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Writing High-Impact Practices: Developing Proactive Knowledge in Complex Contexts

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Although possessive and performance knowledge have utility, Perkins considered proactive knowledgeto be the ultimate goal of education.


The posting below looks at a variety of approaches that contribute to students’ ability to improve what is called their proactive knowledge. It is from Chapter 5 – Writing High-Impact Practices: Developing Proactive Knowledge in Complex Contexts, by Peter Felton* in the book, Understanding Writing Transfer: Implications for Transformative Student Learning in Higher Education, edited by Jessie L. Moore and Randall Bass. Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC 22883 Quicksilver Drive Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102.  Copyright © 2017 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Writing High-Impact Practices: Developing Proactive Knowledge in Complex Contexts



Transfer and Proactive Knowledge

Transfer, defined most simply, is “the ability to extend what has been learned in one context to new contexts” (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000, p. 51). In educational settings, including many college and university classrooms, students most often are required to perform what experts call near transferby applying what they learned in a lecture, from a reading, or in a laboratory to answer a question or solve a problem presented on an exam. Sometimes students must become proficient in far transfer to adapt what they have learned to address a distinctly different task or question within a discipline (Perkins & Salomon, 1988). This routine academic work often demonstrates if students possess certain knowledge or have mastered specific skills, but such work rarely indicates that students thoughtfully make (or are challenged to make) learning connections across different contexts. Perkins and Salomon (1988) referred to this mindful abstraction and application in new settings as high-road transfer, as opposed to low-road transfer that is possible with more or less rote application of learning in a familiar context. 

Drawing on these insights, Perkins (1998) outlined three conceptions of knowledge that have distinct implications for scholars and practitioners interested in transfer and HIPs (High Impact Practices). A possessive conception views knowledge as discrete units of learning that a student accumulates, like money in a bank. By contrast, a performative conception assumes that understanding is a process of applying and using what you know. Performance requires possession, of course, but it goes further to consider how you use what you know. This performative framework is the foundation for much teaching and assessment in higher education. Students who do well at university often become highly proficient at this kind of learning. A fundamental limit of this conception, however, is that performative knowledge typically is explicitly cued; even in rigorous higher education settings, a student demonstrates her understanding of physics, history, or nursing, respectively. The setting of the performance makes it apparent to students what knowledge they will need to access and apply. 

Although possessive and performance knowledge have utility, Perkins considered proactive knowledge to be the ultimate goal of education. Proactive knowledge stretches beyond what might be seen as far transfer within a discipline: “The central business of proactive knowledge is not so much analogical application to remote domains as it is direct application to weakly cued circumstances” (Perkins, 2008, p. 8). Inside the classroom, learning is typically demonstrated by specific performance on demand: write an essay answering this question, solve that problem, reflect on the meaning of a certain dilemma. Outside a classroom, however, contexts often provide only limited hints about what sort of knowledge might be necessary to solve a novel problem. As a student listens to a political candidate’s speech, should she be drawing on her knowledge of history, rhetoric, political science, and psychology or perhaps some combination of all of those at once? Proactive knowledge is built on alert attention and active curiosity because it occurs without supporting structures that guide performance. Walker (2013, p. 248) explained, “This is effortful and requires conscious thought; there are gaps in both possessive and performative knowledge that have to be filled in a process of active engagement with ideas and concepts.” As Perkins (2008, p. 5) concluded, “Knowledge needs to function proactively if it is to function at all.” 

Writing is a particularly powerful tool for encouraging and supporting this “effortful … engagement with ideas and concepts.” Well-structured writing assignments foster the application of disciplinary knowledge in complex contexts and the development of metacognitive awareness, challenging students to use their knowledge proactively. When faculty collaboratively “teach for transfer” by scaffolding writing assignments throughout an academic program or a series of HIPs (Principle 4), students will be even more likely to develop proactive knowledge. 

Proactive Knowledge, Writing, and High-Impact Practices 

Many HIPs immerse students in settings that require proactive knowledge because they do notexplicitly cue students to apply specific content or skills to address a well-defined problem. Instead, they present open-ended situations that students must navigate with far less guidance than they receive in a typical classroom. This section will briefly explore how student learning from four HIPs – undergraduate research, learning communities, service-learning / community-based learning, and internships – Although possessive and performance knowledge have utility, Perkins considered proactive knowledge to be the ultimate goal of education.

Undergraduate research (UR) practices differ across the disciplines, but students usually pursue independent scholarly inquiry or creative activity with guidance from a faculty mentor (Kinkead, 2005; Kuh & O’Donnell, 2013). Because UR involves students in all aspects of the research process, from problem definition to dissemination, and because UR is rooted in authentic investigation, students learn in fundamentally different ways in UR than they do in most classes. One chemistry student, for instance, described expecting UR “to be like my organic chemistry lab that I just finished last year. … I’m used to ‘here is the procedure, now get to it,’” but finding the actual research process to not be like that at all because it is simultaneously more open, frustrating, and exciting (quoted in Linn, Palmer, Baranger, Gerard, & Stone, 2015, p. 12617571). UR students move beyond their possessive and performative knowledge of a discipline to wrestle with proactive conceptions of knowledge in the field, requiring them not only to transfer what they learned in the classroom to new settings but also to adapt and use that knowledge in relatively unstructured and uncued ways. Writing for an authentic, often scholarly, audience is an integral part of most under-graduate research experiences, creating the opportunity for students both to apply their new knowledge in a disciplinary genre and to reflect metacognitively on what and how they learned from UR. 

Learning communities (LC) have been widely embraced in higher education, although how this HIP is implemented varies considerably. In general, this practice involves “an intentionally developed community that exists to promote and maximize the individual and shared learning of its members. There is ongoing interaction, interplay, and collaboration among the community’s members as they strive for specified common learning goals” (Lenning, Hill, Saunders, Solan, & Stokes, 2013, p. 7). Although LCs have shared aims, students learn within complex and dynamic social contexts that are mediated by a variety of forces, including the physical setting, organizational factors, social climate, and personal characteristics of the students, faculty, and staff who make up the community (Jessup-Anger, 2015). Effective LCs transform possessive and performative knowledge by creating opportunities for students to link discrete courses and apply what they are learning in new ways to questions and problems that matter within a particular community (Brownell & Swaner, 2010). The strongest LCs often use writing to support students in individual and collaborative meaning-making linked to the academic and personal goals of the community (Brower & Inklas, 2010), requiring students also to adapt their writing practices to meet the community’s shared expectations. 

Service-learning/community-based learning (SL/CBL) also is employed in many higher education institutions, although particular practices differ. Most often, SL/CBL aims to advance learning goals and community purposes by bringing together students, faculty and staff, and community partners to work toward shared objectives (Felten & Clayton, 2011). SL/CBL prompts students to come face-to-face with complex individuals, communities, and social realities that offer ill-defined challenges and unfamiliar or dynamic social contexts. The combination of academic, personal, and civic outcomes demonstrated to result from SL/CBL underscores how this HIP encourages students to develop proactive knowledge that connects across domains and that can be applied in unfamiliar settings (Brownell & Swaner, 2010; Warren, 2012). Research on SL/CBL demonstrates not only that writing is an effective tool to promote student outcomes in this HIP but also that students actually learn to be more effective writers in SL/CBL contexts (Wurr, 2002), in part because they have opportunities to practice adapting their writing knowledge for new contexts with authentic audiences and purposes. 

Internship, sometimes called work-based or work-integrated learning, “is a form of experiential learning that integrates knowledge and theory learned in the classroom with practical application and skills development in a professional setting” (National Association of Colleges and Employers, 2011). The academic purpose of internship, most basically, is to provide rich, engaging, authentic, and contextualized learning opportunities for students (Freudenberg, Brimble, & Cameron, 2010). Transfer is thus a fundamental goal of most internship programs as students are immersed in environments that prompt them to see how (and whether) what they have learned in school applies in different settings and with diverse groups of people – and, in turn, how learning in an internship connects to academic disciplines (Eyler, 2009; Narayanan, Olk, & Fukami, 2010). The authentic context of an internship requires students to move beyond possessive or performative knowledge to think and write in ways that are much more loosely cued than they are in their classrooms (Anson & Forsberg, 1990). 

Other HIPs, such as diversity/global learning, clearly fit into this same pattern of putting students in low-cue contexts that require proactive knowledge. A few HIPs, such as first-year seminars or capstone courses, might seem to be exceptions to this rule because they exist within the typically high-cue context of college classrooms. However, even in these more traditional academic contexts, students can learn to take a proactive approach to knowledge if writing assignments encourage them to become “agents of integration” (Nowacek, 2011) by prompting them to be self-conscious about themselves as writers, to write in a variety of different contexts for varied audiences and purposes, and to reflect on the writing knowledge the context calls on them to adapt and repurpose (Yancey, Robertson, & Taczak, 2014). 


Peter Felten is assistant provost for teaching and learning, executive director of the Center for Engaged Learning, and professor of history at Elon University. His publications include the coauthored books The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most(Jossey-Bass, 2016) and Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching: A Guide for Faculty (Wiley, 2014) and the coedited Intersectionality in Action: A Guide for Faculty and Campus Leaders for Creating Inclusive Classrooms and Institutions (Stylus, 2016). He is president-elect of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning and coeditor of the International Journal for Academic Development.


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