Department of Writing and Rhetoric

O'Dowd Hall, Room 378
586 Pioneer Drive
Rochester, MI 48309-4482
(location map)
(248) 370-2746
fax: (248) 370-2748

Writing About Writing

Research on Effective First-Year Writing: 
Writing About Writing and the Question of Transfer

About the project: In the Fall 2011 semester, the Department of Writing and Rhetoric is undertaking a pilot study of our WRT150 courses that seeks to develop more effective writing instruction. This pilot study is part of a larger multi-institutional research cohort that seeks to examine transfer-of-learning issues within writing studies. For more information on the Elon University Research Seminar on Critical Transitions; Writing and the Question of Transfer, please visit the seminar website. Specifically, the project investigates the impact that a Writing about Writing (WAW) curriculum has on our WRT150 courses (and beyond) at Oakland. Data collected will be used to improve our program and also contribute to a larger multi-institutional study of WAW and transfer.


Overarching Question: What is the effect of a WAW / rhetorically-based curriculum on transfer of learning, as explored in diverse writing course contexts?

About Transfer of Learning: One of the most important goals for any learning environment is that students are able to adapt knowledge gained to new contexts, that this knowledge will in some way “transfer” to settings beyond their immediate courses. Educational institutions build curricula around the assumption that knowledge transfers: from high school to college, from class period to class period, from course to course, and from the university to the workplace. However, educational researchers working in a variety of settings for over a century have been more successful in demonstrating how transfer of learning fails rather than how it succeeds (Thorndike, 1901; Haskell, 2005). This failure raises serious questions about the efficacy of learning in higher education and provides ample need for more research on transfer. In fact, McKeough, Lupart, and Marini (1995) argue that transfer remains the most challenging problem for educational research today. If students are unable to apply practices, skills, and knowledge gained in one context to a new context, they have not truly learned and may continue to struggle in each new learning situation. Transfer is of particular concern when examining how effective first-year writing is in preparing students with a foundation for their introduction to disciplinary coursework. Our study examines the transferability of a particular

Writing about Writing (WAW) Approach to Teaching First-Year Writing: First discussed by Downs and Wardle (2007), a WAW approach makes writing the subject and content of a FYW course. WAW shifts FYW from teaching general academic writing to “Introduction to Writing and Rhetoric Studies” and gives students tools to help them adapt to new writing situations (such as disciplinary coursework). This approach emphasizes transferable knowledge, metacognition, and skills focused on students’ understanding reading and writing in rhetorical situations. Writing becomes for students a “researchable activity rather than a mysterious talent” (Downs & Wardle, 2007, p. 560)

Metacognition: Metacognition, also known as “learning about learning,” is a cognitive strategy that students can be taught that can drastically increase their success in transferring learning to new classroom and non-classroom contexts (National Research Council, How People Learn, 1999). Metacognition includes students’ ability to reflect and monitor their own learning strategies, growth, and needs. Metacognition for writing courses includes students’ ability to critically reflect on and make connections to their past and future writing contexts and also reflects their ability to monitor their own growth as writers.

Research Team Members:
Marilyn Borner
Ryan Blank
Timothy Briggs
Amanda Deschamps
Suzanne Drapeau
Dana Driscoll
Brittany Forth
Laura Gabrion
Paul Gelinas
Christina Hall
Catherine Haar
Kathy Lawson
Rachel Seiderman

Project Contact: Dr. Dana Driscoll, Assistant Professor in Writing and Rhetoric (