In our professional careers, faculty members use writing every day for a variety of purposes:
Students need practice to be able to use writing effectively to meet these same goals. One or two writing classes just can't provide enough daily practice over the course of an undergraduate program of study.
As one response to students' lack of writing practice throughout the university curriculum, Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) programs emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. The philosophies underlying these programs generally agree on certain basic principles:
Susan McLeod and Elaine Maimon (2000) explain the role of much informal writing in academic settings:
The purpose of writing to learn assignments—journals, discovery drafts, in-class writing—is to use writing as a tool for learning rather than a test of that learning, to have writers explain concepts or ideas to themselves, to ask questions, to make connections, to speculate, to engage in critical thinking and problem solving. The audience for this kind of writing is the student him- or herself.... The teacher serves as a facilitator rather than a judge, responding to the writing by asking questions, prodding for further thinking, or answering questions posed by the writer rather than "correcting" or grading the piece.... (McLeod & Maimon, 579)
But as McLeod & Miraglia (2001) make clear elsewhere,
We cannot emphasize too strongly that it is an error to see writing to learn and writing to communicate as somehow in conflict with each other. Most of us who have been involved in WAC programs from the beginning see "writing to learn" and "writing to communicate" as two complementary, even synergistic, approaches to writing across the curriculum, approaches that can be integrated in individual classrooms as well as in entire programs. (5)
Writing, then, serves multiple purposes, and students gain as learners and thinkers as we integrate writing as frequently as possible across the curriculum.
Including writing in courses has both short- and long-term benefits for teachers. In the short term, teachers are better able to gauge how well students grasp information and where they need elaboration of key concepts. In the long term, as more teachers incorporate writing into more courses, students become more and more practiced at using writing as a communication and learning tool. Especially for more advanced or specialized work in the discipline, teachers reap the benefits of having students who are better grounded in the fundamentals and ready to engage in more sophisticated analysis of ideas.
Patterson & Slinger-Friedman (2012) also reflect in detail on their experience integrating writing into their undergraduate geography classes. They note the following rewards for faculty gleaned from the literature and their own experience:
- Improved teaching through implementing new methods
- Received instant student feedback
- Achieved course goals
Community of scholars
- Exchange of teaching methods
- Collaboration for research and publications
- Increased faculty writing
- Publication of experiences
- Recognition of scholarship of teaching and learning in tenure and promotion review (187)
Like all language skills, writing skills atrophy when they aren't used. Yet our students often report that they do no writing at all during a semester because they don't even take notes during some classes. For students who take only multiple-choice exams, writing can be avoided almost completely for months at a time. Assigned writing in all courses helps students keep their writing skills sharp.
Moreover, faculty in all disciplines have discovered that assigning writing in their classes helps students learn material and improve their thinking about ideas in the courses. Writing assigned across the curriculum also helps students prepare for the day-in and day-out communicative tasks they'll face on the job, no matter what the job is. Equally important, students need to learn about how writing is used within a discipline, and many kinds of assignments give students practice with disciplinary forms and conventions.
So why assign writing in your classes? Students will learn more and will leave the university better prepared to face communication challenges if they write consistently during a four-year college program. Specifically, students will learn more about the material in your courses if you assign writing for your courses.
Why should you think about using writing to achieve learning goals?
In the ACT National Curriculum Survey (ACT, 2006), college professors complained that high school teachers are overly fixated on teaching topics rather than on teaching students how to think, and that high school students are ill prepared to take on the complex kinds of strategic thinking required for college. And when we look at the kinds of writing tasks, high school teachers typically assign, we see evidence for the gaps that post-secondary teachers note. In a
random sample of 361 language arts, social studies, and science high school teachers, Kiuhara et al. (2009) found that teachers most frequently assigned writing that required little analysis or interpretation. Only one half of the teachers asked for writing longer than a paragraph each month of the school year. Almost 60% of science teachers felt that their pre-service preparation was inadequate for teaching writing, even as it might fit into their disciplinary focus, and sizeable minorities of the language arts and social studies teachers felt inadequately prepared as well.
If students come into post-secondary classes unprepared to think about problems critically, then post-secondary instructors need to foster that learning.
A growing body of data collected in empirical studies since the late 1990s and burgeoning in the early 2000s makes much clearer just what learning benefits students derive from WAC initiatives. (See, especially, Reynolds et al., 2010, for empirically validated studies of WTL practices in STEM disciplines.) However, we need to remember that writing does not positively affect all learning. In fact, as Russell (2001) reminds us, quantitative data from early empirical studies showed that "when writing was used to improve students' performance on the usual kinds of school tests, it often had no effect or a negative effect" (259). Indeed, for memorization, writing is not effective for most learners. Rather, "when students need to learn to solve what psychologists call 'ill-structured problems,' where there are no single right answers—as in most professional workplaces—writing seems to help" (260).
The central question then becomes—in what specific ways does writing help learners?
In a key empirical study, Hilgers et al. (1999) described their study of the University of Hawaii at Manoa WAC program. Students interviewed reported "learning that the discipline itself—its body of knowledge and research methods—determined what content they included and how content was organized, developed, and supported" (327) in their writing. In extensive interviews, Hilgers and colleagues found that students often reported clear connections between writing and learning. These researchers report that "students generally agreed that writing about something leads to learning. Ninety-one percent claimed that by completing their focal writing assignment, they learned about the topic or subject;" moreover, "forty-seven percent of the interviewees believed that, overall, writing is the best way for them to learn" (342). In addition, "35% of the students claimed that writing assignments influence how they think" with thinking linked explicitly to organizing and refining ideas so that students could "become more 'analytical' and probe 'deeply'" (342-343).
In keeping with much recent theoretical and empirical work on connections between academic writing and post-academic employment or professional identity-building, Hilgers et al. note that 65% of the students interviewed in their study
perceived that writing instruction in their majors was preparing them for thinking and writing in the work force or in graduate school. Students deemed the writing assignments in their majors—program proposals, formal lab reports, critiques of histories, case studies, engineering memos, and so forth—as valuable because they perceived that the reading, drafting, thinking, and revising required to complete the writing tasks were relevant and applicable to their future careers. Forty-seven percent linked the ability to communicate clearly, logically, concisely, and persuasively with professional publication and work-related tasks such as writing reports (e.g., in finance, management, chemistry, psychology) and making presentations (e.g., in marketing, history, engineering) (332).
In addition to learning more about topics and professional approaches to writing in a discipline, students who write across the curriculum also learn more about critical thinking. Quitadamo & Kurtz (2007) studied specific critical thinking performance in general education biology.
The analysis of total critical thinking skill indicated that writing students changed their critical thinking skill from below the national average to above the national average within an academic quarter, whereas nonwriting students remained below the national average. This observation is important because it shows that students can develop critical thinking skills within a fairly short 9-wk period of time, and that writing can play a role in that process. (149)
Quitadamo & Kurtz specially note that students in this study who wrote as part of their course work improved analysis and inference skills significantly as well as their evaluation skills over students not assigned to the writing group.
Similarly, Libarkin & Ording (2012) investigated the effects of three brief writing assignments for nonmajors in bioscience:
In general, we found that student ability to write about scientific topics increased over the course of a limited number of assignments (n = 3). In particular, student ability to discuss scientific concepts (SCI), use data to support a position (DATA), and draw reasonable conclusions about future activity (CONC) all improved. (44)
Also working with college biology students, Armstrong and colleagues (2008) found that content learning is not enhanced with writing as measured by conventional exams but that students who write have a greater potential to foster more learning through backward and forward search strategies. This study reminds us that assigning writing alone does not reliably result in increased learning; rather, teachers need to tie writing tasks to course instructional goals to emphasize the learning opportunities that the writing offers. Moreover, as Armstrong et al. note, students typically need explicit instruction in metacognitive strategies to be able to derive full benefit from writing tasks.
Drabick et al. (2007) also considered conceptual learning in introductory psychology courses and how minimal investment in writing through ungraded free writing could improve students' grasp of key concepts. Their study found that students did improve on test questions following in-class opportunities to write and discuss concepts: "just 5 min of writing on a topic per week (45 min per semester) produced significantly higher scores on test items than did the same amount of time spent thinking" (174). Similarly, Rivard & Straw (2000) found that students who discuss and write about science concepts retain their learning longer than those who do not:
[T]alk is important for sharing, clarifying, and distributing knowledge among peers, while asking questions, hypothesizing, explaining, and formulating ideas together are all important mechanisms during peer discussions. Analytical writing is an important tool for transforming rudimentary ideas into knowledge that is more coherent and structured. Furthermore, talk combined with writing appears to enhance the retention of science learning over time. (566)
Moving into more explicitly WID focused research, Carter et al. (2007) discuss the interviews they conducted with students taking a biology laboratory course: "Our interviewees offered alternative explanations for how the act of writing generates learning: Writing the lab report highlighted connections between what they learned in the lecture and what they did in the lab, it created order in what was previously a "jumbled up" lab experience, and it provided the opportunity to revisit the lab and explain what happened in it" (298).
Even a single assignment can have significant positive results on how students learn about disciplinary approaches and how they draw on their reading/writing tasks. Hynd and colleagues (2004) queried students about their understandings of history following a writing task in which students had to deal with multiple explanations of the Gulf of Tonkin incident in the Vietnam War. As they note, almost all students shifted from thinking of historical texts as capturing truth to understanding that these texts present argument that the historians construct. Students also believed after writing the assignment that they needed to engage in the same kinds of thinking and critique employed by the historians. Finally, and perhaps most important across curricular boundaries, students changed their learning strategies from completing tasks and memorizing facts to critical thinking.
In the recent shift, then, to more active learning in all disciplines, writing plays an important role that teachers and researchers across the curriculum recognize and embrace. Empirical evidence for the gains students make from active learning provides strong support for including WAC efforts in the curriculum.
Armstrong, N.A., Wallace, C.S., & Change, S. (2008). Learning from writing in college biology. Research in Science Education, 38(4), 483-499.
Carter, M., Ferzli, M., & Wiebe, E.N. (2007). Writing to learn by learning to write in the disciplines. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 21(3), 278-302.
Drabick, D.A.G., Weisberg, R., Paul, L., & Bubier, J.L. (2007). Keeping it short and sweet: brief, ungraded writing assignments facilitate learning. Teaching of Psychology, 34(3), 172-176.
Hilgers, T.L., Hussey, E.L., & Stitt-Bergh, M. (1999). "As you're writing, you have these epiphanies": What college students say about writing and learning in their majors. Written Communication, 16(3), 317-353.
Hynd, C., Holschuh, J.P., & Hubbard, B.P. (2004). Thinking like a historian: College students' reading of multiple historical documents. Journal of Literacy Research, 36(2), 141-176.
Kiuhara, S.A., Graham, S., & Hawken, L.S. (2009). Teaching writing to high school students: A national survey. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101(1), 136-160.
McLeod, S., & Maimon, E. (2000). Clearing the Air: WAC Myths and Realities. College English, 62(5), 573-583
McLeod, S., & Miraglia, E. (2001). "Writing across the Curriculum in a Time of Change," in S. H. McLeod, E. Miraglia, M. Soven, and C. Thaiss (Eds.), WAC for the New Millennium: Strategies for Continuing Writing Across the Curriculum Programs, pp. 1-27. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
Patterson, L.M., & Slinger-Friedman, V. (2012). Writing in undergraduate geography classes: Faculty challenges and rewards. Journal of Geography, 111(5), 184-193.
Quitadamo, I.J., & Kurtz, M.J. (2007). Learning to Improve: Using Writing to Increase Critical Thinking Performance in General Education Biology. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 6, 140-154.
Reynolds, J.A., Thaiss, C., Katkin, W., & Thompson, R.J., Jr. (2012). Writing-to-learn in undergraduate science education: A community-based, conceptually driven approach. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 11: 17-25.
Rivard, L.P., & Straw, S.B. (2000). The Effect of Talk and Writing on Learning Science: An Exploratory Study. Science Education, 84: 566-593.
Russell, D.R. (2001). "Where do the naturalistic studies of WAC/WID point? A research review." In S.H. McLeod, E. Miraglia, M. Soven, & C. Thaiss (Eds.), WAC for the New Millennium: Strategies for Continuing Writing-Across-The-Curriculum Programs; pp. 259-298. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
Georgia State University captures central features of WAC in "What is WAC?" in their FAQ at http://wac.gsu.edu/35141.html.