of Transfer Theory, and why it is important for writing consultants to understand the context of each student’s learning make-up and to use context-based transfer methodologies like Activity Theory, which takes into account sociocultural situations. These approaches can aid writing consultants with the bigger challenge faced when attempting transfer techniques with L2 students. An L2 learner myself, I know that our “dispositions” routinely override accessing content and procedural knowledge. Consultants can improve the tutoring experience by using the ice-breaker portion of the appointment to gain some understanding of the student’s background, her level of English and the level of understanding of the assignment at hand.

In one recent case, an international student came in with the creative writing prompt to write a fairy tale. After reading her draft, I asked her if she knew what a fairy tale was. The student seemed uncertain. I then offered a few examples: Little Red Riding Hood and Rumpelstiltskin were not familiar to her. Since the fairy tale is a genre common to every culture, I asked her to recall a childhood story she remembered. The student’s eyes lit up, and she recounted a story of a young couple whose love transcends death; her story had an animal character that traversed the realms of the living and the dead, hair as a magical cure for illness, and the leaving of white feathers plucked from a magical chicken as markers to show the way. It also had a happy, if grim, ending that saw the lovers reunite in death.

Once the student had established the connection, I suggested she retell the story started in her draft as if she was telling the story to a child in her family. I also advised her to write a reverse outline to identify the plot of her current story and to evaluate the progression of the narrative.  

This combination of strategies used transfer to help the student understand the assignment, as well as introduced a common writing center strategy to improve the structure of the piece.

Writing scholar Dana Driscoll admits that “transfer is difficult to do and hard to teach.” As writing center consultants, we need to navigate the sometimes seismic shifts between disparate, but interrelated “spheres of influence” that shape each student learner. Whether these spheres of influence encompass cultural and linguistic markers, or educational influences, or work-related habits, they can become part of the writing consultant’s arsenal to instigate transfer with greater success.

MFA Creative Writing and Publishing Arts candidate, photographer and avid reader

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2 Comments on “Knowledge Transfer in the Writing Center

  1. Oh my god, “wax on, wax off” is really the perfect metaphor for transfer. This is a great post, and it gave me new information and perspective!

  2. This is a very nice summary of how to apply transfer in the writing center, and I agree with the above comment about your use of “wax on; wax off.” Good work!

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