The Transfer of Expertise

How do people develop fluency in a second language? A similar question might be, How do people develop expertise in a subject?

Last month, I posted on Philip Ross's review of The Expert Mind (Scientific American). Besides the 10-year rule on acquiring expertise (and I would add L2 fluency at native levels), the article also noted the problem of transfer:

Chess memory was thus shown to be even more specific than it had seemed, being tuned not merely to the game itself but to typical chess positions. These experiments corroborated earlier studies that had demonstrated convincingly that ability in one area tends not to transfer to another. American psychologist Edward Thorndike first noted this lack of transference over a century ago, when he showed that the study of Latin, for instance, did not improve command of English and that geometric proofs do not teach the use of logic in daily life.

Transfer is a problem. Although first-year composition is designed to prepare students for academic writing in other courses and eventually to their careers, the skills they acquire often, even usually, do not transfer in part because the concepts in FYC are not seen as relevant to other contexts. (See a few references below on the difficulty of writing transfer.) In tackling this problem, two approaches are helpful. One is making connections between class concepts and students' own societal practices. In addition to assignments that cross classroom boundaries, it is helpful for students to keep a journal in which they look for the presence of classroom concepts and practices outside the classroom.

The second approach is one of having a few concepts that are used in a variety of contexts and in interaction with one another lead to higher-level hybrid concepts. I talked about this approach in "Learning by remixing". (See also my paper "Building Blocks and Learning".) The ability to transfer skills and knowledge across domains is not automatic: Just like any other skill, it needs practice.

Some references related to problems in writing transfer:
Anson, Chris, & Forsberg, L. (1990). Moving beyond the academic community: Transitional stages in professional writing. _Written Communication_, 7, 200-231.
Carroll, Lee Ann. (2002). Rehearsing roles: how college students develop as writers. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press.
Smit, David. (2004). _The end of composition studies_. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press.