By Kathleen Daly
Kathleen Daly is a PhD candidate in Composition and Rhetoric and is currently serving as the Assistant Director of the Writing Across the Curriculum Program at UW-Madison. Her dissertation looks at how arguments are made from and with Big Data, both within and outside of academia.
For the past three years, I’ve worked in the UW-Madison Writing Center and, for the past two years, I’ve had the pleasure of working as Assistant Director of the Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) program where I have worked with faculty members, instructional staff and teaching assistants from a range of disciplines, including plant pathology, political science, sociology, psychology, history, physics, and more.
In almost every part of my WAC work—from the writing center workshops that I teach to the one-on-one consultations I hold to the large teacher training events I co-lead with the Director of WAC, Brad Hughes—there is one question that never fails to come up. In fact, I often can’t even go five minutes without having someone ask it. Any guesses what it is?
“How do I teach writing without having to cut out course content?”
The question isn’t always as straightforward as that (and doesn’t always take the form of a question). Other variations of this concern have included:
“That sounds great, but I don’t have time to spend on writing with all of the content I need to cover.”
“I have too much content to cover to worry about teaching writing. Besides, shouldn’t the instructors teaching required composition courses be responsible for teaching students how to write?”
“I’m disappointed with students’ papers, but teaching writing is too much work and I need to cover content.”
Understandably, instructors are concerned that students are only getting a shallow pass through their field, especially when teaching non-majors. Instructors want their students to engage with the maximum amount of disciplinary ideas that a semester allows, with the hope that the material will spark their students’ curiosity and result in a greater understanding of the course topic/content.
But what many instructors don’t realize is that writing can be an integral part of deepening student learning. In writing assignments, students grapple with both content and disciplinary conventions. Writing helps students make new connections with course content and gives them the opportunity to both speak and be heard.
Reflecting on Learning: Conversations in a WAC/Delta Course
This semester, I am teaching a course through University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Delta program, which is a part of the University’s Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (an NSF sponsored center for learning and teaching in higher education). The Delta program is designed to support STEM faculty and future faculty in the development of effective teaching practices. The following three principles are central to the Delta program’s mission:
By applying research methods—idea, experiment, observation, analysis, improvement—to the challenge of teaching, the Delta Program in Research, Teaching and Learning:
- Brings the skills of research faculty to the ongoing investigation of student learning
- Promotes innovation in teaching and measurement of student learning
- Advances the role of instructors in the ongoing improvement of teaching practices
2. Learning Communities
Through collaborative activities and programs, the Delta Program creates a community of graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and faculty that will:
- Support and validate growth in teaching and learning
- Create a foundation for institutional change
Recognizing the common challenges in teaching and learning and the strength in bringing together diverse views, the Delta Program is:
- Interdisciplinary—serving all science, engineering, and mathematics departments
- Cross-generational—bringing together graduate students, postdocs, and both new and experienced faculty
- Comprehensive—providing knowledge, practice, and community
- Responsive—reflecting the broad range of responsibilities that face today’s faculty
- Inclusive—welcoming for a multifaceted and diverse group of people
The Delta course that I am teaching is called Expeditions in Learning: Exploring How Students Learn with Writing Across the Curriculum. This course follows an expeditionary learning model, grounded in adult learning theory, where participants can develop new questions about teaching and learning and create methods for exploring answers to those questions. The primary goal of the course is to learn from each other’s experiences and develop new answers and ideas for future teaching. The participants in this course include graduate students, postdocs, and faculty members from a variety of disciplines and with a wide range of teaching experiences.
A couple of weeks ago, the course participants and I were discussing a chapter from John Bean’s Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. Our conversation lingered on a section from Bean’s first chapter aimed at debunking four myths about teaching with writing. Predictably, one of the myths, or discouraging beliefs, Bean chose to highlight in this section was, “Emphasizing writing and critical thinking in my courses will take time away from content.”
To address this misconception about teaching with writing, Bean explains that, “one must first distinguish between how much a teacher ‘covers’ in a given course and how much students actually learn in a usable way.” One thing that is important to remember is that the content covered in any given course is always already a selection made from a much larger pool of possible texts, ideas, concepts, and whatever other material might exist that is relevant to the course topic or theme.
Bean goes on to explain that “…[I]ntegrating writing and critical thinking components into a course can increase the amount of subject matter that students actually learn. My assertion may seem counterintuitive until one realizes that these assignments can restructure the way students study outside of class. Critical thinking tasks—which require students to use their expanding knowledge of subject matter to address disciplinary problems—motivate better study habits by helping students see their learning as purposeful and interesting.”
In support of Bean’s claims, many of the participants in my Delta course shared that the most memorable learning experiences from their undergraduate (and graduate) careers happened through writing. None of the participants remember ever being aware of missing content (or feeling like the content covered was lacking) because of a writing assignment. On the contrary, all of them claimed that, in most cases, the writing assignments they completed for graduate and/or undergraduate courses helped to deepen their engagement with and understanding of course content.
Interrogating the Content Versus Writing Debate
So why is it that the teaching of writing and the teaching of content are so often perceived as being mutually exclusive to one another? In other words, why do instructors often see teaching writing as inhibiting the teaching of content?
As I mentioned earlier, I have had conversations with instructors who have initially dismissed the idea of teaching writing in their courses, usually arguing something like, “Students should have learned how to write in their freshman composition course.”
Not only does this argument assume that learning to write is a linear process and that students can transfer writing skills across disciplines and between courses and writing experiences with ease, but it also assumes that all students have the same literacy privileges and prior writing experiences. Many of our students are multilingual, and many students have home languages that are not standard english.
For the majority of our students, disciplinary writing practices can be inaccessible, especially if they are new to writing at the college level or are new to the discipline. Although first-year composition courses are often designed to introduce students to different modes of academic writing, the instructors for these courses do not (and cannot) bear sole responsibility for preparing students to write well. There is also a large number of students who tested out of required composition courses (either through advanced placement testing in high school or via placement tests taken during orientation) and thus have little to no experience writing at the college level or in discipline-specific genres. And, while UW-Madison does require students to take at least one “Communication-B” course, a discipline-specific writing intensive course aimed at introducing students to the genres, styles, and communication practices of a particular discipline, students should not be expected to come out of these courses with a mastery of writing in that field. Writing is a complex, recursive skill that requires practice, feedback, and guidance for students to excel.
Another challenge that arises in conversations about teaching writing is that many instructors do not feel prepared to teach writing in their courses. Often this is the case due to instructors never having engaged in explicit conversations about writing in their discipline or due to instructors conflating teaching writing with teaching grammar/mechanics, the rules of which they may have difficulty articulating. In response to claims about their inability to teach writing, I try to push instructors to see the bigger picture of writing in their discipline and to focus on global, paragraph-level or whole-paper concerns (like organization and structure) rather than local, sentence-level concerns (like grammar and punctuation).
Quality Over Quantity
Not just any writing assignment will do. Writing is not a magical solution for increasing student learning. It takes a lot of work to design and use writing assignments effectively.
The Spring 2016 issue of the UW-Madison WAC program’s newsletter, Time to Write, features a study from the November 2015 issue of Research in the Teaching of English in which collaborators from the National Survey of Student Engagement and the Council of Writing Program Administrators provide empirical evidence of the value of writing assignments in undergraduate courses, both across the curriculum and across the nation. This evidence-based investigation marks one of the few large-scale, multi-institutional studies that examines writing and learning. However, unlike other similarly sized studies, which often are limited to prescriptions for the increased quantity of writing, this study explores questions of the quality of writing and writing assignments as they relate to increased student learning.
The study found that when writing assignments have the following three characteristics, students engage in deeper learning:
- Interactive Writing Processes…“which involve the student writers communicating orally or in writing with one or more persons at some point between receiving an assignment and submitting the final draft. [Examples include] conferencing with their students, incorporating peer review in their classes, and encouraging their students to visit the campus writing centers to discuss their drafts” (Anderson, et al. 206).
- Meaning-Making Writing Tasks…“which require students to engage in some form of integrative, critical, or original thinking. Examples include asking students to apply a concept learned in class to their past experience, relate knowledge learned in another class to knowledge presented in the current class, support a contestable claim with evidence, or evaluate a policy, practice, or position.” (Anderson, et al. 207).
- Clear Writing Expectations … “which involve instructors providing students with an accurate understanding of what they are asking their students to show that they can do in an assignment and the criteria by which the instructors will evaluate the students’ submissions… [Examples include] presenting assignments in writing…and creating, distributing, and discussing grading rubrics when assignments are first given to students (Anderson, et al. 207).
By taking into consideration our students’ diverse experiences with writing and working to design writing assignments that offer students clear insight into course learning goals, assignment evaluation criteria, and possibilities for approaching the writing process, we can help move students to deepen their understanding of course material in a way that allows for active engagement with the questions and concepts that structure our various disciplines.
- For those of you who are writing center tutors, can you think of a time where you were convinced by a student’s drafts that the student was really learning? (Bonus points for giving an example from disciplines where writing is less likely to be assigned!)
- For those of you who do WAC work, how do you negotiate these questions and conversations about content versus writing?
WAC Director Brad Hughes giving a plenary to (nonresistant) teaching assistants at the Spring 2017 Communication-B TA Training
Anderson, Paul, Chris M. Anson, Robert M. Gonyea, and Charles Paine. “The Contributions of Writing to Learning and Development: Results from a Large-Scale Multi-Institutional Study.” Research in the Teaching of English 50.2 (2015): 199-235.
Bean, John C.. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.