On March 2, The University of Calgary hosted a day-long interdisciplinary workshop on Writing Across the Curriculum, funded by the Royal Bank Teaching Development fund and the Teaching Development Office. The workshop was facilitated by Dr. Laurence Steven, Vice-Dean of Humanities at Laurentian University, and Dr. Catherine Schryer, Assistant Professor in the Rhetoric and Professional Writing Program at the University of Waterloo. Both have had extensive experience developing and running Writing Across the Curriculum programs throughout Canada.
The focus of the workshop was how to use writing to promote learning without going crazy from grading. As class sizes increase and marking assistance decreases, it becomes impossible to maintain the formal term paper as a major element in a course. This does not mean, however, that we have to lose the pedagogical benefits of having our students write about their subjects. We can still use various forms of writing to get students to engage actively with concepts rather than passively memorizing them.
Many of the benefits of having students write can be realized without the professor having to grade all of the writing they do. Writing does not have to be tied to evaluation to be a mode of learning. Some suggestions from the workshop are listed below:
These writing guides can take the form of a detailed template that spells out, and provides concrete examples of, each move students must make to complete an assignment properly. Although this close structuring can be restrictive, it can also be liberating, especially when students are trying to internalize specific academic forms such as the review, the lab report, or the critical analysis. The micro-level skills learned from these structured assignments can later be applied more globally to larger writing assignments.
One of my students once told me, "I didn't understand the material very well the first time I read it. But when I reread it so that I could write out an explanation for other members of my group, I understood it much better. And when I reread it again to defend my explanation, I really started to understand it." And while she was learning the material for herself, much more thoroughly than I could ever have taught it, I had time to help other students who were floundering.
Allowing class time for writing is particularly important when students are expected to work in groups. Most students report that the single most stressful aspect of group work is simply fighting overlapping schedules to find common meeting times.
(see The Writing Centre)
These brief hints are only a small indication of the many ways in which learning to write - usually a dreary experience for both instructor and student - can be transformed into writing to learn and moved to the centre of the curriculum even when we are battling large classes.
The most important lesson that emerged from the workshop, however, was not a specific tip or technique; rather, it was a general conceptual shift. Learning is fundamentally a social and a language-centred act. Writing belongs in every class across the curriculum, not because it's a moral obligation, but because it's a useful way of helping students to internalize the discourse processes of every discipline.
For more information, contact Doug Brent,
Drs. Steven and Schryer can be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com Workshop materials are on file at the Teaching Development Office, ES 602.