Editor’s Note: Dr. Bonnie Devet, Professor of English and Director of the Writing Lab at the College of Charleston, contributed this series of posts. This is part 1. Please find part 2 here.

It’s finally here! The Digital Edited Collection (D.E.C) Transfer of Learning in the Writing Center (Eds. Bonnie Devet and Dana Driscoll; Design Editor, Jialei Jiang) was just released! It’s the second D.E.C from WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship, and it offers tutors and directors new perspectives into how knowledge is “cued, primed, and guided” (Perkins and Salomon, 1989); that is, how both tutors and their student writers engage in the transfer of learning.

To access the DEC, click this link. The DEC includes videos, graphics, teaching materials, and research data and is accessible to our colleagues around the world. 

While centers vary from country to country, one similarity arises for us all: tutors live for the oft-desired yet rare aha! moment when student writers discover, understand, connect. In such moments, students see that concepts like rhetorical occasion, audience, and purpose apply to all writing situations; they also realize that their own dispositions (habits of mind) can make them more receptive to new writing settings; they may even understand that a genre often connects one discipline to another. Aha! moments, in short, are instances of what might be called, without too much hyperbole, the most important topic for wc studies: transfer of learning. Being able to link ideas is, in fact, central to higher education (Berrett, 2014). 

So, what is “transfer of learning”?

At its simplest, transfer of learning means “[t]he experience or performance on one task influences performance on some subsequent task” (Ellis, 1965). That is, transfer refers to the students’ ability to adapt, apply, or remix prior knowledge and skills in new contexts (Driscoll, 2011). The mind, recognizing similarities to what is already known, extends what is similar to another activity (Devet, 2015).  If you can drive a car, you can learn to drive a truck. As recent wc scholarship attests, transfer of learning is important to the work of centers, both for tutors and student writers.

Closely examining the key role transfer plays in centers, Transfer of Learning in the Writing Center provides new insight into the work of wc professionals and practitioners. 

Dana Lynn Driscoll and Bonnie Devet’s Introduction “Writing Centers as a Space for Transfer: Supporting Writing, Writers, and Contexts” synthesizes the landscape of recent transfer scholarship both within centers and in the broader field of Composition Studies. It explores: “What transfers and how? Who is doing the transfer? How do different contexts support or discourage transfer?” Next, the introduction looks at “What is the role of transfer in wc work?” 

The rest of Transfer of Learning in the Writing Center provides a history of transfer for centers and their roles in the academy; it offers chapters on training tutors to promote transfer, with detailed scenarios of transfer occurring in tutorials; it concludes by moving beyond the center, showing that tutors’ skills transfer into careers. As a result, Transfer of Learning in the Writing Center extends and supports the conversation on transfer.

The first chapter discusses history. In “Considering the Exigency of Transfer and Its Impact on Writing Center Work” Marcus Meade (University of Virginia) describes the historical role transfer plays in determining the centers’ relationship to the academy. Explaining how modern universities arose, Meade shows centers were often operating contrary to the modern university’s goals. While universities have encouraged the separation of disciplines, centers have been cultivating transfer. According to Meade, “The center is, in many ways, a response to the forces that created transfer as an issue and continually make transfer difficult within universities.” 

After this historical perspective, Transfer of Learning in the Writing Center examines how directors can design their training so tutors promote transfer during tutorials and how directors can help tutors themselves engage in transfer. Towards this end, the D.E.C. offers a variety of methods for handling tutor education and draws from the work of Composition Studies, thereby enriching the field of tutor education.     

In “Teaching for Transfer and the Design of a Writing Center’s Education Program,” Lauren Marshall Bowen (University of Massachusetts-Boston) and Matthew Davis (University of Massachusetts-Boston) describe training based on teaching for transfer (TFT), a successful program espoused by Kathleen Blake Yancey, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak. Combining TFT with wc pedagogy, Bowen and Davis show that although the TFT curriculum (reflection, learning key rhetorical terms, and exploring the theory of writing) is valuable for tutor education, the special conditions tutors work under mean directors must slightly retool the TFT curriculum. The chapter, thus, argues for a “cross-pollination” of TFT and WC pedagogy so that the curriculum accounts for power, linguistic diversity, multimodality, and “the dual lens of tutoring,” where tutors theorize about both writing and the process of tutoring. 

Heather Hill also draws upon Composition Studies to enrich tutor education. Her chapter “Preparing Tutors to Facilitate Transfer: A Proposal” describes a tutor training course that examines the nature of genre and how it varies based on the social context. As a result, tutors are better prepared to help student writers connect between disciplines. Besides tutor training, Hill’s course also examines tutor learning: “Although the main goal of this course is to help tutors learn to facilitate transfer, it has two other important goals: to improve tutors’ own writing (by helping them learn to transfer their own knowledge) and to improve tutors’ ability to give feedback on writing.” 

Another part of tutor education is tutors’ understanding how transfer itself works. That way, tutors can shift from helping “writers as writers” to helping “writers as learners.”  To incorporate the concept of transfer into a tutor education course, the chapter Playing Around: Tutoring for Transfer in the Writing Center” by Candace Hastings (Texas State University) examines a specific training technique—a game of dominoes played in Texas— to introduce transfer to tutors.  Hastings’s training relates the consultants’ actions and reflections back to literature on learning transfer, including novice/expert learner characteristics, prior knowledge, low road/high road transfer, hugging, and cultural constructions of knowledge. This learning-by-doing approach, combined with reflecting on how to incorporate theory into practice, provides an embedded pedagogical approach for teaching tutors about the importance of transfer. 

Training should also help tutors recognize the moments during tutorials when they can foster an atmosphere of transfer. To encourage such transfer during tutorials, Cynthia Johnson (Miami University, Ohio) provides “practitioner lore” for directors and tutors so they can reflect on their roles in transfer/transformation.  In her “Transfer(mation) in the Writing Center: Spaces of Adaptation and Boundary-Crossing,” Johnson describes transfer in action. Her scenarios reveal models for the “situated reflection” tutors and students can perform; her chapter also shows tutors the types of transfer they should encourage. 

Dispositions (habits of mind) are especially vital for fostering transfer. For enacting transfer, tutors should encourage students’ sense of self-efficacy (the belief one can achieve something) and self-regulation (effectively adapting to the requirements of a specific situation). Presenting detailed scenarios, Kathy Rose (Dixie State University) and Jillian Grauman (College of DuPage) in “Motivational Scaffold’s Potential for Inviting Transfer in Writing Center Collaborations” describe how tutors can promote transfer by recognizing students’ dispositions. Using Jo Mackiewicz and Isabelle Thompson’s coding framework for motivational scaffolding, Rose and Graumann analyze six video-recorded tutoring sessions where self-efficacy and self-regulation are evident. When tutors use praise, show concern, reinforce ownership and control, and project positivity, they empower student writers, bolstering confidence. By using these strategies, tutors help less confident writers build transfer-prone dispositions in the center’s relatively low-stakes space. 

The study of transfer for centers does not end at a center’s doors. In “Taking the High Road to Transfer: Soft Skills in the Writing Center” Mike Mattison (Wittenberg University) examines what skills tutors transfer to the workplace. While “soft skills”—social etiquette or work ethic or professionalism in the center—are often presented as a type of “low road” or automatic transfer, such skills can (and should) be thought of as an example of “high road” transfer, which depends on a deliberate abstraction of a skill from one context to another. By examining the soft skills tutors take into their careers, Mattison argues centers need to foster more of these abilities so tutors transfer them to their lives outside of centers; then, tutors and administrators will see the center as both an academic space and a valuable professional space.


Berrett, D. (April 2014). Students Can Transfer Knowledge If Taught. Chronicle of Higher Education, 7 . https://www.chornicle.com/article/Students-Can-Transfer/145777.

Devet, B. (2015). The Writing Center and the Transfer of Learning: A Primer for Directors.  Writing Center Journal, 35 (1), 119-51.

Driscoll, D (2011).  Connected, Disconnected, or Uncertain: Student Attitudes about Future Writing Contexts and Perceptions of Transfer from First Year Writing to the Disciplines.  Across the Disciplines, 8 (2),1-29. https://wac.colostate.edu/docs/atd/articles/driscoll241.pdf

Ellis, H. (1965). The Transfer of Learning. MacMillan.

Hughes, B., Gillespie, P. & Kail, H. (2010). What They Take with Them: Findings from the Peer Writing Tutor Alumni Research Project.  The Writing Center Journal, 30 (2), 12-46.

Mackiewicz, J. & Thompson, I. (2013) Motivational Scaffolding, Politeness, and Writing Center Tutoring. The Writing Center Journal, 33 (1), 38–73.

North, S. (1995) The Idea of a Writing Center. In C. Murphy & J. Law (Eds). Landmark Essays on Writing Centers (pp. 71-85). Hermagoras Press. (Originally published in 1984)

Perkins, D., & Salomon, G. (1989). Are Cognitive Skills Context Bound?  Educational Researcher, 18 (1), 16-35.

Yancey, K., Robertson, L. & Taczak, K. (2014). Writing Across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing. Utah State University Press. 

Editor’s note: Please find part 2 of the series here!

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  1. […] Bonnie Devet contributed this piece. In her previous blog post, she provided an overview of the newly released Digital Edited Collection, Transfer of Learning in […]

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