Writing Specialist Confidential: Russ Carpenter, Biology

Writing Specialist Confidential: Russ Carpenter, Biology

Writing to Learn

We got 99 problems and getting faculty to assign more writing is 1 of them

One of the obstacles that Writing Specialists (WS) face is getting faculty to “buy-in” to new (to them) approaches to teaching writing in their courses. This can be as basic as adding a draft of a paper, facilitating peer review or scaffolding small writing assignments into the curriculum so that students can work on developing skills outside of a formal essay. Because many of these ideas are fundamental to the teaching of composition, but may be alien to faculty trained in other disciplines, it presents a challenge to WS who are trying to help faculty create stronger, more robust assignment sequences while also limiting the amount of “extra” work they need to do.

As a focus for this year’s WS professional development, then, as a team we decided to dive deeper into some common challenges that come up when WS engage with faculty in various departments.  One of our goals was to find ways to translate our conversations about composition pedagogy into something more accessible, engaging and useful to support us in our campus-wide conversations. Briefly, the topics we chose to focus on are:

  • Assignment design (prompts and sequencing)
  • Teaching writing through comments on drafts (rubrics and writing assessment)
  • Writing in the disciplines and writing across curriculums
  • Messaging to faculty around the relationship between the content/writing divide

Write to learn, not learn to write (but that’s also good too!)

Ever the eager scholars, Sarah Peterson Pittock, Mary Stroud and myself took on the latter topic, and chose to investigate the “writing/content divide “through the lens of the often-confounding phrase “Writing to Learn”.  Briefly, Writing to Learn (WTL) is the idea that regardless of field, when students write, they learn key concepts and understand material more fully. Thus, the “goal” of a course may be to help students learn discipline-specific content (the Kreb’s cycle, in Biology; molarity in Chemistry), and by listening to content-based lectures in class and reading textbooks that contain supporting material, students learn concepts, terms and facts.

As writing specialists interested in helping faculty integrate WTL assignments into their classrooms, we argue that faculty can also use writing assignments as mechanisms for exploring content.  For example, one might ask students to “make up and answer 3 test questions relative to the Kreb’s cycle,” or “create a brief blog post explaining the difference between concentration and molarity aimed at 6th graders.” In performing these types of activities, students go beyond memorizing facts: they engage more deeply with the information, can see their own processes of learning, and can respond more creatively to critical course concepts and ideas. Ultimately, this means that WTL activities help students learn content and potentially even mature as communicators in their discipline. Makes sense, right? Easy peasy. 

Not so fast. While this idea may make sense to someone trained to teach composition (getting students to write about what they are learning, in pretty much any way, from defining key terms to tweets about class topics to crafting annotated bibliographies for research projects, will also help them learn the content), it is not always clear to the faculty that we engage with in the wild.  From our shared experience as WS, it seems like the idea of writing being central to learning is not as intrinsic to the thought process of our partners. Instead, they often see writing primarily as a means to show what students have learned, full stop.  But in fact, research from the National Survey of Student Engagement (a survey of over 80,000 students) shows that writing assignments that are interactive and ask students to produce some form of integrative, critical or original thinking help promote deeper learning (http://nsse.indiana.edu).  Said in another way, asking students to engage in low stakes writing exercises such as synthesizing and distilling content, discussing course concepts with varied audiences and reflecting on the perspectives of others actually helps them learn course content more deeply.

As one of our primary goals as WS is to help develop and promote a more robust writing culture in the departments we serve, it is important for us to find ways to engage faculty in these discussions in a way that is generative and aligns with their course goals. In fact, it is vital for us to find ways to bring WTL activities into conversations with the faculty we work with, and provide more clear and robust ways for them to deploy these activities into their curricula. Doing so will not only make clearer the connection between writing and learning, it will also help students learn course content more deeply. It’s a classic win-win-win situation. 

System approach—the FAQ

Based off of our experiences working with faculty in departments across campus, Sarah, Mary and I decided that the best way to provide support for our WS, and thus, faculty interested in the idea that writing is a useful tool for learning, was to use a “Frequently Asked Questions” approach.  Using as resources the WAC Clearinghouse hosted by Colorado State University (http://wac.colostate.edu) and the consistently amazing Engaging Ideas by John C. Bean (ISBN-13: 978-0470532904), we crafted a handout that lists common questions/comments/concerns that we hear from faculty about writing in their courses, as well as some ways to respond productively in those situations.  Our responses address everything from “I don’t have time for writing!” to the relationships between writing and learning, actual WTL assignments, and the successful integration of WTL exercises into the arc of a course.

So let me finish by telling you something that you already know. When you help your student become a more confident researcher and writer, you are also supporting their ability to learn. Those short, informal exercises that you have your students do in class-- tweeting their theses, making multiple, creative versions of their essay titles, responding (in writing and orally) to course readings, and writing reflective cover letters--those are gold, I tell you. Gold.  To get a fuller understanding of this process, or to see what our FAQ looks like, please feel free to connect with your friendly neighborhood PWR Writing Specialist! But wait until after break.  

Further reading:

(Bean 2011)

(Colorado State University 1997)