Writing to Learn and Communicate in the Writing Intensive Course
In the writing intensive course, faculty use writing to foster the learning process. For many faculty, "teaching writing" is a drawback of the WI course; questions of time management (all those essays!) and how to get students to correct their own errors arise. Some suggestions, then, for incorporating writing smoothly into the course:
- Spend some class time explaining the writing required for the course, and write it all down in your syllabus, with plenty of explanation about rationale and expectations
- Make it clear that the writing assignments are an integral part of the learning process in your course. Don't let students (or yourself) think of them as "added on."
- Spend class time analyzing examples of good and excellent writing in the discipline. Draw student attention to specific techniques or features (passive vs active voice, paragraphing, the conventions of introductions, voice vs voiceless, etc) that you want to see in the writing they turn in for you. Characterizing these faculty expectations as essential concepts for college students is just one way students learn to write at the college level. Draw examples from your own writing; draw examples from the reading you assign; draw examples from the students in your class.
- Require prewriting strategies (e.g., brainstorming, questioning, categorizing, freewriting, diagramming, outlining, and journal-keeping) as students compose your assignments. In this way, you can learn where students are having trouble long before you expect mastery of the information. In addition, by your requirement of prewriting, students begin to make the material their own. If we provide plenty of opportunities for students to connect thinking with writing, the results will be worth the time we invest. Even upper level students benefit from pre-writing strategies, although we might expect them to have already mastered this basic process. Research has demonstrated time and again that students' development and mastery of the writing skills they need is uneven, conditioned by a number of elements over which the teacher has no control. We know, however, that students learn best what they do often.
- Assign several short writing assignments designed to improve student thinking and writing. For instance, students may write rough drafts, journal entries, summaries, research proposals, annotated bibliographies, reviews of literature, book reviews, progress memoranda, and abstracts. Sequencing those assignments from smaller to larger helps students learn to build from one small bit of thinking into much bigger and more critically aware thinking, and this building process need not add onerous grading time to a busy teacher's schedule.
- Require revision. To revise well, students should occasionally have access to "peer reviews" from their classmates as well as comments from the teacher. Students may need explanation from teachers about what "revision" means-- so provide examples. Drawing examples from your own writing process helps to demystify the writing for students in addition to humanizing their professors.
- ALWAYS demonstrate what you're asking for in a writing assignment. Don't make the students guess what you want to see.
- Use grading selectively. Not everything needs to be evaluated, and research suggests that students find being judged while still learning is inhibiting. We know, for instance, that students engaged in active learning often make simple mistakes on things they already know; as one example, a student studying higher level psychology material may produce writing with a lot more comma errors than his or her average. We can expect to see low-level mistakes more often when students are learning; it is often the evidence that they ARE learning. This reminder does not mean that student writing need not be read--much of it does need some response, whether formal or casual. However, "grading" tends to send the message that the work of the writing task is over, a counterproductive signal for students engaged in a life long learning process.
"What is Writing to Learn?" from the WAC Program at Colorado State University.
"Write to Learn" from University of Richmond.