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.
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:
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.
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
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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
Bring in drafts of your own work or of someone else's professional work that you have permission to share with students. Show students:
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.
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:
You'll find more detailed advice about feedback in the sections under
A few points bear repeating here:
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.
Most university professors agree that research-based writing in college classes can and should meet these 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:
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:
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.
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).
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.
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.
Carter, Ferzli & Wiebe, 2007
Hocks, Lopez & Grabill, 2000
Kaufer & Young, 1993
Young & Fulwiler, 1986
Ford & Newmark, 2011
Hotchkiss & Hougan, 2012
Addams, Woodbury, Allred & Addams, 2010
Nelson & MacLeod, 1993
Planken & Kreps, 2006
Sin, Jones & Petocz, 2007
Williams & Reid, 2010
Elliot, Daily, Fredricks & Graham, 2008
Gallavan, Bowles & Young, 2007
Street & Stang, 2008
Wheeler & Wheeler, 2009
Bressette & Breton, 2001
Buzzi, Grimes & Roll, 2012
Carlson & Berry, 2008
Carroll & Seeman, 2001
Cass & Fernandes, 2008
Chiang, et al., 2012
Craig, Lerner &Poe, 2008
Crisp & Jensen, 2007
Deese, Ramsey, Walczyk & Eddy, 2000
Elberty & Romey, 1991
Falk & Yarden, 2011
Froese, Gantz & Henry, 1998
Halsor & Faul-Halsor, 1991
Hosten, Talanova & Lipkowitz, 2011
Jalali, Hanlan & Canal, 2009
Klein & Aller, 1998
Kokkala & Gessell, 2003
Linsdell & Anagnos, 2011
Luthy, Petertson, Lassitter & Callister, 2009
McDermott & Kuhn, 2011
McGovern & Hogshead, 1990
McMillan & Raines, 2010
Meyer & Munson, 2005
Moni, Hryciw, Poronnik & Moni, 2007
Motavalli, Patton & Miles, 2007
Niemitz & Potter, 1991
Paretti & McNair, 2008
Polizzotto & Ortiz, 2008
Prothero & Kelly, 2008
Roberts-Kirchoff & Caspars, 2001
Robinson, Stoller, Horn & Grabe, 2009
Sivey & Lee, 2008
Smosna & Bruner, 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
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
Carlson, Chizmar, Seeborg & Walbert, 1998
Kahn & Holody, 2012
Santos & Lavin, 2004
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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.
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