Writing Centers as a Space for Transfer:
Supporting Writing, Writers, and Contexts



Dana Lynn Driscoll
Indiana University of Pennsylvania

Bonnie Devet
College of Charleston

Photo of Driscoll and Devet.

Transfer of learning refers to the ability of learners to use, adapt, repurpose, and transform what they've learned in previous contexts to new settings, including educational, civic, personal, or professional. Over the past decade, the study of the once little-known concept of writing transfer has reached critical mass, both within and outside of writing center settings. This body of knowledge has helped us to explain what transfer is and how it functions (Haskell; Perkins and Salomon; Salomon and Perkins), what writers bring to the table beyond the writing itself (Driscoll and Wells; Wardle), and how we can facilitate rich contexts for supporting transfer in writing center settings (Devet; Driscoll, "Building"; Hill).

A synthesis of the recent transfer scholarship both within writing centers and in the broader field of Composition Studies shows that conversations about transfer are tied to three key questions:

1. How does a student writer build knowledge and expertise over time and leverage that knowledge in new circumstances?
2. How might a writer's internal dispositions and mega-cognitive awareness impact transfer?
3. What is the role of transfer in writing center work?

As we will explore within this digital edited collection, all three of these questions matter when it comes to transfer.

The three questions—tied to the writer, the writing, and the context—also map onto the rhetorical triangle (See figure 1). This introduction first considers the three broad questions about transfer and then moves to answer questions specific to writing centers, with two goals in mind: to provide framing and analysis of the state of transfer scholarship more broadly for writing center practitioners and to consider how chapters in this collection, Transfer of Learning in the Writing Center, extend and support these conversations.

Transfer and Student Writing
Figure 1. Transfer and Student Writing.

The Three Broad Questions about Transfer

The Writing: Transfer-focused Knowledge

Transfer studies in composition began with the question: "What transfers and how?" So, this category includes what students already know about writing, more specifically, the knowledge, skills, and strategies that students learn and will transfer, or what is called "transfer-focused knowledge." In this category are also students' theories of learning and knowledge. Writing centers have long been in the business of being writing experts (Ryan and Zimmerelli), and, thus, promoting and supporting knowledge, skills, and strategies surrounding writing is familiar ground for centers. Within the broader field of Composition Studies, what students know and transfer has also received considerable attention. This work includes various domains of knowledge, including knowledge of process and context (Beaufort); specific genre knowledge (Nowacek; Reiff and Bawarshi; Yancey et al.; Rounsaville et al.); and rhetorical awareness (Downs and Wardle; Yancey et al.). Additionally, early transfer research has also been concerned with when transfer happens, what transfers (or not), and how that transfer occurs (Lobato). So, in this category, are many early transfer studies that explored whether or not transfer happened and what challenges students may face in moving this knowledge to new contexts (Bergmann and Zepernick; Driscoll, "Connected"; Wardle; Yancey et al.). These broad transfer studies have considerably informed the work of writing centers and offer a foundation for the chapters presented in Transfer of Learning in the Writing Center, promoting and supporting knowledge, skills, and strategies surrounding transfer.

Leading from foundational research on transfer-focused knowledge, writing center practitioners may ask, "How can tutors support students' engagement with transfer-focused knowledge?" Examining a hypothetical writing center tutorial illustrates how tutors can support the transfer of knowledge. Briel comes into the writing center confused and concerned about the nature of her assignment for her Composition II course. Specifically, she asks her tutor Zan how she should structure a proposal assignment because she "hasn't written anything like this before." Briel also expresses doubt about completing the assignment successfully. When Zan begins the tutorial by asking Briel a series of questions about her prior knowledge, she finds out that Briel has written several short problem-solution reports in high school. Briel and Zan then talk through what Briel knows about her high school problem-solution reports in order to tackle the writing assignment at hand. Briel realizes there are considerable similarities between her proposal and the problem-solution report, but, as Zan cautions, the proposal is longer and requires more direct argumentative strategies. In this way, the session focuses on the genre knowledge that Briel possesses and how she can adapt that knowledge to a new context.

The Writer: Transfer-focused Thinking and Dispositions

In the hypothetical tutorial, part of the transfer equation is that Briel needs to have prior knowledge—in this case, knowledge about the genre itself, which is part of the "transfer-focused knowledge" category. But, just as important, Briel also should detect an opportunity to transfer her prior knowledge, to elect to engage with that knowledge, and to connect that knowledge (and adapt it) for her new context. David Perkins and Gavriel Salomon call this cognitive activity "willingness" to engage in transfer, or a learner's ability to "detect, elect and connect" (250). Zan's metacognitive questioning and scaffolding prompt Briel's transfer. Thus, the second category shifts away from writing knowledge to how the writer's thinking processes, metacognitive awareness, and dispositions may support or hinder transfer.

Transfer-focused thinking and dispositions can manifest through specific tools or strategies writers employ to support transfer, such as reflection, metacognition, and beliefs about future writing contexts (Driscoll, "Connected"; Gorzelsky et al.; Reiff and Bawarshi; Yancey et al.). Transfer-focused thinking and dispositions can also include the ways tutors help students think about and engage with prior knowledge so that student writers may access it, repurpose it, and transfer this knowledge.

While Composition Studies concentrates on teaching students these skills in classroom settings, writing centers have focused on how tutors support students one-to-one. Thus, a core part of writing center practice is helping students with transfer-focused thinking—just as Zan is able to prompt Briel to recognize the similarities between her previous experience and the current writing context.

The triangle's "The Writer: Transfer-focused Thinking and Dispositions" also refers to the writer's internal states or transfer-focused "dispositions." Dispositions are dynamic interpersonal factors that may determine students' sensitivity towards their learning and may help or hinder learning transfer (Driscoll and Wells). Dispositions also include many "habits of mind" including persistence and openness (Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing), self-efficacy (Hixson-Bowles and Powell), and self-regulation that students bring with them into writing situations (Driscoll and Wells). Some dispositional characteristics may be generative, supporting students' learning and leading to writing success, while other dispositions may be disruptive, hindering students' learning and preventing their progress (Driscoll and Wells). So, a core aspect of writing center work is aiding students with these dispositional challenges—although previous writing center research may not have used this specific framing of "dispositions," it is certainly part of the core work centers do. For example, when Briel visits the writing center, she demonstrates positive help-seeking behavior but poor self-efficacy, doubting she can write a successful proposal because she has not done anything like it. However, by helping Briel to activate prior knowledge, Zan fosters Briel's self-efficacy, so that Briel now believes she can complete the task at hand. Within this collection, Kathy Rose and Jillian Grauman's chapter "Motivational Scaffolding's Potential for Inviting Transfer in Writing Center Collaborations" not only discusses scaffolding for "thinking" but also for supporting students' writerly dispositions for fostering positive transfer. More specifically, the chapter describes how scaffolding fosters students' dispositions of self-efficacy and self-regulation so that students can tap into their prior knowledge.

The Context: Transfer-focused Structures and Supports

Another important topic in transfer studies is how contexts encourage or discourage transfer. For instance, scholars have examined how individuals who are moving into new contexts like workplace settings (Beaufort), internships (Baird and Dilger), or non-school contexts (Anson), may or may not transfer knowledge. Of considerable discussion is also how university structures, particularly the "disconnected" methods of teaching subjects by course/discipline (Haskell) or the encouragement of just seeking answers rather than solving problems (Wardle), actively discourage transfer. These broader educational contexts may also contain transfer-supporting structures, like university writing centers (Devet; Driscoll, "Building"; Hill) or specific transfer-focused curricula, like Teaching for Transfer (Yancey et al.). Thus, the "context" part of the triangle includes new environments, support structures, or curricula that students are writing in and how these contexts support or discourage transfer. Within this collection, Marcus Meade's chapter, "Considering the Exigency of Transfer and Its Impact on Writing Center Work," critically explores the role context plays in transfer by arguing that the core values of an educational institution (efficiency, rationality, and production) often produce barriers hindering transfer.

Expanding the Triangle

The exploration of transfer-focused knowledge, thinking/dispositions, and contexts shows that for student writers, writing transfer can be supported, encouraged, or hindered. If one were just theorizing the role of the writer, writing, and context, much of the above would be sufficient for a general understanding of writing transfer. However, because writing center work focuses on the interactions of tutors and writers, and because tutor education and long-term learning are vital for supporting writers who visit writing centers, this model also should expand to explore the role of the writing center and the writing tutor in transfer.

Tutoring for Transfer Triangle.
Figure 2. Tutoring for Transfer Triangle.

The Tutor's Knowledge, The Tutor, and the Writing Center Context

The expanded model (See figure 2) shows the interaction between writers and tutors within a tutorial with regards to broader transfer theory. Properly theorizing writing center work in the context of learning transfer means we cannot focus solely on the left side of the model, where the writers and their writing resides ("the writer, the writing, the context"). Rather, the tutor and the writing center context need to be considered from a similar perspective: what knowledge tutors have, what dispositions and transfer-focused thinking skills they hold and can support as well as their interpersonal skills, and how the writing center context supports tutors' work. Hence, returning to the hypothetical example, on one level, the tutor Zan is helping Briel as a writer to develop and adapt her prior genre knowledge into a new writing task. But, on another level, Zan herself is building new knowledge through writing center practice, she is applying explicit education and strategies about facilitating learning transfer, and she is using her interpersonal skills to facilitate her tutorial. And, of course, the center's director hopes that when Zan transitions into her career beyond the university, she is able to take many of those skills with her (Hughes et al.).

The Tutor's Knowledge: Tutors' Knowledge of Writing and Transfer

To be effective at facilitating transfer-focused tutorials, tutors need more than just knowledge about writing—they also need theories about how people learn (Driscoll, "Building"). In the best-case scenario, tutors apply their own transfer-focused knowledge of writing to their tutorials. This knowledge includes what they know about writing in its various forms, what they know about theories of learning, and what they know about how to engage those theories successfully. Two chapters in the collection explore the kinds of tutor education necessary to help tutors engage in this facilitation. Heather Hill's "Strategies for Creating a Transfer-Focused Tutor Education Program" argues that while a writing center is a seminal place to facilitate transfer, writing centers must explicitly educate tutors about transfer. Thus, Hill proposes a three-credit transfer-focused tutoring course that uses scaffolded observations, transfer theory, and genre theory to support the development of tutors' practice. Similarly, Lauren Marshall Bowen and Matthew Davis' chapter, "Teaching for Transfer and the Design of a Writing Center's Education Program," suggests that tutor education benefits from a teaching-for-transfer curriculum (Yancey et al.); they also describe ways that teaching for transfer may be enhanced with writing center research and practice.

The Tutor: The Tutor's Dispositions and Transfer-focused Thinking and Soft Skills

Just as students need methods and approaches to know when to "detect, elect, and connect" (Perkins and Salomon) their previous knowledge to new writing circumstances and to understand how to engage with their dispositions in a productive (generative) manner, so, too, do tutors need ways for helping writers. Tutors who know a good deal about writing may be ineffective without additional knowledge about learning theory, generative dispositions, and interpersonal skills. While tutoring manuals explore various skills tutors need for successful sessions (Ryan and Zimerelli), also necessary is research about skill sets tutors should possess to facilitate transfer successfully. In this collection, Mike Mattison ("Taking the High Road to Transfer: Soft Skills in the Writing Center") explores how to support tutors in transferring their own interpersonal skills for tutoring success. Specifically, Mattison's piece considers the role, development, and transfer of tutors' "soft skills," arguing that tutors benefit from explicit training in developing these skills that can transfer beyond writing centers. Also in the collection, Candace Hastings' chapter, "Playing Around: Tutoring for Transfer in the Writing Center," examines tutors' thinking. Her chapter explores how tutors have "expert blind spots" that prevent them from understanding students' difficulties with transferring writing knowledge from one context to another. The chapter describes a learning activity that positions tutors as learners like the students they assist in the writing center.

The Writing Center Context: Transfer-focused Structures and Supports, including Tutor Education

Finally, this collection considers how the context (environment) of centers fosters transfer in broad and impactful ways. Cynthia Johnson's chapter, "Transfer(mation) in the Writing Center: Identifying the Transformative Moments that Foster Transfer," argues that the context of a writing center is ideal for identifying small moments of transformation. In fact, during sessions with students, sitting side by side, "tutors are well situated to help students connect ideas to contexts beyond the classroom," primarily because tutors can listen and help students use experiences to make connections. In this way, writing centers can carefully consider how they facilitate both tutors' and writers' development over time.

Areas for More Research

Framing writing center practice within the broader framework of writing transfer theory not only helps situate the chapters in the collection into a larger conversation about writing and writing center transfer but also identifies additional areas of research for writing center practitioners. So, a number of questions remain and are certainly not limited to:

The Writing: Transfer-focused Knowledge

  • When it comes to writing knowledge, which kinds of knowledge are easier or harder for students to transfer? For tutors to support?
  • What writing topics covered in tutorials are good indicators of the challenges students face with certain kinds of writing knowledge?

The Writer: Transfer-focused Thinking and Dispositions

  • How can directors prepare tutors to support generative (productive) student dispositions?
  • What are the most useful ways for preparing tutors to support metacognition and other transfer-oriented thinking?
  • Which dispositions are most helpful for tutors to have?

The Context: Transfer-focused Structures, Supports, and Hindrances

  • How can writing centers "intervene" in problematic university values (like efficiency and production) that may be hindering transfer?
  • How can writing centers facilitate cultures of transfer within the writing center and more broadly on campus?

We invite future writing center researchers to explore these questions and continue to expand this exciting area of inquiry.


By presenting a synthesis of writing transfer, the collection places transfer theories discussed in Composition Studies in direct conversation with the work of writing centers. This analysis proposes that transfer scholarship can be addressed in at least six categories: three pertaining to student writers and three pertaining to writing center work. While not the only framework for providing a broad survey of the literature, writing center practitioners, particularly those new to transfer studies, should be able to navigate the scholarship on transfer. We invite readers to read the chapters in this collection to help develop transfer-focused tutoring practices, gain ideas for tutor education, and explore this rich theory of learning.

Works Cited

Anson, Chris M. "The Pop Warner Chronicles: A Case Study in Contextual Adaptation and the Transfer of Writing Ability." College Composition and Communication, vol. 67, no. 4, 2016, pp. 518-49.

Baird, Neil, and Bradley Dilger. "How Students Perceive Transitions: Dispositions and Transfer in Internships." College Composition and Communication, vol. 68, no. 4, 2017, pp. 684 -712.

Beaufort, Anne. College Writing and Beyond: A New Framework for University Writing Instruction. UP of Colorado, 2007.

Bergmann, Linda S., and Janet S. Zepernick. "Disciplinarity and Transfer: Students' Perceptions of Learning to Write." WPA: Writing Program Administration, vol. 31, no. 1-2, 2007, pp. 124-49.

Council of Writing Program Administrators, National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project. "Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing." Council for Writing Program Administrators, 2011,

Devet, Bonnie. "The Writing Center and Transfer of Learning: A Primer for Directors." The Writing Center Journal, vol. 35, no. 2, 2015, pp. 119-51.

Downs, Douglas, and Elizabeth Wardle. "Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)Envisioning 'First-Year Composition' as 'Introduction' to Writing Studies'." College Composition and Communication, vol. 58, no. 4, 2007, pp. 552-84.

Driscoll, Dana Lynn. "Building Connections and Transferring Knowledge: The Benefits of a Peer Tutoring Course Beyond the Writing Center." The Writing Center Journal, vol. 35, no. 1, 2015, pp. 153-81.

Driscoll, Dana Lynn. "Connected, Disconnected, or Uncertain: Student Attitudes about Future Writing Contexts and Perceptions of Transfer from First Year Writing to the Disciplines." Across the Disciplines: A Journal of Language, Learning and Academic Writing, vol. 8, no. 2, 2011,

Driscoll, Dana Lynn, and Jennifer Wells. "Beyond Knowledge and Skills: Writing Transfer and the Role of Student Dispositions." Composition Forum, vol. 26, 2012,

Gorzelsky, Gwen, et al. "Cultivating Constructive Metacognition: A New Taxonomy for Writing Studies." Critical Transitions: Writing and the Question of Transfer, edited by Chris M. Anson and Jessie L. Moore, The WAC Clearinghouse and UP of Colorado, 2016, pp. 215-46.

Haskell, Robert E. Transfer of Learning: Cognition and Instruction. Elsevier, 2000.

Hill, Heather N. "Tutoring for Transfer: The Benefits of Teaching Writing Center Tutors about Transfer Theory." The Writing Center Journal, vol. 35, no. 3, 2016, pp. 77-102.

Hixson-Bowles, K., and Roger Powell. "Self-Efficacy and the Relationship between Tutoring and Writing." How We Teach Writing Tutors, a WLN Digital Edited Collection, edited by Ted Roggenbuck and Karen Johnson, 2018,

Hughes, Bradley et al. "What They Take with Them: Findings from the Peer Writing Tutor Alumni Research Project." The Writing Center Journal, vol. 30, no. 2, 2010, pp. 12-46.

Lobato, Joanne. "Alternative Perspectives on the Transfer of Learning: History, Issues, and Challenges for Future Research." The Journal of the Learning Sciences, vol. 15, no. 4, 2006, 431-49.

Nowacek, Rebecca S. Agents of integration: Understanding Transfer as a Rhetorical Act. SIU Press, 2011.

Perkins, David N., and Gavriel Salomon. "Knowledge to Go: A Motivational and Dispositional View of Transfer." Educational Psychologist, vol. 47, no. 3, 2012, pp. 248-58.

Reiff, Mary Jo, and Anis Bawarshi. "Tracing Discursive Resources: How Students Use Prior Genre Knowledge to Negotiate New Writing Contexts in First-Year Composition." Written Communication, vol. 28, no. 3, 2011, pp. 312-37.

Rounsaville, Angela, et al. "From Incomes to Outcomes: FYW Students' Prior Genre Knowledge, Meta-Cognition, and the Question of Transfer." WPA: Writing Program Administration, vol. 32, no. 1, 2008, pp. 97-112.

Ryan, Leigh, and Lisa Zimmerelli. The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors. 6th ed., Bedford/St. Martins, 2016.

Salomon, Gavriel, and David N. Perkins. "Rocky Roads to Transfer: Rethinking Mechanism of a Neglected Phenomenon." Educational Psychologist, vol. 24, no. 2, 1989, pp. 113-42.

Wardle, Elizabeth. "Creative Repurposing for Expansive Learning: Considering 'Problem-Exploring' and 'Answer-Getting' Dispositions in Individuals and Fields." Composition Forum, vol. 26, 2012,

Yancey, Kathleen, et al. Writing Across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing. Utah State UP, 2014.


Dana Lynn Driscoll is a Professor of English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where she directs the Kathleen Jones White Writing Center and teaches in the Composition and Applied Linguistics graduate program. Her scholarly interests include composition pedagogy, writing centers, writing transfer and writerly development, research methodologies, writing across the curriculum, and writing assessment. Her work has appeared in journals such as Writing Program Administration, Assessing Writing, Computers and Composition, Composition Forum, Writing Center Journal, and Teaching and Learning Inquiry. Her co-authored work with Sherry Wynn Perdue won the International Writing Center Association's 2012 Outstanding Article of the Year Award. She has served on the CCCC Executive Board, CCCC Research Impact Award Committee, and on numerous editorial boards in the field.

Bonnie Devet, a professor of English at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, directs the College of Charleston Writing Lab. She also teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in grammar, technical writing, freshman composition, advanced composition, the theory and practice of writing labs, and the teaching of composition. She has delivered numerous conference presentations and has published widely on the training of consultants as well as on teaching grammar, technical communication, and freshman composition. She has also recently been the recipient of the Southeastern Writing Center Association Achievement Award.