Dynamic Transfer and Learning New Contexts

Dynamic Transfer is a complicated subject, and one that I feel requires a lot more background than I ideally want to dedicate myself to giving in one blog post. As a simple explanation, “Dynamic Transfer occurs over time as a learner coordinates prior knowledge along with other resources available in the environment to produce new understandings (p. 182)”.

I recognize that there is a lot to unpack there. When I use the term transfer, I’m talking about the ability that a person has to take prior knowledge from one context and apply that knowledge to a new context.

As a sufficiently geeky example, a gamer who has perhaps been persuaded into playing on console, despite their preference for playing on the PC, might ask another player over the in game communication system what button throws a grenade. The PC player knows that it is possible to throw a grenade and draws on that prior knowledge to use one of their resources, another player, to determine how to accomplish that goal in the new context.

That’s close to dynamic transfer. It occurs during the moments of floundering as the gamer adjusts to the new method for interacting with the game. Any gamer who has switched from playing video games using a mouse and keyboard to playing them on console knows the experience of dealing with a period of adjustment.

It’s an adjustment to moving the camera the right way. Personally for me, I struggled with the joysticks seeming much too sensitive compared to looking around with a mouse and keyboard in the 3D space. Aiming with a mouse and keyboard is a much different experience than aiming with a controller in a first person shooter, and it took me quite awhile to adjust to being able to aim as well as I could with a mouse and keyboard on a controller. There’s also something else that happens during that adjustment. My skill level when playing the same game dropped considerably. I was struggling to get anywhere near the performance I had with using different controls. It’s during that period of adjustment where dynamic transfer is happening. I have this prior knowledge and experience playing the game well, but I have to figure out what that means on a controller.

I had to draw on a few resources in order to actually get good at playing the game on a controller. One is learning the keys from another player, or the in game tutorial system. Another resource is the in game menu that has options for adjusting the joystick sensitivity. Another one is watching others play the game to see what they do, and how their hands move when they are interacting with the game. After some struggling with the new system, eventually, and that’s key, I was able to perform on a console controller nearly the same way that I could on a PC, but it would not have been possible without struggling. Getting through that period of adjustment is where dynamic transfer happens, and usually learning a new context requires gritting your teeth through a difficult experience.

The kind of dynamic transfer and creation of new knowledge I’m primarily interested in in terms of this blog post involves writing. Dynamic transfer occurs in much the same way. A writer goes from one writing context, let’s say the first year composition classroom, to a new writing setting. They have prior knowledge about writing, but their writing with different goals, styles, audiences, tones, and more in this new context and there’s a period of struggle in which they can attempt to synthesize their prior knowledge with the resources in the new writing context in order to reach an understanding of how to write in this new context.

The questions are: What do resources for dynamic transfer look like in a writing context, and What transfers from a previous learning context to be coordinated with those resources?

For example, let’s take a writer who is going from a First Year Composition context to a biology class room. Abstractly, a writer might understand that they need an introduction, a thesis statement, and conclusion,  but they might not know specifically what a introduction, thesis statement, or conclusion should look like in the biology department.

The prior knowledge that transfers over is the need for a introduction, the need for a thesis, and the need for a conclusion. These ideas are abstract. A writer might not even think of them in those terms, but they know they need to start the paper a certain way, and the paper needs an end point. The question becomes, what does the writer draw on to understand what those aspects of a paper should look like in the new context?

The resources might be very simple. Perhaps the psychology professor passes out an example paper that the student could try and imitate in order to write the paper in the correct way. The professor might lecture about what the goals of a piece of writing and that might help the students to understand it as well. The only thing is that those two examples might not be very common. In fact, the resources in a new writing context might be even more subtle than that. Students might have to try and understand how their writing is supposed to sound based on extrapolating on readings that have been assigned in class. The point is that there are resources in these new setting and if we can figure out what those resources are, and how they might help a student to understand a new writing context, we might be able to teach students to identity them even if they are very subtle.


Hayes, Hogan. Ferris R, Dana. Whithaus, Carl. “Dynamic Transfer in First Year Writing and “Writing in the Disciplines” Settings”. Critical Transitions: Writing and the Question of Transfer.  Ed by Anson, Chris M. Moore L. Jessie. The Wac Clearing House and University Press of Colorado. P. 181-213.



Understanding Interviews and Co-Researcher Participants

In the past I’ve always found the methods sections of studies a little boring if I’m being honest before I understood the importance of them. I was one of those students who would read the introduction and the results and I wouldn’t pay that much attention to the often math-y middle bits.

A description of methods is important because they describe the context and interpretation of the study, and also give some insight into why the researchers discovered what they did. Without really understanding this information one runs the risk of grossly misinterpreting the results of a study.

I’ve tried much harder over the course of my studies in composition to pay much more attention to methods sections and to assess a greater meaning from reading them rather than treating them as a hurdle to jump before getting to the results of a study.

Specifically, I’m writing about what new understandings of methods I’ve come to recently based on the readings of my current composition class and how they affect my understanding of how to collect data during a classroom observation.

1. The subject(s) of the study can be and sometimes should be a co-researcher

I think traditionally speaking when it comes to studies we imagine that subjects are not involved in the collection of data and sometimes are not even aware of the goals of the study. This calls upon prior knowledge of studies adhering to the ideology of scientific neutrality. the idea being that all that matters is what the data reveals, and that interpretation or individual perspective is not to be trusted.

However, this kind of objectivity could make things difficult for researchers depending on what they are trying to understand. For example, in a study called “Double Binds and Consequential Transitions: Considering Matters of Identity During Moments of Rhetorical Challenge” by Elizabeth Wardle and Nicolette Mercer Clement, the subject of the study was made a co-researcher because of what the researchers were attempting to understand.

The study was meant to reveal what kinds of struggles a student goes through during a consequential transitions when transferring prior knowledge to a new learning setting. A consequential transition is one that causes a student, or person for that matter, to struggle with sense of identity or place in society. These are transitions that change someone’s perspective on the way that the world works and who they are or should be.

The problem with doing this kind of study without a participants involvement in interrupting data is that a researcher can’t see inside the brain of the participant. A researcher wouldn’t be able to look at the data and determine what the subject was feeling, or how they understood their own struggle. As mentioned in another study called “Dynamic Transfer in First-Year Writing and ‘Writing in the Disciplines” Settings which used interviews for the process and used this understanding as a reason for getting input from the students via interviews to help the researchers with interpreting the data.

2. Data points shouldn’t always be predetermined

This idea is not one that is new, but one that I’ve reflected on again recently. Studies are sometimes conducted with a concrete idea of what the researchers want to explore. Going into a study there might already be a system for coding data, and for determining what it means, but often it’s a good idea to allow the research to reveal data points.

As explained by Wardle in the previous cited study, “Predetermining data points […] entails making a number of faulty assumptions (164)”. Researchers cannot see how a student is reacting to material on a mental, emotional or social level and predetermining data points regarding problems of transferring writing knowledge from one context to another becomes problematic.

It doesn’t mean that researchers shouldn’t have a goal in mind, but it doesn’t help to make things to rigid and to collect only what the researchers assumes matters. In Wardle’s study it was discovered that a lot of difficulty regarding Clement’s consequential transitions were related to losing a particular social resource. Clement was used to  support from her family, and due to the socially controversial material of the class she was involved in she lost a key facet of her support when it came to her writing which made the process more difficult.

This really leads to my final point:

3. Collecting classroom data during an observation involves understanding the emotions and thinking of the students

Understanding the way that students learn isn’t as easy as analyzing a text and determining how many grammar mistakes are present, or how many instances of misunderstanding how to communicate properly in an assignment there are points of data that cannot be tracked only by collecting handouts or completed assignments.

Researchers, depending on the task, need to be aware of how to collect data that is pertinent to their question. Some of that data may take a shape that is not easily collected and might require interviewing participants and otherwise involve them in the study. To understand learning we need to understand how learners feel about their own learning ability and what is taking pace when they are learning. What struggles they might be having internally while attempting to change their writing process may be unpredictable without the insight from those individuals.


Hayes,Hogan. Ferris, Dana R., and Whithaus, Carl. “Dynamic Transfer in First-Year Writing and ‘Writing in the Disciplines’ Settings.” Critical Transitions Ed. Anson, Chris. Moore, Jessie. Wac Clearing House and University Press of Colorado.

Wardle, Elizabeth. Clemet, Nicolette Mercer. “Double Blinds and the Consequential Transitions: Considering Matters of Identity During Moments of Rhetorical Challenge”  Critical Transitions Ed. Anson, Chris. Moore, Jessie. Wac Clearing House and University Press of Colorado.