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Study of Writing Skill Transfer in Geology Majors

By Jenna Murphy

The study of transfer, spanning the fields of both Psychology and Rhetoric and Composition, has
lasted over 100 years (Yancey et al. 6), providing a broad body of findings and conclusions. An
operating definition of “transfer” entails how students “actively make use of prior knowledge as
they respond to new writing tasks” (Robertson et al.). However, key questions remain about
various aspects of transfer, what it looks like, and how it can be facilitated. The purpose of this
research study is to identify evidence of transfer according to the above definition in the writing
skills of Geology majors from Geomorphology (GEOL 312) or other writing courses to a
capstone course, Field Geology (GEOL 450).
Prior research experience in Writing in the Disciplines (WID) pedagogy has positioned me to
look further into the transfer question. In the Fall of 2015, I had the opportunity to collaborate
with Dr. Kenneth Lepper of the North Dakota State University (NDSU) Geology Department to
implement WID pedagogy into a mid-level Geomorphology (GEOL 312) course. Course
adaptations included embedded writing goals within laboratory assignments, individualized
student writing conferences, and providing verbal and written feedback to writing assignments.
The course occurred in the Spring 2016 semester, and I had the opportunity to work directly with
students in GEOL 312 by facilitating these course adaptations. Now, in the Fall of 2017, seven of
these students have begun a Writing Intensive (WI) Upper-Division Geology Capstone course,
Field Geology (GEOL 450). The remaining five students in the course have not taken GEOL
312. Because of my prior experience in tailoring writing instruction to Geology majors’
discipline-specific and professional needs, I would like to explore evidence of transfer in these
students’ current writing practices and writing knowledge.
In particular, the questions posed in this study are as follows:

How do Geology majors describe their writing practices and writing knowledge?
What concepts and processes do students report drawing upon for writing in their
advanced geology course, and where do they report having learned those concepts and
Is there evidence in student work and reflection that concepts and processes from GEOL
312 inform writing in GEOL 450?

The use of research tools in this study, including interviews, conferences and student writing
samples, will help answer the questions posed above. In GEOL 312 specific writing goals were

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established for the students. These included the use of specific and precise language, appropriate
topic sentences, logical organization, adequate development and supporting evidence,
appropriate transitions, unity of ideas and coherence, and sentence variety. Through the
interviews, conferences, and analysis of student work, this study hopes to determine if and to
what extent these goals have become part of student writing in GEOL 450. Aspects of the writing
process, such as revision and drafting, will also be discussed in interviews or conferences. Other
data, also gathered through interviews and conferences, will focus on students’ writing process
and decision making in current coursework. Finally, interview questions will also invite the
students to appraise their own writing abilities and share their experience of writing instruction
both in and outside the field of Geology.
The objectives of this study are related to my interest in prior research with students in GEOL
312. Evidence of transfer, how it occurs, why it occurs, and what skills and practices it consists
of, are the main lines of inquiry in this study. There is still much to be uncovered about the
transfer question, and more case studies are needed. The current status of former GEOL 312
students engaging in WI Capstone coursework presents an excellent opportunity to further
investigate these questions.
Although longitudinal studies of writing-transfer research have begun to appear in ongoing
discussion (e.g., Sommers and Saltz 2004), further examples are needed. Research into the
writing practices and writing knowledge of students in GEOL 450 would provide another
iteration of transfer related research, shedding light in the very discipline-specific writing domain
of Geology. Because of the unique course progression, a study following students from GEOL
312 to GEOL 450 provides one such longitudinal study.
In addition, this study could reveal student perceptions of the ability of writing instruction to
transfer to future endeavors in a career or advanced degree program. In a study conducted at the
University of Hawaii by Hilgers, Hussey and Stitt-Bergh (1999), students like those in GEOL
450 have been found to attribute “relevance,” or the ability of writing instruction to transfer to
future endeavors, to their experience in strongly correlated WID courses. Researchers Hussey et
al. found that “students on the brink of graduation were engaged in writing assignments they
believed prepared them for future employment or an advanced degree: more than 80% of the
students reported preparedness for writing in their chosen fields” (345). Students currently in
GEOL 450, specifically those who took GEOL 312 last Spring, experienced a strongly correlated
WID course. The question of how relevant writing instruction is to student endeavors after
college could be further investigated in this study through a recording of student perceptions.
Transfer-related research also aligns with my professional goals. The fields of Psychology and
Rhetoric and Composition are two disciplines I have long been interested in. The study of
transfer is situated within a framework that weds these two fields, with its interest in

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metacognition and writing studies. I plan to apply for graduate school and will pursue a Masters
in either Counseling or English. Continued research into the transfer question allows me to
develop interpersonal and professional skills related to both of these fields.
The methodology involved in this study will involve several forms of research: first, scholarly
research related to the discussion of transfer, and second, student interviews and analysis of
student writing samples. Optional student conferences may also provide research data.
Scholarly research on the study of transfer for this study will draw heavily on Kathleen Blake
Yancey’s book, “Writing Across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Cultures of Writing.”
Other source texts include, “How People Learn,” (2000) by the National Research Council and
publications generated by the Elon University Transfer Institute, such as Kara Taczak’s, “The
Question of Transfer,” and Elizabeth Wardle’s, "Creative Repurposing for Expansive Learning.”
Scholarship spanning the transfer question will be engaged to foreground and develop an
understanding of the discussion both past and present.
Data will also be collected through research tools:

Students will engage in two, 30-minute interviews consisting of transfer-related
questions. These interviews will be audio recorded and take place in a reserved study
room in NDSU’s main library. The interviews should reveal student self-perception of
writing practices and knowledge
Student writing samples will be collected for analysis of writing skill development. The
writing samples will be part of regularly scheduled student assignments for the course.
Students will also have the option to engage in a writing conference, in which they may
receive writing instruction, if they so wish. The informal discussion during the writing
conference will also be audio recorded.

Selective transcripts of the audio recordings will be generated to assist researchers in identifying
observable trends, evidence of transfer and its characteristics, and other surprise findings. Data
collected through these tools is intended to reveal student writing practices and knowledge,
writing processes and concepts, and evidence of transfer in these areas from GEOL 312 to GEOL
Proposal (draft) due—September 27th
IRB Sumission (including Interview Questions and Informed Consent Form)—September 30th
IRB Revisions--Resubmission

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Signed Proposal due—October 4th
IRB Revisions --Resubmission
Mentor Meeting—October 6th
IRB Approval—October 7th
Practice Interview and Test Equipment
Possible IRB amendment—October 8th
Interviews and Conferences—
October 10th-October 14th and/or
October 24th-October 28th
Annotated Bibliography due—October 20th
Mentor Meeting—October 20th
Progress Report for final project—October 25th
NDSU Explore—November 1st
Mentor Meeting—November 3rd
Draft of Capstone project due—November 8th
Abstract due—November 17th
Mentor Meeting—November 17th
Final Revisions due—November 22nd
Mentor Meeting—November 31st
Portfolio due—December 12th
Reading List:
Adler-Kassner, Linda et al. “The Value of Troublesome Knowledge: Transfer and Threshold
Concepts in Writing and History.” Composition Forum, vol. 26, 2012.
Beaufort, Anne. College Writing and Beyond: A New Network for University Writing Instruction.
Logan, Utah State University Press, 2007.

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Bergmann, Linda and Janet Zepernick. “Disciplinarity andTransfer: Students’ Perceptions of
Learning to Write.” Journal of the Council of Writing Program Administrators, vol. 31,
no. ½, 2007, pp. 124-149.
Boone, Stephanie et al. “Imagining a Writing and Rhetoric Program Based on Principles of
Knowledge ‘Transfer’: Dartmouth’s Institute for Writing and Rhetoric.” Composition
Forum, vol. 26, 2012.
Bransford, John. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, D.C.,
National Academy Press, 2000.
Carillo, Ellen C. “Creating Mindful Readers in First-Year Composition Courses: A Strategy to
Facilitate Transfer.” Pedagogy, vol. 16, no. 1, Jan. 2016, pp. 9-22.
Clark, Irene and Andrea Hernandez. “Genre Awareness, Academic Argument, and
Transferability.” The WAC Journal, vol. 22, 2011, pp. 65–78.
DePalma. "Tracing Transfer across Media: Investigating Writers' Perceptions of CrossContextual and Rhetorical Reshaping in Processes of Remediation." CCC 66.4, June
Downs, Douglas and Elizabeth Wardle. “Teaching About Writing, Righting Misconceptions:
(Re)Envisioning ‘First-Year’ Composition’ as ‘Introduction to Writing Studies.’.”
College Composition and Communication, vol. 58, no. 4, 2007, pp. 552-584.
Graff, Nelson. “Teaching Rhetorical Analysis to Promote Transfer of Learning.” Journal of
Adolescent & Adult Literacy, vol. 53, no. 5, Feb. 2010, pp. 376-385.
Hilgers,T.L. et al. “ ‘As You’re Writing, You Have These Epiphanies’: What College Students
Say about Writing and Learning in Their Majors.” Written Communication, vol. 16, no.
3, Jan. 1999, pp. 317–353. doi:10.1177/0741088399016003003.
Jarratt, Susan C. “Pedagogical Memory: Writing, Mapping, Translating.” Journal of the Council
of Writing Program Administrators, vol. 33, no. 1/2, pp. 46-73, 2009..
McCarthy, Lucille. “A Stranger in Strange Lands: A College Student Writing Across the
Curriculum.” Research in the Teaching of English 27.3 (1987): 233-65. Print.
Moore, Jessie. “Mapping the Questions: The State of Writing-Related Transfer Research.”
Composition Forum, vol. 26, 2012.
Robertson, Liane et al. “Notes Toward a Theory of Prior Knowledge and Its Role in College
Composers’ Transfer of Knowledge and Practice.” Composition Forum, vol. 26. 2012.

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Sommers, Nancy, and Laura Saltz. “The Novice as Expert: Writing the Freshman Year.” College
Composition and Communication, vol. 56, no. 1, 2004, p. 124. doi:10.2307/4140684.
Taczak, Kara. “The Question of Transfer.” Composition Forum, vol. 26, 2012.
Wardle, Elizatbeth. “Creative Repurposing for Expansive Learning: Considering ‘Problem
Exploring’ and ‘Answer-Getting’ Dispositions in Individuals and Fields.” Introduction.
Composition Forum 26, 2012.
Wardle, Elizabeth. “Understanding ‘Transfer’ from FYC: Preliminary Results of a Longitudinal
Study.” WPA: Writing Program Administration 31.1–2 (2007), 65–85. Print.
Yancey, Kathleen Blake et al. Writing across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of
Writing. Boulder, CO, University Press of Colorado, 2014.

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Appendix: Interview Questions

Student Identification:

What is your name and major?


How long have you been a Geology major?

Student Course Status:

Did you take GEOL312 last Spring (SPR 2016) with Dr. Lepper?

1a. If you did, do you believe the assignments in GEOL 312 were relevant to your college
writing and professional geology writing? To what degree did you find the instruction in GEOL
312 help you develop a foundation for better college writing and professional geology writing?
1b. If you did not, which courses do you believe have developed a foundation for better college
writing and professional geology writing? Were the assignments relevant to your college writing
and professional geology writing?

Describe those courses briefly. (i.e., what types of assignments, instructor style)

GEOL 312:
Tell me about your major assignments in GEOL 312—what were they about? What did
they require of you?

Did each assignment build on the last one? Did you take anything away from the first
assignment and use what you learned in a later assignment, for example? What did you apply
from one assignment to another?

Tell me about the writing process for each assignment. Was the process the same or
different? What were the steps you took to complete the assignment? What was the hardest part
of that process? What was the best part? Why?
GEOL 450:
Tell me about your major assignments in GEOL 450—what are they about? What do they
require of you?

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Does each assignment build on the last one? Did you take anything away from the first
assignment and use what you learned in a later assignment, for example? What have you applied
from one assignment to another?

Tell me about the writing process for each assignment. Was the process the same or
different? What is your approach? What are the steps you take to complete the assignment? What
is the hardest part of that process? What is the best part? Why?

Are any of these assignments new types of writing for you? Are there any you haven’t
been asked to write in your academic experience yet? Which ones?

How will you approach these new assignments? What will you do to figure out the best
way to write these? What specific things will you focus on?

(WITH PARTICULAR ASSIGNMENT IDENTIFIED) What did the assignment ask you
to do? How did you do that? What made it successful?

Where did you learn this strategy/approach? (IF NECESSARY) Can you say more about
where that came from…did you apply that from some other time it worked well for you? What
made it appropriate this time, or what made you think it would work well here?

Writing Practices and Knowledge:

What is your writing process or theory of writing? Do you think about what you’re going
to write, or plan your writing in advance? Do you revise your writing? If so, please describe this
process. What does it include?

How has it changed, progressed, and/or morphed since taking GEOL312/other writing

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How would you describe yourself as a writer right now? (Are you an expert or a novice
and why?)

What does it take to be successful at writing? How would you advise someone else if
they asked you what it takes to be successful at writing as a geology professional v.s. in daily

How would you describe the geology-writing instruction have you received up to this
point? How have you learned to write? What is the single most important writing advice you
have received? What is the worst advice you’ve received?

Have you been given or developed a vocabulary to talk about your writing—in Geology
writing and other courses? Do you feel confident using a writing vocabulary to talk about your
writing ?

What did you learn in GEOL312/other writing courses that you have carried forward to
writing situations right now? How do you think that transfer happened? Did you transfer
deliberately, or are there things that transferred unconsciously?

Is there one thing about writing, such as a writing tool, strategy, or thought, that you find
works for you all the time? If yes, what is it? Where did you learn it? Why does it work?


What kinds of writing are you currently engaged in? (summary, analysis, description,


What “rules” or prior knowledge do you bring to your writing process?

What would you consider your best writing—both with Geology writing and outside of
it? Why is it your best writing?

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Thinking across all the writing that you’ve done so far in your college experience, how
does it all connect? How is it related? (PROBE: Would you say it’s all related, or that each
writing experience builds off the last? If yes, in what ways? Or is each writing experience
random, or new, with no connection to the past?)