Writing is an evolutionary process whereby the author revises h/her ideas, values and approaches, not just a mechanical act of placing words in a correct sequence with appropriate grammar. It is intensely personal and interactive with the subject matter, whether in the form of a brief One Minute Paper at the end of class, a five minute summary during class, an extended essay, or research paper.
The purpose of this book is to provide a wide range of examples of writing across the curriculum (WAC) activities in order to encourage teachers to use writing in their classes regularly as a way of stimulating critical thinking in their students and providing variety in their teaching methods.
Over the years I have developed a substantial number of writing assignments for a variety of courses including engineering, and developmental and college mathematics. Writing this book has helped me focus my ideas about WAC and to put all my writing assignments in one place for review and use by other teachers. The book itself illustrates the value of writing in that my ideas about what should be included continue to evolve as I write.
Why is writing an important part of any pedagogy? Research is clear that writing causes the author to think critically and deeply about the topic under consideration, often evaluating and rethinking one's beliefs and values. From the student's perspective writing develops communication skills and problem solving abilities needed in today's workplace. It makes learning more meaningful by relating student's personal experiences to the course material and generates course ownership through creative writing by personalizing it. From a teacher's perspective writing helps build rapport between teacher and student by opening a variety of communication approaches, by including students in the evaluation and application of course information, and through its inclusion with collaborative learning exercises.
This book is presented in three sections. The first presents reasons why WAC is important to all classes, not just English classes. It is hoped that this section will serve to encourage new WAC users by highlighting and explaining the many benefits created by WAC. The second section gives detailed descriptions of 29 different writing assignments the author has developed, which have been tested in a variety of courses. Section 3 provides a listing of world wide web sites which have interesting materials concerning WAC approaches with numerous links to colleges and universities.
The assignments are organized into five categories: Motivational-General, Personal Reflection/Motivation, Content/Process. Content/Personal, and Content Enhancing. Each category is intended to solicit responses which will foster student motivation by having students look at personal issues facing them or through examination of content, or procedures. For example, in assignment #1D students are asked to analyze the 7 Principles Of Good Education and make suggestions as to how they might be applied to the course. This is done at the beginning of the semester to call attention to the value of their active participation in the class as well as the nature of teaching and learning.
Each writing assignment description is divided into six sections. The first is a description of the background and rationale for the assignment plus additional observations which are intended to be helpful to the reader in anticipating the kinds of responses students may give. The second section highlights the purposes and benefits expected from the assignment. The third section suggests alternative uses and ways of modifying the assignment to meet special needs of different classes. The fourth section suggests applications and procedures for using the assignment to generate cooperative learning opportunities in and out of class. The fifth section includes a sample assignment which may be modified by individual instructors to meet their particular needs or interests. The sixth section presents samples of student responses to the assignment. This section is unique to this book and is intended to help instructors anticipate the types of student responses they may receive.
Perhaps the best way to use this book is to browse through section two to see what interests you, versus reading it from beginning to end. It is intended for three very different audiences. First it is for teachers who already use WAC and are comfortable with this approach but would like to explore new methods and ideas. For beginning teachers reading through the detailed descriptions presented in chapter 2 would be helpful to build a foundation and basis for using WAC plus these materials provide sample assignments and student responses. For the novice WAC user reading through the detailed descriptions would be most helpful with the idea in mind of finding one or two new options to add to their portfolio of WAC assignments.
Readers are encouraged to explore the wide variety of WAC materials available on the WWW and in this book with an eye toward developing their own unique applications and assignments. As stated earlier, the WAC process is an active one providing a high degree of creativity and innovation. Introduction of WAC into courses has the potential to stimulate both student and teacher interest in course content and to encourage new approaches to learning and teaching.
Why Use Writing Assignments in Courses Other Then English Composition?
The eternal question raised by students "Why do I need to do writing assignments in this course, it is not an English course?" has many answers. Assigning writing exercises in courses like Physics, Calculus, biology, etc may indeed seem strange to students because in these courses information transfer appears to be the primary teaching technique. In reality our job as teachers is to create an environment that encourages students' to take responsibility for understanding of underlying concepts and enabling them to solve new as well as existing problems.
Some of the reasons for using WAC methods presented below may be more meaningful to students while others will receive a more empathetic response from professors. All of the reasons for using writing in college classes, however, speak to the heart and philosophy or Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC); helping students become active, independent learners.
The following reasons for using WAC in non-English courses are presented to help convince professors and students of the value and need for using this paradigm. They are not intended to be exhaustive. Hopefully other ideas will occur to readers as they peruse the ideas presented below.
In addition WAC is not meant to be an exclusive paradigm but one tool of many used by instructors to build critical thinking skills in students. WAC is especially effective when used with collaborative learning techniques or in large lectures to help focus students attention on a particular topic or assess their understanding of material being discussed. Informal writing, outlined in section 3 of this book, highlights the value of WAC in personalizing instruction when using any teaching paradigm
helps the author evolve in his/her thinking. Boyer (1987), Zinsser
Writing causes authors to evolve in their thinking by reflecting on ideas, gathering new information, modifying their thoughts and/or philosophy or approach to a subject (such as teaching) through the process of writing, editing and rewriting. According to Bean(1996) "The underlying premise is that writing is closely linked with thinking and that in presenting students with significant problems to write about- and in creating an environment that demands their best writing- we can promote their general cognitive and intellectual growth. When we make students struggle with their writing we are making them struggle with thought itself." (pxiii)
Naisbitt and Aburdene (1985) make an even stronger case for writing to promote thinking. They say "If our students' thinking skills have deteriorated badly- and we know they have- perhaps it is because their writing skills have grown equally slack. More and more educators have reached the same conclusion and come up with the same solution: Strengthen the writing curriculum as an avenue to sharpen thinking" (p152).
This book provides an excellent personal example. I started out with the idea of writing a short "What to write" book by presenting and explaining writing assignments which I have developed and tested in my classes. I have expanded it to include a section on helpful internet world wide web pages and reasons for using writing. I expect that even after I finish the final rewrite of this book I will continue to evolve in my understanding and presentation of WAC materials.
generates critical thinking.
At a minimum writing improves the author's critical thinking skills. One's ability to solve problems, to examine ideas carefully and support them from evidence, and the ability to incorporate and synthesize information are all enhanced through formal and informal writing activities. Formal writing especially and informal writing to a lessor degree requires organizational skills, vocabulary, philosophical underpinnings, and determination, to be successful. The process of rewriting and editing is time consuming and requires hard work. The process of thinking is very physically demanding as well as mentally. WAC programs build these characteristics in students over time.
Bean (1996) presents the essence of critical thinking through his review of Dewey's explanation of critical thinking. "Although definitions in the pedagogical literature vary in detail, in their broad outlines they are largely elaboration's, extensions, and refinements of the progressive views of John Dewey (1916), who rooted critical thinking in the student's engagement with a problem. "The most significant question which can be asked." says Dewey. "about any situation or experience proposed to induce learning is what quality of problem it involves" (p182). Problems, for Dewey, evoke student's natural curiosity and stimulate both learning and critical thought" (Bean P2)
personalizes college classes.
Large lecture classes are notoriously impersonal. Students rarely interact with the lecturer during class. One way for a professor to personalize a class is to use informal writing assignments which are usually of a personal nature. Students may be asked to reflect upon their performance in the class, problems or successes they are having and their views of class procedures and methods. These assignments are usually not graded in order to encourage the students to be open about their reactions and feelings. Contact is made more personal in lecture classes because the students are able to communicate directly with the instructor through writing assignments. The teacher has an opportunity to respond to the student either in writing or in person, thus opening lines of communication which make any class more personal.
Bean (1996) makes a strong case for combining writing with collaborative exercises in large lecture classes. He states, "A second advantage of the method described here (use of collaborative groups) can be adapted to large classes, even in lecture halls where students have to turn around in their seats to form groups. Whereas it is nearly impossible to lead a whole-class discussion in a room of two hundred students, it is entirely possible in a large class to give students a critical thinking task, have students work with their neighbors for ten minutes or so ,and then ask representative groups to present or justify their solutions" (p 151)
builds rapport between teacher and student.
Students often report that they do better in classes and feel more motivated when they feel the teacher is taking a personal interest in their performance. As discussed above, opening a two-way line of communication between the student and instructor personalizes courses and this enables teachers to build a rapport with their students. Students and teachers may share experiences with each other, explain their rationale for class activities, provide suggestions for assistance, among the many possible interactions which tend humanize the author of an informal writing assignment.
Brufee (1993) summarizes the effect of having the teacher and students read each other's work. He states, "Reading one another's work and listening to one another's work read aloud gives students confidence in the value of their own words and ideas, because they learn that other writers are interested in what they have to say. Learning what their peers are interested in, furthermore, they get to know one another at a level of intellectual engagement, in many cases for the first time. And they become increasingly sensitive to triviality, excessive generality, and errors in usage and logic." (p61)
Sibley(1990) has articulated a benefit for the teacher. He States "My chief reward from these papers is seeing them (students) learning mathematics and learning how to learn. Next comes the pleasure of reading interesting papers, especially on topics new to me. The more mathematically ambitious students come more frequently to consult with me, giving me a chance to know students who sometimes have no need to seek help." (p53)
opens communication between students and professors.
Students are often hesitant to approach a professor regarding personal problems, difficulties with a course or just to meet socially. This may be due in part to the nature of the professor, as viewed by the student, as someone in a position above them either intellectually or structurally. Likewise students find it difficult to make friends in classes, especially large lecture classes where there is little interaction. Writing initiates the process of communicating between people. By sharing writing efforts, peer editing, and group writing students get to know each other better and through informal writing students open many lines of communication.
White explains his procedures and results in math classes. "Now I let them write about almost anything the want in their paragraphs (it should have some relevance to the statement at hand): subjective responses, paraphrases of the statement and/or proof, conjectures of corollaries or generalizations, discussions, alternate proofs. questions about the mathematics that trouble them, gripes about the course and even (shudder!) gripes about me. This opens a marvelous two-way channel of communication between the instructor and each student. I collect the journals three time a term, read them carefully and return them promptly. I try to answer their questions and address their concerns in writing in their journals. I know I learn much more about each of them by their journals than I would otherwise." (p36)
creates variety in the pedagogy of a course.
Whether a course is taught using a lecture approach, which is primarily information oriented, or collaboratively, which is more student centered and interactive, writing always provides an alternative approach. Sipka (1990) points out that "Many benefits of writing can be accepted as axioms. For example, writing (especially in-class writing) assignments add variety to the typical lecture oriented math class." (p13) Writing may be done in class as short informal assignments, or longer multi step activities done individually or collaboratively during a longer segment of a class. The product of each writing activity may then be used as the basis for a whole class discussion or consideration by groups working together. Follow up homework assignments may also be derived from in class writing or out of class assignments may be started in class. Short One Minute Paper type activities used at any time during a class can help the instructor determine whether students understand the material being covered or gain information on their reactions to class procedures. There are as many varieties as there are potential assignments. Neither the lecture or collaborative learning should be used exclusively as a course pedagogy. A good mix of the two plus the liberal use of writing makes for interesting and exciting classes.
develops communication skills needed by today's workforce.
In survey after survey today's employers indicate they want employees who have good written and oral communication skills, strong problem solving abilities, and a high degree of motivation. Houp and Pearsall (1984) researched the central role communications have in the technical professions. The found that engineers spend 24% of their week writing and 34% of their time reading other people's writing. The engineers surveyed felt that writing helped them get promoted and figured in their evaluation of subordinates when recommending them for advancement. Faires and Nelson (1990) state "After all, if they can't negotiate their native language, how can they be entrusted with the greater responsibilities associated with more complex and ambitious assignments. How well graduates write and speak affects their professional credibility." (p42)
Training in the writing requirement is an obvious byproduct of WAC, The problem solving comes from developing critical thinking skills which are associated with good writing, i.e. good organization, decision making based on sound information, writing and rewriting until one is satisfied with the result, peer editing, meeting deadlines, etc. Good writing skills are even reflected in the layout and information presented in a resume; the first sample of writing a perspective employer sees. The standards proposed by the AMATYC highlights the benefit of writing in math: "As students learn to speak and write about mathematics, they develop a mathematical power and become better prepared to use mathematics beyond the classroom." (p11) This applies to all academic areas as well as mathematics.
writing improves writing. (Rose 1990)
The cliche "Practice makes perfect" is most applicable here. Many students find writing well thought out, coherent papers to be very difficult. Perhaps part of the reason may stem from the fact that they do not get many opportunities to practice either formal or informal writing in classes other than English courses. Students are generally required to take a year of English composition courses where the writing is intense. After that exposure little formal writing follows so students get stale from lack of practice. Critical thinking skills need to be developed and continually reinforced to be available to the student over time
Sibley highlights the benefit of practice through collaborative student writing efforts when he points out that "The students may benefit in multiple ways from referring. First they become more sensitive to the need for clear writing as they scrutinize their peers' writing. Second they learn the content of other students' papers. Third, the students make valuable comments on aspects I never noticed. Fourth, the student readers provide a supportive audience. Every paper benefits noticeably from rewriting." (p53)
involves students directly in the learning process.
Kenney(1990) makes the case that "Writing, of course, is the vehicle of language in which we are most interested in here, especially as it affects and involves learning. In particular, writing promotes student-centered learning" In addition he states "Writing promotes student ownership of an idea primarily in the following ways: first, by writing, a student puts ideas into his or her own words; and second, through the process of writing, a student gradually makes an idea his own, makes it part of the architecture of his or her own knowledge." (p17)
Writing is a hands on, active, and in some cases interactive activity. Formal content oriented writing requires students to develop a thorough understanding of the underlying concepts in order to write about them. Research or in depth reading of the text is necessary for students to formulate opinions or follow the author's reasoning. The very fact that writing is a physical activity separates it from listening to lectures or student discussions and makes it an active process versus passive. The call to write is a call to action both mentally and physically.
When completing a writing assignment students need to decide what material will be included, what order of presentation will be used, what style or genre will be employed, how much background research they will need to do to become proficient in the subject matter, to name a few of the decisions they will need to make which directly involves them in establishing a learning process.
Brandeau describes how a student benefited from journal writing in a math class. "The journal process described above has enriched Allen's understanding of mathematics in a way very different from other forms of teaching and learning. The process personalized the mathematics. It required him to get actively involved,. engaged, often lost in the problems he was trying to solve. Allen has been involved in making his own meaning of what he was doing." (p75)
helps people operate at a higher level of abstraction. Fulweiler
Writing involves the use of symbols (words) to express an author's ideas much as mathematicians use letters and symbols to represent operations and concepts. Expressing one's ideas in symbols requires a highly trained mind because of the abstract nature of the communication form. Writing often enables one to express ideas through analogies and indirect explanations. This too represents a higher level of thinking. Abstract thinking requires the use of higher order brain functions such as awareness of spatial relations and interrelations between concepts. Practicing writing builds these brain functions.
improvement requires persistent and frequent contact with students in and
out of class.
The process of writing is not an isolated one where students function independently and competitively. Quite the contrary, writing involves multiple cycles of peer brainstorming, peer editing, consultation with the instructor and rewrites before a finished product is completed. Student-teacher conferences should be a major element in any writing program to insure extensive communication about the student's progress during any writing assignment. A secondary benefit to using writing conferences is that it helps build a rapport between teacher and student through a reciprocal familiarity. This can be time consuming and requires a commitment by both the student and professor which is well rewarded by increases student motivation and improvement throughout a semester.
make learning more meaningful by relating the student's experiences to
the course material, generating ownership through creative writing by personalizing
Informal writing assignments provide an excellent opportunity for students to write about their personal experiences in relation to course topics or concepts.
Exercises such as writing an autobiography in relation to the course, a short story, or a letter to the editor, etc., require students to consider course materials from their personal perspective. Adult education research has shown that when people relate course materials to personal experiences they retain more information and are able to apply course concepts much better. Writing helps formalize this process by asking students to document and sometimes defend their views and personal philosophies, based on their real life experiences.
Bean (1996) emphasizes the idea that tasks which link course concepts to students' personal experiences or previously existing knowledge "help students assimilate new concepts by connecting the concepts to personal experiences. As cognitive research has shown (Norman 1980), to assimilate a new concept, learners must link it back to a structure of known material, determining how a new concept is both similar to and different from what the learner already knows." (p123)
helps students join the academic society (community) of their choice through
the acquisition of vocabulary and learning about the new culture's norms.
Bruffee (1993) identified the process by which students enter academic fields as involving the acquisition of the vocabulary of the particular field of interest and an understanding of the new culture's norms through interactions and discussions with fellow students and the instructor via collaborative activities. Writing is an important component of the process because it provides a basis for student interactions and a method for students to explore the norms of the new academic community. Defending contrary views, debating issues, formulating opinions about concepts, editing peer's work and teaching one's peers all lead to higher order thinking skills and a more thorough understanding of the material under study. Brufee observes that "Every time we write, we try to construct, reconstruct, or conserve knowledge by justifying our beliefs to each other socially. We judge what we write, and other people judge it, according to assumptions, goals, values, rules, and conventions of these communities." (p55)
Keith(1990) underscores the idea of students joining new learning communities through the use of language and writing when she states: They (writing assignments) allow students to read and process the writing of other students, and they allow students to "talk" mathematics with more ease, and to develop a language for asking questions." (p6) She continues "The in class evaluation of writing assignments stimulates meaningful discussions of mathematics as a language and strategies for learning it. The assignments break down fear in the classroom, and nurture a more open environment for asking questions>" (p7)
can be made user friendly through informal writing. Bean (1996)
Formal writing such as term papers and essays can be discouraging to the novice or beginning writer; they take a high degree of expertise and experience to be done well. Students need more practice with types of writing which are less structured and less evaluation oriented in terms of grading. Informal writing may as vigorous and time consuming as formal assignments, however, the purpose is significantly different. Journal writing for example has many uses, including note taking, text summary, student observations about the course or personal reflections on their performance, review of course materials to name a few. The one minute paper may be used to ask students to comment on their understanding of class material either during or at the end of the class and to reflect on what questions they still have. These assignments establish a philosophy that writing is appropriate throughout the course both inside and outside of class with the primary purpose to encourage students to write frequently in order to continually practice and build their thinking and writing skills.
is synergistic with collaborative groups.
Abercrombie (1960) worked with medical students at the University Hospital in London. She concluded that her students learned diagnostic skills better if they were placed in independent groups to address a diagnostic problem. The use of small groups did not just lead to a pooling of knowledge but the collaborative approach promoted argumentation and consensus building where each student had to support a hypothesis with reasons and evidence in an attempt to sway the others. Keith(1990) uses collaborative activities in math classes and concludes "When students work in groups in creative activities, they go further, and are encouraged to think of mathematics as a collaborative subject." (p9) When the two concepts are combined, collaboration and writing, the effect is to create even stronger critical thinking skills and oral and written presentation skills by the students.
participate in the evaluation and application of course information
The one minute paper provides an excellent example of how writing may be use to encourage students to evaluate the course on an ongoing basis and communicate to the instructor their progress and understanding of course concepts. Questions asked in the one minute paper may be varied from "What did you learn today?" and "What questions remain in your mind?" to how students feel about class procedures, exam structures and schedules or virtually any aspect of the class. Instructors must be willing to address student concerns for this form of writing to be effective. This may be done by the instructor writing back in response to specific students questions or comments, involving the class in a discussion about concerns raised, or through communicating one's rationale for a particular exercise or class procedure. Students are empowered and become motivated when instructors ask for their observations and respond positively.
Keith (1990) observes that writing assignments "provide the instructor with an open window on where the class stands, and immediate feedback on how to teach the problems of the class or where re-teaching is necessary, prior to an exam." (p6) Kenney further states that "Students' opinions on how their education is progressing are seldom solicited, particularly in these days of the return to the "core curriculum," which largely ignores the issue of student empowerment. Students must believe they are active participants in the academic arena if they are to avoid the passive receptor syndrome." (p20)
creativity through brainstorming activities.
A natural starting point for any writing activity involves group brainstorming about the topic(s) under consideration for a particular assignment. Very creative exercises may be used to help generate ideas for stories, essays and even term projects. Many people think of writing as an accumulation of facts which need to placed in an orderly fashion to make of defend a thesis. Critical thinking involves much more creativity than such a mechanical approach. Writers need to be trained in creativity activities and be given lots of opportunities to practice. Short, informal writing assignments provide an excellent medium for students to build their creative thinking abilities and skills.
Bean (1996) observes that "Small group tasks can also be used in conjunction with formal writing assignments to help students brainstorm ideas for an upcoming essay, discover and rehearse arguments, or critique rough drafts. In these cases, the small group task promotes exploration of ideas needed for the essay." p152 The Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics (NCTM) (1989) states: "The simple exercise of writing an explanation of how a problem was solved not only helps clarify a student's thinking but also may provide other students fresh insights gained from viewing the problem from a new perspective." (p142)
in different genres creates different ways of thinking.
Writing poetry, a short story, fiction or non-fiction works, requires different ways of thinking and approaching each type of writing. By exposing students to many different genres and asking them to write in these styles we expand their horizons and increase their critical thinking skills. Asking students to review different genres also exposes them to different approaches to thinking and presentation of information. This is accomplished through English Composition courses, but rarely in non-English based courses. Asking students to write a poem about a math concept or their reaction to math can have a cathartic effect as this type of informal writing assignment encourages students to delve into their hearts and express their concerns and gratifications. Having students write a short story about a math of science concept often releases a creative potential which helps students understand that concept much better.
helps clarify one's goals and values.
According to Brufee (1993) "Every time we write, we try to construct, reconstruct, or conserve knowledge by justifying our beliefs to each other socially. We judge what we write, and other people judge it, according to the assumptions, goals, values, rules, and conventions of these communities." (p55). By choosing writing assignments which encourage students to present alternate points of view and argue for opposing positions we challenge their views of their existing values and either cause them to rethink those values or strengthen their positions through a well thought out explanation. Bean (1996) makes the case that ".... students come to college imagining knowledge as the acquisition of correct information rather than the ability, say, to stake out and support a position in a complex conversation. Eventually, students develop a complex view of knowledge, where individuals have to take a stand in the light of their own values and the best available reasons and evidence". (p25)
knowledge is constructed through conversation and writing.
Students aspiring to enter the science or mathematics communities especially need to be able to communicate through writing in the form of papers for refereed journals, presentations at conferences and book publishing. This is how they create new knowledge; by communicating with each other and exposing their ideas to intense scrutiny and evaluation. It takes a great deal of practice to become proficient at writing for technical readers. The best place to start is in technical college courses as well as non-technical courses.
According to Brufee (1993) "Writing is central even to the construction of scientific knowledge. In Laboratory of Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts (1986), Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar show that scientists construct scientific knowledge through conversation, and that the most important kind of conversation scientists engage in is indirect, that is, displaced into writing" (p52) The scientific method models critical thinking processes used in writing. Kurfiss (1988) defines critical thinking as "an investigation whose purpose is to explore a situation, phenomenon, question, or problem to arrive at a hypothesis or conclusion about it that integrates all available information and that can therefore be convincingly justified." (p2) Bean(1996 p3) Brufee(1993) describes the writing of scientific texts as follows. "In generating texts-in writing- scientists do what all writers do who write in an active engaged community of knowledgeable peers. They carry on a meticulous sorting of weak connections between existing ideas by willingly subjecting themselves to mutual criticism. They read and reread, check and recheck, revise and re-revise their own and each other's written material." (p53)
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