Talking Transfer—and Longitudinal Studies of Writing

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The Stanford Study of Writing—a five-year longitudinal study of writing development throughout college—is almost twenty years old now, and it’s interesting and gratifying to note that I am still in touch with some of the participants. They are now well into adulthood, with families and into their (sometimes second!) careers. When I occasionally speak with one of them, what I can say is that being a part of this five-year study is something they remember well, something they still say had an impact on their lives. This makes me wish that all student writers could be part of carefully designed longitudinal studies: simply being in the study, I think, has a strong effect.

Because of that experience, I’ve been following research based on longitudinal studies ever since, most recently in Dana Lynn Driscoll and Wenqi Cui’s “Visible and Invisible Transfer: A Longitudinal Investigation of Learning to Write and Transfer across Five Years,” published in the December 2021 issue of College Composition and Communication. In this study, the authors “tracked students’ writing knowledge, skills, and strategies as they engaged in undergraduate writing experiences over five years.” They considered their findings to be surprising:

While students do transfer a considerable amount of knowledge, 78% of transfer that occurs is often “invisible” to them, or they may re-attribute where knowledge comes from over time. Further, higher rates of transfer are correlated with learning that is expanded or reinforced at multiple points in students’ education, including in FYW and disciplinary writing. Our range of findings suggest wide-ranging implications for writing instruction and assessment, including articulating the importance of reinforcing and expanding prior knowledge both in FYW and disciplinary writing, the complexity that genre forms and genre knowledge play in learning transfer, the unseen nature of transfer of different writing skills, and the issue of invisibility . . . . (230-31)

This study is well worth reading in its entirety, especially for the rich case study of one particular student. And the findings are certainly important and deserving of additional research, though to me they were not at all surprising. In fact, they corroborate some of what I saw in the Stanford study and, moreover, my own experience in almost fifty years of working with undergraduate college writers. Much of what any of us learns remains “invisible,” below the level of consciousness, but operative, nevertheless, in important ways for further learning and for everyday life.

That is not to say we shouldn’t follow the advice of Driscoll and Cui and work hard to make the invisible visible—to focus on opportunities for ongoing student reflection and to focus on reinforcing and expanding writing knowledge, skills, and strategies well beyond FYW and indeed throughout the undergrad curricula. We should do all we can to advance these goals. But we should also recognize, as these authors do, that learning will always be messy and difficult to track and that invisible, sometimes increasingly tacit, knowledge will always mark processes of learning.

So thanks to researchers like Driscoll and Cui, we have new questions to ask and new goals to pursue. Here’s to more and more good, solid longitudinal research on writing.

Image Credit: "Lake Street Transfer (early 1940s)" by Chicago Transit Authority, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.