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Writing Across the Curriculum

Designing a Writing-Enhanced Course

Many professors increase the amount of student writing in a course in order to promote student engagement, support student learning, and help students to develop good writing skills. Some professors undertake this process in order to meet Lehman College’s Writing-Intensive course guidelines; others simply recognize the value of creating a writing-enhanced course, whether or not the class is officially designated writing-intensive. In either case, adding a substantial amount of writing to a course often challenges faculty to rethink their course syllabus. What follows are some things to think about in creating a writing-enhanced syllabus or in revising your course to include more students writing.

Clarifying course objectives and pedagogical goals

In designing or revising a syllabus it is important to consider the ways in which you communicate course objectives to students. Students should know why they are in the course, what you expect from them, and what you hope they will learn. To make these expectations clear, you might write a letter to the class in which you introduce yourself and explain what you hope to accomplish. You can ask students to reply to your letter, letting you know why they are taking the class, describing their previous experiences with the material, and raising questions and/or concerns. Some professors ask students to describe their experiences with college writing and/or discipline-specific writing. Letters like these are a good way to get to know students, open up lines of communication, and gather base-line writing samples.

Creating an effective and compelling course description

The opening section of a syllabus serves a basic purpose as an overview of course content and learning objectives, but it also acts as a kind of advertisement, conveying our excitement and engagement with an area of study. Writing an effective course description thus poses a number of challenges: we need to be clear and comprehensive, but we also hope to capture student interest. The sample syllabus linked below shows the revisions made to a course description in order to help students see the overall themes and issues at stake in the course, while creating an appealing frame for the course itself.

Planning the placement and role of writing in the course

Including more opportunities to write, both in and out of the classroom, often requires rethinking course design and pacing. Ideally, writing activities and assignments should not occur at random moments throughout the semester, but should be part of a coherent plan for the entire course. One way to approach overall course design is to focus on the major writing assignments for the class and think about how these parts fit together. Do any writing assignments lead into other assignments? Are there any moments when students are asked to review and analyze their own work? It might be useful to sketch or diagram your class as you consider the relationships among the various parts.

Weighting assignment grades

In the first part of a course, students are absorbing both content and discipline-specific approaches to gathering and communicating knowledge. Some professors make informal assignments part of the calculation of final grades. Others use a portfolio approach that makes revision and self-evaluation a component of grading. Making early assignments weigh less heavily in the calculation of final grades or weighing revised work more heavily supports students as they learn discipline-specific ways of writing and thinking. If a high-stakes formal assignment (like a researched argument essay) is an important part of the course’s design, breaking the assignment into sections, providing a series of deadlines, and/or placing the final assignment deadline before the end-of-semester could provide opportunities for revision and help to combat plagiarism.

Encouraging students to reflect on their learning

Asking students to reflect on their own learning process in writing throughout the semester can help to make students more self-conscious learners, while providing important information to the instructor. Consider asking students to submit cover letters along with their written work. A “cover letter” can be a relatively brief piece of writing accompanying a written assignment or a more substantial reflection letter explaining the rationale behind a final course portfolio or other culminating assignment. Assigning informal, reflective writing throughout the semester can also provide insight into the effectiveness of individual assignments. Assigning a final reflection piece at the end of the semester offers an opportunity for students to think about what they have learned in the course, and can be used by the instructor in revising and planning subsequent writing-enhanced courses.

Suggestions for future reading

  • Cheryl Albers, “Using the Syllabus to Document Scholarship”
  • David Bartholomae, “Inventing the University”
  • Toby Fulwiler, “Why We Teach Writing in the First Place”
  • Judy Moore and Eric Mould, “The Evolution of a Biology Course: From Student Passivity to Accountability”

Please visit our Readings page to see the full citations.

The Lehman General Education program has assembled a list of resources on the subject of syllabus design that you can visit here.