Teaching Writing in the Major

Why include writing in a content-based course?

  • Writing can help you assess student understanding, engagement, and learning
  • Having writing occupy a more substantial position in your course can shift the pedagogy from focusing on the transmission of knowledge toward more active tasks of reading and writing - essential ingredients in the construction of knowledge in any field
  • Writing, especially focusing on discipline specific conventions, can help you train students to research and write effectively within your field. This can cultivate potential researchers and future research assistants
  • Writing provides a focus for the class, and students become a community of writers engaged in a common pursuit
  • Writing fosters deeper engagement and learning and higher levels of critical thinking. While some breadth of coverage might be sacrificed in order to create space to focus on writing, you can be sure that you will gaining depth of coverage and that students will retain more content and develop more transferable skills

incorporating writing into a wim course

We have some suggestions, based on scholarship and research in writing pedagogy, for ways to effectively incorporate writing into your class.

Types of Writing Assignments

Of course, you will assign one or more formal essay or reports, a Writing in the Disciplines (WID) assignment that introduces students to the conventions and forms of writing in your given academic field. These assignments emphasize discipline specific knowledge and communication.

In addition to graded assignments, Writing to Learn (WTL) assignments are brief and informal, completed in-class, and are usually ungraded. They can foster student engagement, help students think through a question or issue, and track student learning. WTL assignments can include short free-writing to help students focus or prepare for a discussion or generate ideas for a written assignment, end-of-class summary of lecture or questions to be addressed the next day, reading journals, among other example. In your WiM course, Writing to Learn activities can help students build skills and progress toward their final Writing in the Disciplines project. For example, you might ask students to keep a list of their definitions of disciplinary specific terms or to write weekly annotations for their growing bibliography, WTL activities that will directly prepare them to writing the essay.

Syllabus / Course Design

We suggest you start planning your course by articulating the course learning goals in terms of both content and writing, and then “reverse engineer” the course to guide your students to those goals. What do you hope your students will have learned by the end of your course? What specific writing activities in the course will help your students meet these goals? These learning objectives then become the central goals for your course. In crafting these objectives:

  • try to have the learning objectives combine specific and general statements (e.g., In this course students will become familiar with the central theories of personality by writing a review article that …)
  • try to have your learning objectives include a method. In other words, explain to yourself and to your students how this learning will happen. (Skills of critical thinking will be fostered through …)
  • try to imagine yourself as a student in your class. How will the central goals of the class be articulated to them in ways they will understand before they have the disciplinary language and knowledge you expect them to have by the end of the course?

Writing Assignment Design

Try to work backwards from the learning objectives each writing assignment will meet, in the same way you did with the course design: think about the final form the assignment will take; why this final form is pedagogically sound (perhaps because this sort of writing is the norm in your field); and what your students will learn by completing it. From this end point, you can look back and imagine how your students and your class will get to this destination. What activities, readings, and interim assignments, including Writing to Learning activities, will support your students in this process?

One useful strategy is to break down a large assignment into smaller components or steps. For instance, a 15 page research essay might begin with a proposal, followed by annotated bibliography entries, an outline, and a rough draft. A series of steps like this can encourage students to work steadily, avoid plagiarism, and experience writing and research as processes that unfold both over time and through iterative engagement with course material.

In writing the guidelines for a writing assignment, be aware that students might not know what constitutes analysis, an argument, or research in a particular field. Showing them exemplary models (such as previous student essays) might be one way to help your students understand what is expected.

Revision and Peer Review

WiM courses at Stanford typically require students to substantially revise at least one piece of writing, with you or your TAs providing comments on a draft. At this stage of the writing process, instructors often respond as a coach or colleague. The goal at this stage is to offer advice for how the student can continue to improve this piece of writing and to foster his or her continued engagement in the writing and research process. Comments that balance encouragement as well as suggestions for improvement on various aspects of the essay—argument, ideas, structure, use of evidence, etc.—best motivate students to revise their essay.

Students can quickly feel overwhelmed and confused when confronted with too many comments on their essay; therefore, consider highlighting a few substantive issues to focus on rather that provide exhaustive comments. You might also consider delivering some of your comments in a face-to-face conference with each student.

Peer review can be an invaluable addition to instructor comments on drafts and to instructor-student conferences. Peer review gets students to write earlier in the process, gives students a real audience, and provides examples of others’ work.

When planning a peer review session for your class, consider these suggestions:

  • Peer review is most effective when it is fully introduced and supported in the class. Thus, before starting peer review, model a peer review session by, for example, projecting a sample essay on the board and talking as a class about how to effectively offer comments on it.
  • Call it peer review not peer editing, as editing implies fixing minor errors and this word may prevent students from really engaging with each other's papers.
  • Specify and delimit the tasks: if you've been talking in class about introductions and use of secondary sources, then have peer reviewers focus on these.
  • Consider having student-writers introduce their paper to their partner and say something about the sort of feedback they are looking for or the questions they have.
  • Consider the benefits and drawbacks of having students offer oral vs. written comments on each other’s essay—ideally, a combination of both is best. If students only receive written comments on their essay, they might not understand how to prioritize the feedback or how to make sense of the comments. If students only receive oral comments, you—as the instructor—have no way to gauge the quality of the feedback.
  • Groups of three work well because each writer can receive feedback from two reviewers.
  • Schedule in-class peer review with enough time for students to make revisions to their essays before the final essay deadline. Giving students just a day or two to implement changes can discourage students from making time-consuming and substantive changes to their essays even if these changes might improve them.

Writing Assessment

In grading revised writing, you take on the role of evaluator, assessing how well the essay satisfies the goals of the assignment. Your comments are important as they can help the student understand what aspects of their writing they might need to work on for future assignments.

To supplement your comments, grading rubrics are important tools for both students and instructors. Rubrics break the assignment down into the key learning objectives for the essay, such as use of evidence, organization, level of diction, etc., with each dimension being rated using terminology such as “unsatisfactory” to “excellent,” or “novice” to “expert.”

For instructors, the rubric can help you articulate in broadly accessible terms your learning goals for the assignment. A rubric can also save you time when it comes to responding to drafts or grading, as your written comments can refer to the descriptive criteria in the rubric. For students, the rubric can clarify the assignment for them and can help them determine how they should revise their writing. Students can find the grading rubric particularly helpful when they have it to consult as they are working on their assignment.

Reflecting on the Process

After you've taught the course you are in a position to reflect on that experience and consider what worked well and what didn't. In thinking about the addition of writing specifically, you can evaluate for yourself how the inclusion of more writing affected your pedagogy, the use of class time, student motivation, and student learning.

You can also consider supplementing the required course evaluation with a supplementary questionnaire or evaluation for your students to give more targeted, specific feedback. You might ask them about their experiences with writing in your class; about what they learned about themselves as a writer; about how they see writing in different classes relating to the work they completed in your course.

Resources about Writing to Learn (WTL) pedagogy

Read about Writing to Learn through the WAC Clearinghouse, including examples of class activities and assignments, evaluating student WTL work, and reflections from teachers across the disciplines about incorporating WTL pedagogy in their classes.

Additional Web-based Resources

Kate Kiefer’s “Integrating Writing Into Any Course: Starting Points” provides a basic overview for incorporating writing into any course:

Stanford's Teaching Commons has several articles on writing pedagogy:

The University of Minnesota Center for Writing has guidelines for creating an analytic grading rubric:

Finally, George Mason University has created a handout that articulates 20 Questions Students Can Ask about Writing Assignments: