Integrating Writing into Any Course: Starting Points

Kate Kiefer, Colorado State University

Kate Kiefer
Colorado State University
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As teachers in all disciplines think about how to integrate writing into their courses, they often get stumped right at the beginning. Where to start? Fortunately, after teachers articulate their goals for incorporating writing into the courses, working backwards from the goals to specific assignments can be relatively straightforward. And moving from the writing to evaluating need not be as daunting as it sounds.

State your goals for the course in general

To get started integrating writing, state your goals for the course as specifically as possible. Although teachers are sometimes tempted to settle for general statements such as, "cover the material clearly," being more specific will help you see how writing can support your discipline-specific goals in the course. For example, if your introductory course should help students learn the ways that experts in your field pose questions and problems, you can easily work in writing activities that reinforce this goal. If one of your course goals is to introduce students to the range of current issues in your field, paired reading and writing tasks can help you meet this goal.

In other words, if you think about writing tasks as an "add-on" to the course material, students are likely to perceive the writing as busy-work unconnected to the central goals of the course. If you think about writing as another way to have students learn the course material, they are much more likely to see the connections and value the writing assignments. (As I'll explain later, when students see the value in writing assignments, your evaluation task becomes much more straightforward as well.)

Move from goals to specific writing tasks

After you've stated your goals as precisely as possible, start thinking about the kinds of writing that will help students meet the course goals. Don't limit yourself at this point to the standard formats that students typically write in college (research papers and lab reports). What kinds of writing do you produce as a working professional in the field? Might any of these kinds of tasks be appropriate for students to write? Think, too, about the various readers professionals in your field typically write to. If you or your colleagues need to communicate in writing with audiences totally unfamiliar with "insider" or advanced knowledge in your field, then you might consider assigning writing that could appear in brochures, newsletters, or popular magazines. Thinking about a wide range of formal and informal writing may help you restate your goals, and thus lead you to assignments that better fulfill your course goals.

You might, at this point, also find it helpful to note specific goals for the writing assignments. For example, if you are only concerned that students understand the range of current controversial issues in your discipline, then you might not want to have students write a formal, carefully edited paper. But if one of your goals is to help students use the professional language conventions of your discipline, then a more formal paper is a much more appropriate option.

In the next section, I'll cover briefly a range of writing tasks and some reasons for assigning these various kinds of writing.

A common writing task: The research paper

One of the most commonly assigned papers in college courses is the research paper. Teachers often want students to read widely on topics pertinent to course materials, and the research paper spurs students to learn and use library and other sources of information on these topics. But a research paper isn't always the best assignment:

But if your course goals-and your goals for assigning writing-are best met by a research paper, consider these ways to improve both the learning and the final papers you'll receive:

Another option: Writing-to-learn tasks

Teachers often set up writing tasks that emphasize learning the content of their courses. These can range from two-minute impromptu jottings in class to a learning log that students write in regularly. You can also use these kinds of tasks in multiple combinations. The examples below suggest the range of possibilities outlined in much fuller detail in the FAQ about WAC on the CSU Online Writing Center (writing.colostate.edu/references/teaching/wac-faq/page2.htm).

One more option: Writing-in-the-discipline tasks

Certain kinds of writing tasks, often more formally prepared, emphasize learning disciplinary writing conventions. Most teachers use these in upper-division classes with students majoring in the field. Again, you can read much more about these tasks and others that promote similar kinds of skills on the CSU's Online Writing Center (writing.colostate.edu/references/teaching/wac-faq/page2.htm).

First, try to define a range of possible audiences within your discipline and gear the writing to one or more of those audiences. (Having students write to a "general" audience is least effective because they think they know what's involved in writing for Newsweek and they are usually mistaken.) If you don't specify target audiences, students are most likely to write to you, and that can catch them in a different set of snares. Try to make the task as realistic as possible.

Then think about formats:

Give out or point them to real samples in professional journals, in casebooks, in corporate archives. Samples are especially valuable for these kinds of writing tasks because one of the most effective ways to learn about organization and style concerns in a field is to read many samples written by working professionals in the field.

Yet another option: Combining writing-to-learn with writing-in-the-discipline

Writing tasks can emphasize both learning course material and writing for disciplinary contexts. Teachers have successfully used these formats to help students learn both content and conventions:

A few tips on evaluating students' writing

How you evaluate and comment will depend on the formality of your final "paper." Teachers in most disciplines feel uncomfortable editing student papers for grammatical and stylistic issues. Doing so is not a good use of your time anyway, particularly in terms of what students will learn from your commentary. Instead, focus on your goals for the writing tasks and comment about how well students seem to have met those goals.

You might also want to consider some of the following ideas for giving students feedback without taking up inordinate amounts of time:

Writing does help students learn

Writing about course material can help students clarify and deepen their thinking about the material, and it can help them remember the material more fully. Integrating writing into courses, thus, is worth the time and energy, and the whole process need not be so daunting even for teachers using writing-to-learn or writing-in-the-disciplines tasks for the first time. Moreover, most universities have local experts in a WAC program or writing center who can offer advice, and more and more Web-based advice is freely available.

Publication Information: Kiefer, Kate. (2000). Integrating Writing into Any Course: Starting Points. Academic.Writing. http://wac.colostate.edu/aw/teaching/kiefer2000.htm
Publication Date: July 25, 2000


Contact Information:
Kate Kiefer's Email: Kate.Kiefer@ColoState.edu

Copyright © 2000 Kate Kiefer. Used with Permission.