Developing a WID Course Syllabus
Last updated: 6-11-08
Using Writing as a Tool for Learning in Your Course
The goal in creating a WID course syllabus is to construct writing assignments that provide significant opportunities for students to learn about a discipline or a particular body of knowledge, its methods of scholarship and modes of communication. Such assignments should promote active learning and strengthen students’ command of a subject beyond what is possible simply by reading or taking notes on lectures. For WID faculty, the challenge is to design writing assignments that challenge our students to learn about some subjects in depth, while also preparing them to write in a confident, informed way for diverse audiences.
Writing as Discovery: Writing is a proven method for promoting discovery and depth of understanding. Exploratory writing—“free writing” or journal writing—will give students practice in getting their thoughts down on paper and prepare them for the later stages of more formal writing. Informal writing or “pre-writing” needn’t be graded but it is important that students receive written or oral feedback from you, your IA/ GTA, and/or fellow students. There are several time-tested methods for framing responses to such exploratory writing:
- one-on-one conferencing with a professor, IA, GTA, or peer writing preceptor
- small-group “peer review” workshops with fellow students
- one-on-one consultations in the University Writing Center
- email or Blackboard exchanges
- informal writing groups
Writing as Practice: It’s useful to model our own practices for students when teaching writing in our respective disciplines. Talk to your students about your own methods and practices; let them have the benefit of your personal and professional experience. While there may be exceptions, most of us probably follow a common sequence of stages when composing written work in our professional lives, beginning with some kind of “prewriting,” brainstorming, or outlining; followed by drafting and revision; then sharing the results with one or more colleagues; followed by more revision; and then a final editing—final for the moment anyway, since a paper we send off to a scholarly journal might come back to us with a request for additional changes or a pink slip, in which case it’s back to the drawing board. Try to build at least the main steps of this process into your syllabus, with due dates for each major stage. The final product is sure to be far superior to work that hasn’t gone through such a recursive process, and you and your students will be far happier with the results.
Meeting WID Goals: The University Writing Advisory Council asks that courses approved for the WID Program include writing for diverse purposes and diverse audiences, rewriting or revision (including a second revision of at least one assignment), and instruction in writing in the discipline in question. UWAC recommends a range of 10-25 finished pages of writing for each WID course, depending on the discipline (typically fewer for math and science, more for humanities and social sciences). Presumably most writing will be done with an academic audience in mind (the professor and the rest of the class, for instance), but you might want to develop one or more assignments that ask your students to address a non-academic or popular audience instead. We should train our students to become the sort of sophisticated writers who are able to adjust their language and approach, depending on the objective and the needs and expectations of particular audiences.
As you consider the range of possible types of assignments and audiences relevant to your discipline, think about the goals for your course and appropriate long-term goals for someone preparing to do more advanced work in your discipline or a related discipline. Then tailor at least some of your assignments with those goals in mind.
Sequencing Assignments: Where possible, the sequence of writing assignments should take into consideration the learning goals for the course. As a general rule, it’s best to move from lower to higher order thinking skills, and from simpler to more complex writing assignments, as the semester progresses. Bloom’s taxonomy describes a well-known hierarchy of cognitive skills (knowledge, comprehension, evaluation, analysis, application, synthesis) that can serve as a useful reference or guide. However, keep in mind that some skills require a good deal of practice, so for some assignments you may want to require several iterations of the same type of writing at several points in the semester. In this case, progress will come with repetition, rather than strategic sequencing of writing assignments. In any case, academic challenge is the goal.