Writing-Intensive (W) Courses: Overview
A Writing-Intensive (W) course is a class taught by a faculty member in his or her own discipline in which writing is considered a central mode of learning and evaluating student performance. The types of writing assigned in these courses can vary significantly—from lab reports to journals to blogs to formal research essays. In these courses, students will learn about the discourse conventions that are valued in the faculty member’s own discipline.
In higher education contexts, W courses are often part of either a Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) or Writing in the Disciplines (WID) program, and the terms WAC and WID are often conflated. Researchers Chris Thaiss and Tara Porter (2010) established the following definitions:
- WAC typically “implies an initiative in an institution to assist teachers across disciplines in using student writing as an instructional tool in their teaching” (p. 538)
- WID “usually implies that writing is occurring in some form as assignments in subjects or courses in one or more disciplines in an institution; it also refers to research that studies the theory, structure, and rhetorical properties of writing that occurs in disciplines, whether in teaching the discipline or in disciplinary scholarship” (p. 538)
Our instantiation of WAC/WID at the University of New Haven is as follows: students entering in the fall 2017 class (and beyond) will be required to take a W course prior to graduation. The W course does not need to be in the student’s major, although students should be encouraged to take a W course in their major if one is available at the time the student selects to take a W course. A W course is a more writing-focused version of a class that, ideally, students are already planning to take. The W designation itself does not increase the credit value of the course, nor does it necessarily add an additional course requirement to a student’s worksheet.
WAC/WID programs play a major role in universities across the U.S. For example, the number of WAC programs between 1987 and 2008 increased by 1/3, according to a national survey of WAC/WID programs conducted by Thaiss and Porter (2010). The majority of the schools that have WAC/WID programs reported having writing-intensive courses similar to what offer at the University of New Haven (Thaiss & Porter, 2010, p. 548).
Two of the most common reasons that institutions have created Writing Across the Curriculum initiatives are based on the following beliefs: (1) students’ writing skills will diminish if they do not receive further instruction and practice between freshman composition and graduation, and (2) students’ writing improves when they are engaged by the subject matter (Farris & Smith, 2000). Perhaps most importantly, though, writing enables critical thinking and learning and allows us to disrupt the “banking model” of education (Freire’s concept in which students are mere empty, passive receptacles into which their more knowledgeable teachers deposit information). Another rationale for these courses is that students learn how to become members of an intellectual disciplinary community (ideally within their major) and learn how to communicate using the conventions common to that community.
At the University of New Haven, the exigence for W courses has to do with scaffolding writing education, spreading it out through a student’s tenure at the university, and grounding writing instruction in the disciplines. This process makes writing improvement a shared concern among all faculty and allows us to enhance the culture of writing on our campus.
Perhaps one of the most significant principles guiding writing-intensive courses is the concept of Writing to Learn. Put simply, a W course engages students in writing to learn—meaning, the teacher employs writing not simply as a tool for communication but as a tool for understanding and reflecting on course content. Quantitative research backs up the notion that students learn course material better if they engage in writing.
Most of the time, writing-to-communicate and writing-to-learn are not mutually exclusive concepts. Used together, these practices can lead to critical understanding as well as discovery of new knowledge. Art Young (2006), the founder of Clemson’s well-known Communication-Across-the-Curriculum program, broke writing to learn and writing to communicate into the following categories:
Writing to Learn (WTL)
- Discovery thinking
- Writer-based prose (explaining something to yourself)
- Audience: self and trusted others
- Personal language in social community
- Teacher as facilitator
- Forms: journals, field notes, rough drafts, blogs
Writing to Communicate (WTC)
- Critical thinking
- Reader-based prose (explaining something to others)
- Audience: distanced others
- Formal language of discourse community
- Teacher as professional
- Forms: essays, reports, business letters, web publications
Young argued, “we can understand the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of explaining the matter to others before you have explained it to yourself” (p. 9). As such, WAC encourages more writing-to-learn activities in order to improve written communication overall. It’s important for teachers not only to assign these types of writing but also to understand that writing-to-learn assignments will not be satisfactory final drafts, as that is not their purpose.
WTL activities are typically short, informal writing activities. Here are a few examples:
- The One-Minute Essay (Young, 2006): At the end of class, the teacher asks students to write for just a minute or two about the following: (1) What did you learn today? (2) What questions do you still have? Young states that a chemical engineering professor at Clemson collects these and responds quickly in writing to the students for the next class period. Other professors skim these and explain any issues that seem to be common across many students.
- The believing/doubting game: Ask students to write briefly in support of a particular argument/thesis/methodology. Then, ask them to take the exact opposite stance. (Elbow, 1973)
- Problem statement: After introducing a new concept in your class, ask students to create a problem that the concept might help them solve, writing out this problem. Then, consider having students exchange their problems and write solutions. (WAC Clearinghouse, Retrieved from http://wac.colostate.edu/intro/pop5j.cfm)
- Mock tests: Have students write a test that would assess the class’ knowledge on a particular unit. Consider having them focus on writing short-answer or essay question prompts.
- Quote responses: Have students explain, summarize, or analyze a quotation from the homework readings and then discuss their responses as a class.
- Writing carousel: Set a timer for approximately 1 minute. Each student has a slip of paper, and you assign the group a topic to write about or a problem to solve. The students begin writing a response, and when the timer is up (I sometimes use music), have students rotate the paper to their right and pick up where their peer left off. Eventually, have the original student summarize the responses in a few sentences. In this activity, students are building knowledge and seeing how others address the same issue—while practicing their writing skills.
Lengthier WTL practices involve some of the genres below:
- Discussion forums: Using discussion forums through sites such as Blackboard are a common way to engage in writing to learn. For example, you may assign a reading and ask students to respond to a question you post about the reading. Discussion forums can allow students to reflect, think critically, build consensus, etc. It’s useful to be as specific as possible about your expectations. Do you want each student in the group to respond to your question, or do you want them to respond to one another? Do you have length expectations? Consider asking students to construct discussion forum guidelines with you. Here’s a useful resource for crafting questions: https://www.edutopia.org/pdfs/stw/edutopia-onlinelearning-mastering-online-discussion-board-facilitation.pdf (see page 5).
- Journals: Many teachers require journals. Writing about course material helps students learn, solve problems, and discover new questions. Some teachers ask for a minimum word count to be produced each week. Some teachers require the writing to be completed for homework, whereas others do writing in class. You can assign specific topics or give students some freedom to explore their own ideas. You can ask for a half-page summary/half-page analysis of a chapter from a book, a painting, or an advertisement that students are studying. If you require them, the journals need to be “integrated into the fabric of a course” (Young, 2006, p. 17). You may not read every entry or comment on them all, as that would likely be too time-consuming, but you will want to treat them seriously and set expectations, making sure students use the journals to learn.
Tips for engaging with WTL:
- connect WTL assignments to your course goals
- help students understand how these assignments will help them become better communicators
- let students know how you will grade WTL activities, giving them details about how much they will be asked to write and how much you will actually read and comment on
- consider how any given WTL activity connects to other assignments in the class
The current WAC/WID literature suggests that WTL activities should be as discipline-specific as possible. The literature also argues that the benefits of WTL are numerous, including helping students improve their writing and feel less anxious about a class subject. The authors of the book, A Reference Guide to Writing Across the Curriculum (2005), have offered a few real examples:
1. Computer Science: A computer science instructor included microthemes—essays so short they can be written on a single note card—into her data structures class. The tasks included summarizing articles, generating a thesis based on data, and explaining the behavior of a novel algorithm to a peer. She found that these helped students learn and explain the complexities of the subject matter.
2. Nursing: Three professors introduced journal writing as an invention technique to help students prepare for a personal nursing philosophy paper they would write at the end of the course. Students were asked to take ten minutes at the end of a day of clinicals to reflect on their experiences. The researchers found that the resulting philosophies were “far superior to those written by other groups without this continuing experience” (Bazerman, 2005, p. 63).
3. Statistics: Two researchers conducted an experiment with 44 undergrads in two statistics courses, studying the effects of journal writing on students’ reported levels of anxiety about statistics. They found a significant decrease in anxiety toward the content among students who kept a journal.
Ultimately, as you create your course, think about ways in which students can use writing to learn and keep in mind that some informal writing assignments can be counted towards the word count requirement for the W course (see section on requirements). It’s always useful to continually check in with students and ask them what they’re learning about their writing process as they participate in these activities. Also consider that one goal is to help students learn discipline-specific ways of making meaning through writing.
When students engage in more formal writing, the goal of W courses is still for students to understand how writers write in your field. In Engaging Ideas, a book many consider to be the ‘WAC Bible,’ John Bean (2011) argued: “Show students how writing in the present discipline may differ from the writing they have done previously. Often teachers can develop short assignments to teach students how disciplinary experts incorporate evidence into an argument, whether in the form of textual quotation, field or laboratory observation, data analysis using tables or graphs, or other strategies” (p. 61). At the same time, he suggested that teachers “also stress what may be similar to what students did in first-year composition; show them what transfers” (p. 61). Often, teaching writing in the disciplines is simply about making what seems innate or obvious to you about the writing that happens in your field visible for students.
Yet, how do you make these conventions visible for students? You may or may not feel like you are an expert at writing, but you’ve likely written a dissertation in your field, or you’ve written a business proposal or a report in industry, for example. You’ve conducted research in your field. Often, certain communication practices that may seem obvious to you are not obvious to students. Think not just about how you write but how you read and how your logic operates. One strategy that always helps me talk to students about how to be a better writer is to compose along with them. I actually do the assignment when they are doing it, and I take notes about the strategies I’m employing and the struggles I’m having. When I’m writing journalistic pieces, my writing is usually a complete mess. I start taking notes on other sources I’m reading; I add in interviews as I get responses; I begin to create headings and group the sources under certain headings; and I typically don’t get to my lede until the very end. Oftentimes, it’s helpful for me to just think about my writing process and describe it to students.
As a W instructor, take any approaches that seem reasonable to you that help your students become not just critical readers, writers, and thinkers, but readers, writers, and thinkers who are using the reading, writing, and thinking strategies employed in your field. One book I find very useful on this topic is Informed Writer by Charles Bazerman. Not only does the author offer strategies for writing effective summaries, analyses, reviews, and research papers across disciplines, he also includes entire chapters on reading and writing practices in the historical sciences, observational and natural sciences, the experimental sciences, and theoretical disciplines. You can read the whole book on the web here: http://wac.colostate.edu/books/informedwriter/
The following outcomes have been developed to help instructors think about the aims of W courses at the University of New Haven. These outcomes will continue to be developed based on faculty input and university assessment needs. At different times when these courses are being taught, different assessment items may be collected.
Faculty teaching writing-intensive courses will do the following:
- Help students participate in writing as a process
- Assign tasks that engage students in writing to learn
- Give students instruction and feedback on assignments related to higher-order concerns and disciplinary writing conventions
At the end of a W course, students will be able to:
- Employ the discourse conventions (style, format, organization, use of evidence, and citation expectations) of the discipline in all formal written work
- Compose writing that reflects awareness of the rhetorical situation (audience, context, and purpose) of the document
- Compose writing that is free from mechanical errors and clarity problems
Bazerman, C. (2005). Reference guide to writing across the curriculum. West Lafayette, IN:Parlor Press.
Bean, J. (2011). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking,and active learning in the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Farris, C. & Smith, R. (2000). Writing-intensive courses: Tools for curricular change. In S. McLeod & M. Soven (Eds.), Writing across the curriculum: A guide to developing programs, 52-62. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.
Thaiss, C. & Porter, T. (2010). The state of WAC/WID in 2010: Methods and results of the U.S. survey of the international WAC/WID mapping project. College Composition and Communication, 61(3),534-670.
Young, A. (2006). Teaching writing across the curriculum, 4th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.