What is Writing in the Disciplines?


Getting Started

Why include writing in my courses?

What is writing to learn?

WTL Activities

What is writing to engage?

What is writing in the disciplines?

WID Assignments

Useful Knowledge

What should I know about rhetorical situations?

Do I have to be an expert in grammar to assign writing?

What should I know about genre and design?

What should I know about second-language writing?

What teaching resources are available?

What should I know about WAC and graduate education?

Assigning Writing

What makes a good writing assignment?

How can I avoid getting lousy student writing?

What benefits might reflective writing have for my students?

Using Peer Review

Why consider collaborative writing assignments?

Do writing and peer review take up too much class time?

How can I get the most out of peer review?

Responding to Writing

How can I handle responding to student writing?

How can writing centers support writing in my courses?

What writing resources are available for my students?

Using Technology

How can computer technologies support writing in my classes?

Designing and Assessing WAC Programs

What is a WAC program?

What designs are typical for WAC programs?

How can WAC programs be assessed?

More on WAC

Where can I learn more about WAC?

Writing assignments are often used to support the goals of Writing in the Disciplines (WID), also called writing to communicate. Writing assignments of this sort are designed to introduce or give students practice with the writing conventions of a discipline and to help them game familiarity and fluency with specific genres and formats typical of a given discipline. For example, the engineering lab report includes much different information in a format quite different from the annual business report.

Because WID is used by a large number of WAC programs, this guide presents a great deal of information on WID, including a detailed rationale, examples, and logistical tips.

A Fuller Definition of WID

WID assignments are typically, but not exclusively, formal documents prepared over a few weeks or even months. The final documents adhere to format and style guidelines typical of the professional genres they help students learn about and practice. Teachers comment primarily on the substance of these assignments, but teachers also expect students to meet professional standards of layout and proofreading (format and mechanical correctness).

Without doubt, the single most important reason for assigning writing tasks in disciplinary courses is to introduce students to the thinking and writing of that discipline. Even though students read disciplinary texts and learn course material, until they practice the language of the discipline through writing, they are less likely to learn that language thoroughly. In addition, teachers cite other specific advantages of WID tasks, large and small. Such writing helps students to:

  • integrate and analyze course content
  • provide a field-wide context to course material
  • practice thinking skills relevant to analyses in the discipline
  • practice professional communication
  • prepare for a range of careers in the field

When to Choose WID, WTE, or WTL

Teachers need to decide which goals are most important for them and for the students they typically teach. For instance, if you ordinarily teach a freshman-level survey course that introduces students to the field, giving students practice in the conventions of writing for that field is generally inappropriate. Rather, you would probably want to give students opportunities to write about the new, foundational concepts they're being introduced to so that you can be sure they are learning the fundamental ideas they will need to take other courses in your discipline.

Teachers thinking about assigning writing in their courses also need to consider just how much time they'll have to review or respond to student writing. Assigning a 20-page term paper in a course with 200 students is unrealistic because teachers seldom have time to read and respond to such lengthy student writing.

Adjusting WID Tasks to Your Teaching Context

As teachers determine goals for writing and their time commitment, they discover an entire spectrum of writing they might assign in their classes. You will base your decisions on complex factors, but the simplified grid below can point you toward additional materials that might be most useful to you as you plan your writing component for each class.

Use this grid to suggest which kinds of writing might be most appropriate in your classes:

Goals to help students learn foundational concepts to check students' understanding of material to practice in critical thinking, reading and writing; to engage students in critical thinking to practice writing conventions of the discipline; to gain familiarity with genres and design conventions
Students mostly freshmen and sophomores all students mostly senior majors
Typical enrollment can be used in the largest classes varies depending on goals fewer than 35
Possible assignments • writing-to-learn prompts reading journals
lab or field notebooks
response papers
• real writing tasks for audiences students will write to as professionals in field
academic papers based on journals in the field
• library or other source-based writing

Alternate Forms/Formats that Mimic Professional Writing

Think of alternate forms/formats. Although the research essay is the most common kind of WID assignment, it's not the only format that students can use to learn about disciplinary writing conventions. If professionals in your field use any of these types of writing, consider using these formats to help students understand the thinking and writing of your discipline:

  • Project or lab notebook
  • Progress report
  • Management plan
  • Position paper
  • Interpretive essay
  • Casebook
  • Review of literature
  • Journal or professional article
  • Project proposals
  • Grant proposals
  • Lab/field reports

Combining WTL and WTE with WID

In addition to discipline-specific formats, other kinds of writing assignments can help students learn the language and ways of thinking of a discipline, even though they may not mimic its professional writing. Any of these writing activities can provide the basis for a longer, more formal assignment, or can be used only to promote class discussion and/or thinking about course material:

Reading Journal

In a discipline-specific context, teachers using a reading journal ask students to write summaries, responses, and syntheses as appropriate for the field. "Readings" might include not only assigned textbook material, but also lectures and outside reading of professional or popular articles relevant to the course material. Teachers might want to assign specific questions to be answered in entries about each reading, or they might link readings in other ways.

Jargon Journal

When you introduce new terms in your lectures or when students see them in readings, ask students to jot the terms down in a notebook or electronic file. Periodically, students then return to the list of terms and fill in or revise working definitions of each term. (Some terms will be easy to define immediately after they are introduced in a course; other terms might take more familiarity with the complexity of a concept to define accurately.) Build in some incentive for keeping the jargon journal by pointing out that students can refer to the definitions as they prepare for—and perhaps write—exam responses.

Rhetorical Analysis

In addition to analyzing articles for content, as students might do in the reading journal, teachers can also ask students to look specifically at professional articles for rhetorical issues:

  • Scope and focus
  • Organization (conventional headings)
  • Arrangement
  • Level of detail
  • Kinds of evidence required
  • Uses of citations
  • Style

Small-group or full-class discussion of these analyses will help students understand the critical approaches professionals in the field typically adopt as well as the writing conventions accepted by major journals in the field.

Analyze an Expert's Revisions

Bring in drafts of your own work or of someone else's professional work that you have permission to share with students. Show students:

  • how professionals shape and revise research questions
  • how professionals work from raw data to write sections outlining results and discussion
  • how professionals move from draft to draft as they work through the entire writing project

Popular Article

Because the popular article is written to a general audience with little specialized knowledge, teachers often assign this writing task to be sure students understand material well enough to explain it in non-technical terms. If you're concerned about assigning a full-length article, you could assign this task as a group writing project, with different group members responsible for chunks of the final article. Or you might just assign the introduction and an outline for key ideas that would go into the remainder of the article.

Sequencing Tasks

One reason that students report feeling overwhelmed by WID tasks is that they aren't sure where to start and then how to proceed to produce a good project of the sort required by the assignment. You can help students—and get better final drafts to read—by setting up a sequence of tasks that build toward the final project.

Two approaches work well when designing a sequence:

  1. Break the large writing task into chunks so that students can tackle parts of the assignment and get feedback before moving to the next chunk. For an example, view the Ag Econ sample assignment.
  2. An alternative is to devise tasks that build on each other, known as scaffolding. For instance, if you hope to assign a professional review of literature as the final project, first have students write abstracts or summaries of articles, then ask for annotations, and finally ask for synthesis. At the same time, have students analyze published articles to determine what a review of literature typically looks like in your field. By giving students scaffolded writing and analytic tasks, they become more confident and more able to meet your criteria for the final writing task.

Responding to Student Writing

You'll find more detailed advice about feedback in the sections under

A few points bear repeating here:

  • Responding to students' writing involves far more than simply marking errors in punctuation and mechanics. Most grading time, by far, is devoted to commenting on focus, development and arrangement of ideas, the quality of arguments, and other larger issues.
  • Tell students in advance specifically what your expectations are for high-level writing skills. Then focus your commenting on how well students meet those specific criteria. Also consider developing a rubric or some other commenting guide to help you comment quickly but thoroughly on the points you decide are most important for a given assignment. (See the samples in "What makes a good writing assignment?" and "How can I handle responding to drafts?")

Improving the Research Essay

When professors are reluctant to assign research essays, they often claim that students cannot write clearly and logically, synthesizing sources and evaluating data to draw closely argued conclusions. Most often, these weaknesses are not the result simply of poor writing skills, but also of poorly defined criteria that students don't grasp. Fortunately, teachers can improve the research essay by clarifying goals for the assignment and keeping students' resources in mind.

Excellent Goals for Assigning Research Essays

Most university professors agree that research-based writing in college classes can and should meet these goals:

  • foster critical thinking about raw data and other people's conclusions
  • give students an opportunity to work independently on a large project
  • mimic behaviors that students must know if they pursue advanced academic degrees
  • mimic behaviors that students will draw on in other aspects of their lives (examples range from buying cars to management decisions)
  • familiarize students with major journals, research methodologies, and writing conventions of their major fields

Questions to Ask about how Students will Perceive your Goals

Students often view the research-based paper as an exercise in cutting and pasting rather than in carefully sifting and synthesizing key ideas that support their own thinking. So teachers get the best results from research-based assignments that they have revised after considering these questions:

  • Have we, in teaching research rather than critical thinking about researched information, misled ourselves and our students into reducing this vital undertaking into a set of easily replicated steps?
  • And then by focusing on the steps, do we give students the wrong message about what is important in doing research?
  • When we give students 50 pages on documentation styles, are we telling them that format is more important than the critical synthesis of views and data?
  • How, then, might we reorient students' thinking about research-based writing?
  • Do students who see most of the grading criteria and weighting of the final grade devoted to the mechanics of finding and citing material believe in the goals we hope to foster with research-based writing?

Three Points to Consider

If you've decided that a traditional research essay best meets your teaching goals, please consider three ideas that might make this assignment more useful for students:

Find out what your students already know about using the library and the Internet for research

Most students in upper-level courses (and even most freshmen) know how to find general sources. But many upper-division students may not yet be familiar with specific sources in your discipline. Make sure they know how to find these, and even consider arranging a session in the library to go over search techniques for databases in your field.

Find out what your students already know about reading research-based articles in your discipline

Students are remarkably reluctant to admit they have a hard time reading research-based texts. But if they don't know how to read professional articles in your field, they certainly won't know how to evaluate the data and conclusions in those articles. You can tackle this problem with some sequenced "mini"-writing tasks (like those described in the Combining WTL and WID section).

Give students a chance (or chances) to work on parts of the final assignment as separate tasks

The Ag Econ assignment is a good example of breaking down a larger writing task so that the teacher can see if students need help with key elements of the larger writing task. If students, for example, don't know how to frame an adequate research question, you can head off this problem if you give students a mini-task that asks for a research question long before students begin their source work.

Similarly, if your experience with this course in the past suggests that students often struggle to analyze or synthesize data, you might want to set up sequenced writing tasks that give them some practice—and feedback—on these key writing skills.

Beyond the Basics

The literature now available on writing in the disciplines or writing to communicate is deep and broad, encompassing far more than a brief bibliographic essay can accurately capture. Let me offer instead two pieces of advice—consult the general resources noted here and look at the journals in your discipline that take up teaching issues. Those journals are most likely to include articles that situate writing to communicate activities in the courses you might find yourself teaching. The articles themselves will glean from the robust resources to point you toward those titles that will best fill in background you might find helpful.

We collect below titles from across disciplines to offer some potential starting points. We have organized the resources in a table to cluster articles by discipline. Please note, however, that disciplinary titles here point to writing in the disciplines rather than writing to learn (or writing to engage) titles that are included in the WTL section of this resource. All titles refer to the list of Works Cited that follows the tables.

Titles sorted by broad disciplinary focus


Carter, Ferzli & Wiebe, 2007

Hocks, Lopez & Grabill, 2000

Kaufer & Young, 1993

Russell, 1991

Walvoord, 1992

Young & Fulwiler, 1986


Bourelle, 2012

Ford, 2004

Ford & Newmark, 2011

Hotchkiss & Hougan, 2012

Lewis, 2004

Pollard, 2008

Russell, 2007

Shaver, 2011

Ward, 2009


Addams, Woodbury, Allred & Addams, 2010

Brumberger, 2004

Fredrick, 2008

Jebb, 2005

Kreth, 2005

Nelson & MacLeod, 1993

Planken & Kreps, 2006

Powell, 2012

Russell, 2007

Shaver, 2007

Sin, Jones & Petocz, 2007

Vega, 2010

West, 2006

Williams, 2008

Williams & Reid, 2010


Abbate-Vaughn, 2007

Elliot, Daily, Fredricks & Graham, 2008

Galer-Unti, 2002

Gallavan, Bowles & Young, 2007

Lavelle, 2006

Reynolds-Keefer, 2010

Street & Stang, 2008

Wheeler & Wheeler, 2009


Bahls, 2012

Bank, 2006

Becker, 1995

Beiersdorfer, 1991

Beins, 1993

Bressette & Breton, 2001

Buddington, 2006

Buzzi, Grimes & Roll, 2012

Carlson & Berry, 2008

Carroll & Seeman, 2001

Carson, 1991

Cass & Fernandes, 2008

Chiang, et al., 2012

Colabroy, 2011

Collins, 2010

Conrad, 1991

Craig, Lerner &Poe, 2008

Crisp & Jensen, 2007

Cunningham, 2007

Davis, 1991

Deese, Ramsey, Walczyk & Eddy, 2000

DeWolf, 2002

Doty, 2012

Elberty & Romey, 1991

Falk & Yarden, 2011

Fencl, 2010

Froese, Gantz & Henry, 1998

Goodman, 2005

Guilford, 2001

Halsor & Faul-Halsor, 1991

Harding, 2005

Hosten, Talanova & Lipkowitz, 2011

Howell, 2007

Irish, 1999

Jalali, Hanlan & Canal, 2009

Kasman, 2006

Killingbeck, 2006

Klein & Aller, 1998

Kokkala & Gessell, 2003

Kroen, 2004

Libarkin, 2012

Lillig, 2008

Linsdell & Anagnos, 2011

Lord, 2009

Luthy, Petertson, Lassitter & Callister, 2009

Macdonald, 1991

Martin, 2010

McDermott & Kuhn, 2011

McGovern & Hogshead, 1990

McMillan & Raines, 2010

Meyer & Munson, 2005

Mirsky, 1991

Mizrahi, 2003

Moni, Hryciw, Poronnik & Moni, 2007

Motavalli, Patton & Miles, 2007

Mulnix, 2003

Niemitz & Potter, 1991

Paretti & McNair, 2008

Patterson, 1997

Patton, 2008

Polizzotto & Ortiz, 2008

Prothero & Kelly, 2008

Roberts-Kirchoff & Caspars, 2001

Robinson, Stoller, Horn & Grabe, 2009

Santi, 2000

Sivey & Lee, 2008

Smosna & Bruner, 2007

Snow, 1991

Sulewski, 2003

Tilstra, 2001

Tomaska, 2007

Turner & Broemmel, 2006

Vest, Long & Anderson, 1996

Vest, Long, Thomas & Palmquist, 1995

Wald, Davis, Reis, Monroe & Borken, 2009

Wallner & Latosi-Sawin, 1999

Wheeler & McDonald, 2000

Whelan & Zare, 2003

White, 2007

Zimmerman & Palmquist, 1993

Zimmerman, Palmquist, Kiefer, Long, Vest, Tipton & Thomas, 1993

Zimmerman, Palmquist, Vest, Boiarsky, Long, Tajchman, Anderson, Criswell & Crim, 1995

Zlatic, Nowak & Sylvester, 2000

Social Sciences

Allwardt, 2011

Carlson, Chizmar, Seeborg & Walbert, 1998

Dickovick, 2009

Goma, 2001

Kahn & Holody, 2012

Kebede, 2009

Pennock, 2011

Pressman, 2008

Ruswick, 2011

Santos & Lavin, 2004

Trepagnier, 2004


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Addams, L.H., Woodbury, D., Allred, T., & Addams, J. (2010). Developing student communication skills while assisting nonprofit organizations. Business Communication Quarterly, 73(3), 282-290.

Allwardt, D.E. (2011). Writing with wikis: A cautionary tale of technology in the classroom. Journal of Social Work Education, 47(3), 597-605.

Bahls, P. (2012). Student writing in the quantitative disciplines: A guide for college faculty. Indianapolis, IN: Jossey Bass.

Bank, C. (2006). Reading and writing taught in a sophomore course on plate tectonics. Journal of Geoscience Education, 54(1), 25-30.

Becker, S.F. (1995). Guest comment: Teaching writing to teach physics. American Journal of Physics, 63(7), 587.

Beiersdorfer, R.E. (1991). An integrated approach to geologic writing for non-science majors based on study of a California river. Journal of Geological Education, 39: 196-198.

Beins, B.C. (1993). Writing assignments in statistics classes encourage students to learn interpretation. Teaching of Psychology, 20(3),161-164.

Blevins-Knabe, B. (1987). Writing to learn while learning to write. Teaching of Psychology, 14(4), 239-241.

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Bressette, A.R; & Breton, G.W. (2001). Using writing to enhance the undergraduate research experience. Journal of Chemical Education, 78(12), 1626-1627.

Brumberger, E.R. (2004). The "corporate correspondence project": Fostering audience awareness and extended collaboration. Business Communication Quarterly, 67(3), 349-358.

Buddington, A.M. (2006). A field-based, writing intensive undergraduate course on

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Carlson, J.L., Chizmar, J.F., Seeborg, M.C., & Walbert, M.S. (1998). Using undergraduate journals and peer pressure to improve undergraduate writing in economics. The Journal of Economics, 24(2), 77-86.

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Carson, R.J. (1991). Land-use-planning writing assignment for an environment-geology course. Journal of Geological Education, 39: 206-210.

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.

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Cheng, C.K., Pare, D.E., Collimore, L., & Joordens, S. (2011). Assessing the effectiveness of a voluntary online discussion forum on improving students' course performance. Computers & Education, 56(1), 253-261.

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Colabroy, K.L. (2011). A writing-intensive, methods-based laboratory course for undergraduates. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education: A Bimonthly Publication of the International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, 39(3), 196-203.

Collins, J. (2010). Engineers learn to write: Coaching the art of noticing with writing samples. 2010 IEEE International Professional Communication Conference; 80-86. New York: IEEE Press.

Conrad, S.H. (1991). Balancing teaching and learning geology on the writing fulcrum. Journal of Geological Education, 39: 230-231.

Craig, J.L., Lerner, N., & Poe, M. (2008). Innovation across the curriculum: Three case studies in teaching science and engineering communication. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 51(3), 280-301.

Crisp, K.M., Jensen, M.M., & Moore, R.R. (2007). Pros and cons of a group webpage design project in a freshman anatomy and physiology course. Advances in Physiology Education, 31(4), 343-346.

Cunningham, K. (2007). Applications of reaction rate. Journal of Chemical Education, 84(3), 430-433.

Davis, L.E. (1991). Student abstract writing as a tool for writing across the curriculum in large introductory-geology courses. Journal of Geological Education, 39: 178-180.

Deese, W.C., Ramsey, L.L., Walczyk, J., & Eddy, D. (2000). Using demonstration assessments to improve writing. Journal of Chemical Education, 77(11), 1511-1516.

DeWolf, J.T. (2002). Incorporation of writing into a steel design course. Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education and Practice, 128(2), 71-74.

Dickovick, J.T. (2009). Methods in the madness: Integrative approaches to methodology in introductory comparative politics. Journal of Political Science Education, 5(2), 138-153.

Doty, L.L. (2012). A mathematician learns the basics of writing instruction: An immersion experience with long-term benefits. Primus, 22(1), 14-29.

Elberty, W.T., & Romey, W.D. (1991). "What are you interested in" as a writing assignment theme. Journal of geological education, 39: 237-239.

Elliot, L., Daily, N.L., Fredricks, L., & Graham, M.S. (2008). Transitioning from students to professionals: Using a writing across the curriculum model to scaffold portfolio development. Teacher Educator, 43(1), 46-58.

Falk, H., & Yarden, A. (2011). Stepping into the unknown: Three models for the teaching and learning of the opening sections of scientific articles. Journal of Biological Education, 45(2), 77-82.

Fencl, H.S. (2010). Development of students' critical-reasoning skills through content-focused activities in a general education course. Journal of College Science Teaching, 39(5), 56-62.

Ford, J.D. (2004). Knowledge transfer across disciplines: Tracking rhetorical strategies from a technical communication classroom to an engineering classroom. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 47(4), 301-315.

Ford, J.D., & Newmark, J. (2011). Emphasizing research (further) in undergraduate technical communication curricula: Involving undergraduate students with an academic journal's publication and management. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 41(3), 311-324.

Fredrick, T. (2008). Practicing professional communication principles by creating public service announcements. Business Communication Quarterly, 71(1), 58-63.

Froese, A.D., Gantz, B.S., & Henry, A.L. (1998). Teaching students to write literature reviews: A meta-analytic model. Teaching of Psychology, 25(2), 102-105.

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Goma, O.D. (2001). Creative writing in economics. College teaching, 49(4), 149-152.

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Guildford, W.H. (2001). Teaching peer review and the process of scientific writing. Advances in Physiology Education, 25(3), 167-175.

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Kroen, W. (2004). Modeling the writing process: Using authentic data to teach students to write scientifically. Journal of College Science Teaching, 34(3), 50-53.

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