Writing transfer research at Western Illinois University

Neil Baird and Bradley Dilger
Dept of English & Journalism
Western Illinois U

We are studying writing transfer, focusing on students as they enter their majors. Transfer is the movement of abilities, methods, skills, and knowledge from one domain to another: does work experience help writing in school? Do lessons learned in courses help writing for student organizations? Our project seeks to learn more about transfer through a multi-year case study of student writers as they enter their majors and then the workforce. We are currently in our second of three years, thanks to rich internal and external support. This site provides an overview of our project and will soon offer links to preliminary findings.

Your comments and questions are welcome at any time.


April 25, 2014: We hosted the WIU Writing Program's "Deserts and Discussions" today. Great conversation! Here's the handout about teaching composition we shared to get the discussion started.

April 22, 2014: Today we are presenting "Teaching Writing Instruction in the Disciplines for Transfer" for the WIU community. Here is our handout.

July 24, 2013: Team Transfer drove to Savannah for CWPA 2013, which was fabulous (the conference; less so the 32 hours on the road). Here's the handout from our talk, which remixed our Elon and CCCC talks (below).

June 26, 2013: We were thrilled to be a part of Critical Transitions, the Elon conference on writing transfer. As part of our panel with Emily Isaacs and Tara Lockhart, we shared this handout (PDF).

March 16, 2013: We recently attended CCCC 2013 in Las Vegas and presented some findings relevant to internships. Here are the materials we shared:

Feb 7, 2013: We shared our work with our WIU colleagues today, hoping to offer an introduction to our project and some practical help for those interested in teaching for transfer:

Writing Transfer Beyond First Year Writing

Recently, research in writing studies has more frequently asked questions about transfer: the movement of abilities, methods, skills, and knowledge from one domain to another. As Elizabeth Wardle (2009) has pointed out, we have too long assumed that students can easily apply what they learn in general writing courses like first year composition (at Western, this is ENG 180, College Composition I) to courses in their major where discipline-specific writing is required, or to writing at home or on the job. Wardle echoes the arguments of David Russell (1995) and other writing studies researchers who believe that failing to acknowledge the difficulty of transfer radically reduces the usefulness of writing courses.

Lack of understanding of transfer causes problems as students find writing essays in the manner of English classes quite literally fails for lab reports in Biology. On the one hand, this is understandable: Russell, in particular, points out the difficulty of teaching for transfer, and reminds us that teaching and learning any kind of metacognitive skill is challenging. On the other hand, with writing curricula all over the USA based on the assumption “transfer can and does happen without teacher engagement,” reading Wardle and Russell suggests the need for immediate action.

Working independently, Neil and I identified negotiation (the formation of identity via responses to differences between personal motives and histories, and the social arrangements in which writing takes place) and ease (a very common strategy we use, with mixed results, to learn technologies, including writing) as possible barriers to writing transfer. When we realized this commonality, it seemed natural to begin working together.

Few studies of writing transfer have explicitly targeted state comprehensive universities like Western, even though we serve a large percentage of American college students. A second sense of transfer complicates learning at WIU: our large number of transfer students, who are moving from (or between) the academic cultures of two-year or for-profit colleges to universities. Indeed, we expect transfer students to become the norm, rather than the exception, as our state legislature encourages the ???2+2??? model, where students complete most if not all of their first two years of coursework at community colleges. Like many state comprehensives, Western Illinois is aggressively pursuing this approach, with our provost recently announcing a goal to establish 2+2 articulation agreements for every program at WIU in the near future.

These 2+2 agreements may indeed increase student enrollment. However, challenges to successful writing transfer will increase because students??? writing knowledge and experiences will become even more heterogenous. More than ever, educators will not be able to assume students have a fairly common experience in their writing courses. And they must confront increased tensions and conflicts between cultures, as more students bring the cultures of workplace writing and community college writing into university classrooms???sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. Such changes will make questions about transfer of skills and knowledge even more important, as they increase demands on students and faculty alike. Hence, our research.

Research questions

Wardle and other researchers have focused much of their efforts on first-year composition. Given Western’s large population of transfer students, we are more interested in questions which reach that demographic:

With this in mind, we see several core deliverables:

  1. A series of white papers which share our findings about writing transfer with academic audiences outside of writing studies, targeting first our colleagues at WIU. These papers would be supported by web-based resources which explain relevant concepts in writing studies.
  2. Workshops and web-based resources which seek to apply our findings to writing instruction in the disciplines.
  3. Academic articles which describe our findings, not only in terms of the barriers to transfer we are investigating, but for other areas of finding. For example, our research is yielding interesting data about internships and apprenticeship-like experiences.
  4. An academic book which collates material from these articles with other findings.

Research design

In 2011-12, with support from a University Research Council grant, English & Journalism, and Arts & Sciences, we began our long-term longitudinal study. We recruited ten students from upper-division WID courses, reaching a wide variety of majors and worked with nine for the entire academic year. We conducted seven interviews with most participants, learning a tremendous amount from our conversations, which included careful reviews of their writing. We also interviewed students' instructors, learning how writing is constructed in their courses and departments.

In 2012-13, we are continuing work with seven participants from our first year. Our recruitment process added six more participants, targeting social sciences and natural sciences. As of December 2012, we have completed three interviews with our new participants and are planning Spring 2013 work.

Our diverse methods are producing a rich set of data which will meet the challenge of studying transfer by allowing us to locate both tacit and explicit knowledge about writing in students.

Because we are deeply committed to conducting research in a manner which truly benefits our participants, we imagine them as co-researchers to the extent possible. Participants are compensated and, if they desire, can receive specialized assistance from us regarding their writing at school in the workplace. We will also engage in joint decision making with participants to ensure acceptable representation of them in our scholarship.


This research is supported internally by a University Research Council (URC) grant, the Department of English & Journalism, and the College of Arts & Sciences. Externally, we are thankful for grant funding from the Conference on College Composition and Communication and the Council of Writing Program Administrators.

Our first research protocol (#463-11) was approved by the WIU Institutional Review Board in May 2011. We updated our research protocol (#063-13) in September 2012.

Grant applications


For more information

Bradley Dilger, Professor of English
Simpkins Hall 213

Neil Baird, Assistant Professor of English; Director, University Writing Center
Simpkins Hall 213

Bradley Dilger, English & Journalism, Western Illinois U
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