Research Round Up: Transfer in Writing Center Courses

As I was applying to be a writing tutor, I learned that one of my graduate courses in the fall would be Writing Center Theory and pedagogy. This class introduces students to current theories and practices in writing and prepares them to work as writing center tutors. I was intimidated by this at first because I was a writing center tutor for around two years before joining the UCWbL and I had never received instruction on pedagogical methods. What if learned that how I tutor is wrong? What if I had to change how I like tutoring? Since I was starting my graduate career, I was also upset by the fact that I had to “give up” a potential elective class to learn about something I already knew how to do – what could it offer me?

Thankfully, Lauri, the director of the UCWbL and instructor of WRD-582, did not attempt to change how I tutored. Everyone in the class was welcome to develop their own tutoring philosophy however they pleased, and we were typically guided by the expansive readings that ultimately informed me that there were actually better methods of tutoring than what I did as an undergraduate tutor. As for what the course could offer me, Lauri did not explicitly tell us what to get out of the course, but I found that much of my learning transferred into my teaching and communicative practices.

The transfer of skills from tutoring courses is important because not everyone who takes a writing center pedagogy course is going to be a tutor forever – I certainly do not plan on it. And Dana Lynn Driscoll in “Building Connections and Transferring Knowledge: The Benefits of a Peer Tutoring Course Beyond the Writing Center” takes this challenge of transfer on and develops a course with a focus on the concept of transfer so that her students (primarily taking the course as a general education requirement) can utilize the knowledge they learn in different spaces.

Driscoll defines transfer as “the ability to adapt knowledge, strategies, or skills from one context to another” and argues that writing center courses can prepare students for learning within general education curriculum (154). Despite the fact that the course here at DePaul focuses on the daily activities at the UCWbL, it is clear that this course, whether at the graduate or undergraduate level, achieves the goals of transferable learning through the different assignments and readings.

The UCWbL encourages transfer primarily by having “students engage in metacognitive reflection about their learning processes and encouraging students to play an active role in that learning” (157). To actively learn, Driscoll’s course requires students to engage in observations throughout the course so that they are actively participating in tutoring, but they are not independent (154). This is similar to how the UCWbL structures its writing center courses; according to our handbook, students are required to complete seven collaborative observations in order to prepare students to independently tutors as well as learn and be supported by experienced UCWbLers (22). Active participation in tutoring and observations results in active learning, but the UCWbL takes it further than Driscoll and requires reflections. Reflections foster metacognition, which allows tutors to be more aware of themselves and how their experiences connect, and it also develops problem-solving skills.

Based on these experiences, students also write reflections in order to promote transfer of learning. Driscoll asserts that by reflecting, students will “understand their learning processes, connect their learning, use and apply course concepts, and recognize shifts in value” (160). Writing these reflections fosters metacognitive abilities. This means that tutors will be able to know how to problem solve in future situations inside and outside of the UCWbL. For example, I utilize reflection in various aspects of my life, particularly with teaching. I try to find what I am doing that is working and what aligns with students’ learning processes and what they want out of the course, then I will adjust my approaches based on the theories I have learned as well as what I currently value in the classroom.

And those aren’t the only benefits. Driscoll’s study of her peer tutoring course found that students identified “204 different connections to their future careers” (165). Their connections primarily focused on pedagogical techniques, interpersonal skills, and future writing situations (165). If you were to ask any UCWbLer, they would be able to identify many benefits of the course and being a tutor. In fact, the research team came together and found they transferred the following 10 skills from our tutoring course (there were more; we had to limit ourselves):

  • Conducting primary research
  • Speaking publically and interpersonally
  • Revising writing projects outside of tutoring
  • Critical thinking and problem solving for professional and academic contexts
  • Applying theoretical concepts in action
  • Coding like CSS
  • Developing and revising values, beliefs, paradigms, and working philosophies
  • Collaborating and collaborative knowledge making
  • Listening
  • Building rapport

While some may think that the UCWbL not explicitly focusing on transfer is something negative, Driscoll’s study ended with a student saying, “I found the transfer of learning focus to be interesting at first, but after a while when it kept coming back into class discussion I got bored of learning about it” (169). This participant then suggested more observations and practical activities, which the UCWbL places as a high priority in its courses, which are organized around particular topics, like writing and tutoring processes, but also UCWbL-related topics, like face-to-face appointments. These topics go hand-in-hand, which makes it easy for students to see how their pedagogical learning is applicable to their work. For example, I would use what I learned about writing processes when talking to a writer in a face-to-face appointment.

With my career at the UCWbL coming to a close, I’m appreciative of what the tutoring course has taught me both short-term and long-term. I am going to continue teaching writing, and the transferable skills I have gained, like collaboration, knowledge of writing processes, and communication skills, will all help me as I continue on in higher education. And I think that is what the writing center pedagogy and theory courses at DePaul want – they want to encapsulate the best of transfer and practicality, ensuring that students are prepared for short-term success as tutors and long-term success in their future careers.