Writing Across the Curriculum

by Laury Fischer and Karen Carlisi

One of the ways that you can improve learning in your classroom is to incorporate writing into your curriculum. Educational research, along with the experiences and practices of thousands of instructors, and as evidenced by hundreds of programs in colleges and universities, has shown that thinking and learning are inextricably related to writing, and that when writing is incorporated into any subject area across the curriculum, including yours, student learning improves. The philosophy and practice of incorporating writing into all curricular areas is called Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC), a pedagogical movement that began in the 1980s in response to a perceived deficiency in literacy among college students.

WAC is based on theories that support the relationship between thinking, learning and writing.  The movement has evolved and now refers to the effort to ensure that writing is included in the teaching of all disciplines and integrated so as to promote critical thinking as well as improve learning. Some students at community colleges are university bound, and writing is required in university classes.  Therefore, students who succeed in community college classes that incorporate writing into the curriculum practice the type of work included in four-year universities.

Students who are in vocational education classes, as well as students who are underprepared to do college-level wrok, also need to develop writing and reading skills in order to succeed in the variety of tasks their jobs and future classes will ask them to perform. But, just as importantly, incorporating writing into your classes, in the variety of ways suggested in this lesson, will improve student learning and the retention of material; in addition, WAC practices will allow you to evaluate your success in the classroom, as well as allow you to better understand the extent to which students are mastering the material in your course.


Students need to write in all disciplines (essays, word problems, lab reports, arts criticism, journals, personal statements, job/college applications, etc.)

Relation to Aims, Overall Objectives and Learning Styles:

  • Holds students accountable for college-level work
  • Contributes to all aspects of critical thinking
  • Develops writing skills, which are essential to both college and the professional world
  • Enhances creative perception.

Methods:

  • Determine purpose and scope of writing projects
  • Determine type of feedback to give (content, grammar, style, structure, etc.)
  • Determine expectations (content, grammar, style, structure, etc.)
  • Determine integration into course grade.

 

 

Best Practices:

  • In an oceanography course, students write introductions, conclusions and short reflective essays in the field
  • In an architecture class, students write essays explaining how building designs are affected by culture, geography and the physical environment
  • In art classes, students write art reviews as well as statements about their own work
  • In physical education classes, students write descriptive paragraphs about the mechanics and/or benefits of specifics sports
  • In a scientific methods class, students design and write tabloid articles relating to scientific discoveries (example: "Dinosaur Found Alive in Desert!"

 

Pitfalls:

  • Faculty not trained in how to assign and evaluate writing
  • Faculty not prepared for the volume of reading.

Premises and Objectives of Writing Across the Curriculum

Premises of Writing Across the Curriculum 

Institutional Objectives of Writing Across the Curriculum 

Since the early 1970s, instructors across grade levels have been looking at WAC as a means to allow instructors to reconsider the kind of writing that might be done in all classrooms. We need to make a couple of distinctions. The first distinction that we can make is between “writing to learn” and “learning to write.” There’s a third category as well: “writing to demonstrate what you have learned.” Nearly all the traditional assignments fall into this third category: we ask students to write and then evaluate how well they have learned or expressed the material in question. Many effective WAC programs focus on "writing to learn" assignments which are likely to be the least familiar to you.

Writing to Learn refers to writing that helps us understand, reflect upon, or generate questions we might have about a topic. For instructors it is an excellent way to get students to think about the material in you class without having to worry about a grade, grammar, spelling, or necessarily being “right.” Assignments in this area allow students to explore their thoughts about a topic, ask questions about the material, question you directly, clarify their thinking, focus on a particular topic, etc. This very basic approach frequently makes use of journals, logs, microthemes (defined as short assignments that address a very focused element of your course), and other primarily informal writing assignments that will be described in more throughout the Dig Deeper sections.   In writing to learn assignments, students write in their own words, and react to the information they read about or heard in class, and this writing is intedned to improve their ability to comprehend and retain information.  

Learning to Write: Learning to Write refers to work students do as they learn or improve their writing skills. Although many make the case that all writing helps students improve their writing, typically the responsibility for teaching students to write and to improve their writing resides with the English Department, the Developmental Reading, Writing, or English Department, and the Tutoring Center of your college. Be sure to be aware of how reading and writing are taught on your campus and what kind of tutoring services are available for students. If you are not an English instructor, it is reasonable that you become aware of these services that will help improve student writing. Also, it would be helpful if you knew what courses students are required to take or could take that focus on writing, reading, and student learning.

In addition, it might be helpful for you to know the content of the required composition courses, whether the courses you are teaching require or recommend that students have fulfilled a writing or reading requirement, and what you should do if you believe that a student is underprepared to do the work required in your class. Colleagues and your department chair should be excellent sources of information for these important concerns. Most of the WAC suggestions here are not focused on learning to write activities but instead give recommendations for writing to learn strategies and writing to demonstrate what students have learned.

In addition to the three distinctions above, a few terms frequently surface when discussing writing across the curriculum:

Writing in the Disciplines (WID): In this approach to WAC, there is a particular emphasis on preparing students to write in a specific discipline.   This is based on the assumption that each academic discipline has its own conventions of language use and style and that students must learn these conventions, in order to successfully participate in the discourse of that field.

Dig Deeper into WID

Writing Intensive (WI): Numerous colleges and universities have institutionalized writing intensive programs which specify that students need to take a prescribed number of WI classes in order to graduate. Typically, WI programs have faculty-generated guidelines for courses that would include such components as: number of pages students are to write of final draft material; the prescription that certain pieces of writing go through at least one rough draft, response, and revision of that draft; an indication that writing assignments will account for a certain percentage of the grade; recommendations for the types of writing that might be included in a particular discipline.

Dig Deeper into WI


Dig Deeper into Popular Applications of WAC

Dig Deeper into Common Assumptions/Misperceptions About WAC

Dig Deeper into Tips and Strategies for WAC

Dig Deeper into Additional Resources