What makes a course writing intensive?
A writing intensive course uses writing to help students master the material and the conventions. Writing assignments function as inherent and integral parts of the way the course succeeds, rather than being used primarily to measure the student's learning. For example, assignments may start with response essays and brief lab reports, slowly grow into longer assignments involving research summaries, and then culminate in a final essay; while students learn through each assignment, the final essay we often use to measure the extent of that student's learning. Assigning preliminary and preparatory writing tasks helps students master the material in order to create a better final essay.
Most writing intensive courses follow these guidelines:
- Class size or instructor/student ratio. Most guidelines insist that WI classes include no more than 15 to 25 students. At Stetson, the writing intensive FSEM courses and Junior Seminars are capped at 16 students.
- Required number of papers or words. An essential WI element is 15-25 pages of writing, spread throughout the semester in a sequence of related, shorter and longer assignments and revisions. The page count is not as important as the variety of ways in which that page count is created.
- Revision. In a writing intensive course, some student writing is revised; some student writing must be given enough peer and instructor feedback to make revision effective. Instructors and students should both understand that feedback and revision must involve more than pointing out and correcting surface errors.
- The weight of writing in the final grade. In a writing intensive course, faculty stipulate that grades on written work make up a certain percentage of the course grade. A total of 70% of the grade devoted to writing would be good; 20% may be too low for students to take it seriously. In the WI course, the writing reveals the learning; therefore, it should be considered a major part of the grading.
- Types of assignments. Writing should be spread throughout the course in a sequence of related assignments rather than concentrated in a large term paper. A lengthy term paper, no matter how demanding, is counterproductive to the writing-to-learn and writing-to-communicate pedagogy employed in WI courses. Assignments are generally a combination of low-stakes, medium-stakes, and high-stakes writing. See here for examples.
- Assignment-related instruction and evaluation of papers. Faculty in WI courses can help students write to learn by means of a combination of the following: inclass workshops; collaborative projects; hands-on, directed lessons on research techniques; checklists for feedback on drafts; minimal marking of errors; targeted summaries of readings; etc.
- Support services. Faculty in WI courses are not necessarily writing teachers; in most cases, however, faculty are employing writing-to-learn pedagogy. To assign any writing task means that as teachers, we are helping our students to do well at their assignments. Any writing assignment is an opportunity for a teacher to help the student write better. Matters of content and convention are the business of the WI faculty; essay structure, some mechanical issues, paragraphing, and so forth are generally the business of the Writing faculty. Teachers of WI courses should require students who need a lot of writing help to visit the Writing Center.