From New Currents 2.3 May 1995

Integrating writing into content area courses

Ideas from the Writing Across the Curriculum workshop

Dr. Doug Brent
Director
Effective Writing Programme
General Studies

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:

Front load courses and make every assignment do double or triple duty

Instead of assigning a formal paper late in the course, set short writing assignments early in the year. These can function as the building blocks for later assignments. Students can begin, for instance, by turning in brief summaries of research papers, drafts, and informal freewrites on ideas brought up in class. Because these assignments are not intended to be polished finished projects, they can be given little or no grading weight and marked lightly. A comment or two that suggests whether or not the student is on the right track will often suffice. By the time the students combine these projects into a final paper, much of the early work of generating ideas and evaluating sources will already have been done.

Give students more responsibility to act as audiences

Writing needs an audience, but the audience does not always have to be the instructor. Students can share brief assignments among themselves and learn from each others' ideas.

Assign extremely brief tasks that focus on a single aspect of course content

These assignments can be short enough to be typed on a 3x5 card, making them feasible even in large classes. These too can be graded quickly, or not at all. Groups of students can select the best micro-theme from those produced by their group and explain why it's the best. The best examples from the class can be displayed on an overhead. The intellectual exercise of deciding which is best and why can itself lead to valuable concept learning.

Develop detailed writing guides to head off bad writing before it happens

We who mastered academic discourse many years ago often forget how much difficulty students may have with matters that seem obvious to us. Most instructors maintain a file of good assignments from previous years, but good models are only useful to students if they are presented with detailed explanations of exactly what makes them good, and how the models can be varied.

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.

Intervene early in the writing process

Detailed comments on final drafts are often wasted because the project has reached closure; the comments are perceived more as justification for a grade than as a form of help. Comments on work-in-progress can encourage students to improve the final product. (How many of us owe some of our best work to journal reviewers' comments? How much attention would we have paid if we had not had the opportunity to revise and resubmit?)

Reinvest lecture time in writing

We often think we need every minute of class time to "get through the material." But if writing is seen as a way to get through the material - that is, as a primary means of teaching rather than simply as reinforcement - then we don't have to talk non-stop to cover the ground. Requiring students to write about concepts can often promote learning so well that we can reduce lecture time, or even avoid lecturing on certain topics altogether.

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.

One-to-one attention

Use the resources of the Writing Centre to supply some of the one-to-one attention that is frequently missing in large lecture courses

(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, 220-5458, e-mail: dabrent@acs.ucalgary.ca
Drs. Steven and Schryer can be contacted directly at lsteven@nickel.laurentian.ca and cschryer@watarts.waterloo.ca Workshop materials are on file at the Teaching Development Office, ES 602.