Teaching Writing: Nobody Knows the Rules, Just Write

An earlier post, “Perceiving Writing as a Process, Not a Product”, began with a potentially apocryphal quote by a well-known author. In that spirit, I would like to start and end this post with two potentially apocryphal quotes by well-known authors. The quotes may be fabricated, but I think that the insights are real.

Somerset Maugham, the author of one of my favorite novels, was quoted as having told the students of a class on English literature “there are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

I’ve never tried to write a novel, so I can’t say with certainty whether Maugham (if he ever said such a thing) is right. But I’ve tried to write plenty of papers, and on that subject I’m certain: if there are three rules for writing a paper, no one knows what they are.

This has turned out to be a bit of a problem for me, because part of what I’m trying to do as an instructor is to teach writing. Sometimes it’s pretty clear that students want me to tell them the rules for paper-writing that they need to follow in order to be successful. They want the writing equivalent of a mathematical formula: take your idea, apply these rules, and BAM! Good writing.

I completely understand that desire. Heck, I want those rules too. But unfortunately, as Maugham allegedly observed, no one knows the rules for writing. I certainly don’t know of any rules that are necessary for good writing. For any writing rule I’ve ever been told (“don’t end a sentence with a preposition”; “avoid run on sentences”; “avoid repetitive phrasings”, etc.) I can find several examples of great writing that break that rule. I also don’t know of any rules that are sufficient for good writing. A paper might follow all the “best practice” rules and guidelines in the world, and still be unclear and confusing to read.

So what then, as an instructor, can I do to help my students who want me to teach them rules for writing that I just don’t have?

The answer, or at least the answer I’ve come to accept, is to get them to write. This doesn’t mean getting them to write more or longer term papers, but getting them to write constantly and in different contexts: write out their ideas, write down questions they have about readings, write notes and questions about what they’ve already written, write responses to what their classmates have written, etc. I can help my students learn the writing skills they need by teaching them to think of writing as a tool, and then teaching them to use that tool as often as they can.

I can’t speak for everyone. But when I write papers, I find that for every page of the finished paper, there are about 3 legal pads full of handwritten notes, questions, false starts, and half-baked ideas that eventually (after a long recursive process) end up fully baked. The finished paper full of polished writing owes everything it has to the pile of informal writing that came before it. And each polished paper owes an awful lot to all of the writing that came before it, both formal and informal. Having more writing experience has never made anyone a worse writer.

I don’t think I’m alone is using a process like this. But I didn’t learn to use this sort of process until graduate school. College students often don’t think of writing in this way, and one of the best ways we can help them learn writing skills is by getting them to start using writing as a tool in both formal and informal contexts.

WAC pedagogy has a ton of useful methods for doing this. Freewriting, exploratory writing, scaffolding, problem-oriented assignment design, etc. Bean’s “Engaging Ideas” is full of them, and the other posts on this site are chock-full of discussions of different methods and ideas on this subject. I have personally found them very helpful, and I doubt I’m the only one. I think it’s a good place to start for anyone looking for ideas on how to engage students in this sort of recursive writing process.

So even if we can’t give students Maugham’s three rules for writing, we can help them by giving them writing experience, and specifically giving them experience using informal writing as a tool to develop ideas and to develop formal papers.

And maybe, just maybe, it turns out that we do know the three rules for writing after all. In what is almost certainly a fabricated quote, Mark Twain supposedly said: “there are but three rules for writing. Namely, first, write; second, write; third, write.”

I suspect that the best thing we can do to help our students with their writing is to teach them to stop looking for Maugham’s three rules, and to start following Twain’s.

The Importance of Ungraded Informal Assignments

A fundamental principle of WAC pedagogy is “writing to learn”—promoting writing as not just the ability to produce a polished final essay, but as a tool in itself that helps students understand course material and complex concepts. A key method of practicing this principle is to incorporate short, informal writing assignments in the classroom. Informal writing assignments can be immensely beneficial to students as an opportunity to clarify their ideas about the course concepts as well as to practice their writing abilities. By scaffolding major assignments with several shorter informal assignments, students gain confidence in their writing and ultimately produce a better end product.

A common misconception about informal writing assignments is that they must be graded lest students view the assignments as mere busy work and not take them seriously. Incorporating informal assignments, then, just means more grading and more work for the instructor. While it is true that feedback is essential to the writing process, students also need an opportunity to practice writing without the fear of receiving a poor grade. I believe it is far more beneficial to students to not grade these assignments. By omitting grades on informal assignments, we encourage students to practice their writing and work through their ideas freely, without worrying about evaluation. Students will appreciate the opportunity to express their thoughts in a low-risk setting, and instructors will appreciate receiving higher quality final essays.

Ungraded informal assignments can be incorporated in a variety of ways. In my own classroom, I have had the most success with the following assignments:

Focused Freewriting: Most of us are familiar with “freewriting,” an exercise in which students write continuously for a set amount of time without any regard for spelling, punctuation, grammar, etc. In a focused freewrite, I simply narrow the focus of the assignment by instructing my students to freewrite on a specific topic or assigned reading. The goal of this exercise is to get students to think critically about course material and to increase their comfort level and familiarity with writing. I usually find this exercise works best right before class discussion of the day’s assigned text (especially if it’s a particularly dense or complicated text). In this way, students are given some time to collect their thoughts and prepare to engage in discussion.

Response Papers: I often will assign as homework a one-page response paper in which students informally respond to some aspect of the assigned reading. I emphasize that these responses should be exploratory in nature and, as with the focused freewrites, that grammar, spelling, and mechanics are not important here. I’ve found this exercise especially useful for encouraging some of the shyer and less vocal students to participate in class discussion—rather than asking an introverted student to formulate a comment/response on the spot, I will instead ask them to share what they wrote in their response paper.

Metacognitive/Reflective Writing: In these informal assignments, I ask students to reflect on their reading, writing, or research process as a way to stimulate critical thinking about revision and improvement. Prompts such as, “What were the challenges you faced while drafting this paper?”, “In what ways did you revise your draft?” and “How has your understanding of the writing process changed over the course of the semester?” force students to analyze their own thinking and writing.

Should We Abandon Active Learning for Lecturing?

A Sunday New York Times op-ed about teaching style—currently one of the most-emailed articles on the newspaper’s website—issues a call for more lectures and less active learning, at least in the humanities. Molly Worthen, an assistant professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, argues that lectures teach students comprehension and reasoning. “Absorbing a long, complex argument is hard work, requiring students to synthesize, organize and react as they listen,” she writes.

It’s a provocative argument, given the movement toward active learning in recent years, and given what we know about the advantages of actively engaging students in a variety of ways (see the recent post by my colleague, WAC Fellow Claire Hoogendoorn, for more on that research). But it’s also a false dichotomy. Lecturing and active learning don’t have to be opposites; in fact, Worthen herself emphasizes the importance of one form of active learning during lectures: note-taking. She writes:

But we also must persuade students to value that aspect of a lecture course often regarded as drudgery: note-taking…. Studies suggest that taking notes by hand helps students master material better than typing notes on a laptop, probably because most find it impossible to take verbatim notes with pen and paper. Verbatim transcription is never the goal: Students should synthesize as they listen.

Indeed, research indicates that taking notes helps not just with retention of information, but also with conceptual understandings. (And, as Worthen points out, writing notes by hand seems to do an even better job of it than using a laptop.) Many students have never been taught how to take notes, though; they need to be taught. WAC Fellows can help you do that yourself, and we also offer a student note-taking workshop in the spring.

There are other ways to incorporate active learning through writing into the lecture format. Below are just a few, drawn from Engaging Ideas by John C. Bean (2011).

  • Develop Exploratory Writing Tasks Keyed to Your Lectures. These assignments, which could be in-class or out-of-class, cannot be completed without paying attention to the lecture. Example: At the end of class, ask students to take five minutes to argue for or against an important idea from the lecture.
  • Break the Pace of a Lecture Using “Minute Papers.” Stop in the midst of a lecture and ask students to write for five minutes in response to a question connected to that point in the lecture. This gives you feedback and refocuses student attention.
  • Ask Students to Write Summaries of One or More of Your Lectures. These should be short and can be done either in class or out of class, and help student understanding as well as giving you feedback.

These don’t have to create more work for you. Most could be ungraded, or graded for completion only; you could also grade only a fraction of them each time. And by bringing low-stakes writing like this into the lecture format, you can help ensure that your lectures are being heard and understood.







The Neuroscience of Active Learning

Traditional teaching styles typically rely on students learning class material passively, which encompasses listening to lectures and taking notes. However, research examining effective pedagogy tends to support teaching styles that are geared more towards students learning actively (e.g., by engaging students in problem solving; Michel, Cater, & Varela, 2009; Wingfield & Black, 2005).

We can turn to the neuroscience of learning to appreciate why active teaching styles may lead to improved student outcomes. With the advent of neuroimaging techniques in the 1970s and functional imaging in the 1990s (i.e., fMRI), researchers have studied how the brain processes different types of information for several decades. Naturally, scientists have had a great interest in studying learning and memory specifically, and these studies generally show that multimodal or multisensory learning leads to the most long-term physical changes in the brain, and improves memory retention and recall.

A Multisensory Approach to Learning

It appears that learning is enhanced when multiple neural pathways are activated at the same time. In plain terms, the more we can activate students’ brains in different ways, the more they learn. This means that engaging as many sensory, cognitive, emotional and social processes in students will increase their learning potential. This can be accomplished by:

  • Making class activities problem-based
    • This activates brain regions involved in executive functions (e.g., prefrontal cortex) that aren’t as active when learning passively. Read more about the benefits of problem-based activities here.
  • Incorporating short, low-stakes writing assignments
    • This introduces tactile stimulation (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014), visual processing (through imagination; Shah et al., 2013), and increases activation in prefrontal regions involved in executive function. Read more about this approach here.
  • Using varied modes of teaching
    • By approaching a topic in multiple ways, students can integrate class content by activating a variety of different interconnected brain processes (e.g., writing, listening, speaking, interacting, moving, etc). Read more about this approach here.
  • Asking students to incorporate new knowledge with personal experiences and older knowledge
    • This activates older memory pathways and allows new information to be physically linked with them. Read more about this teaching style here.
  • Having students work in pairs or groups
    • This engages social, emotional, auditory and motor networks. We’ve previously posted about the benefits of peer activities here.

When students work with each other, for example, more cognitive and sensory networks are involved. These processes include talking and listening to others, experiencing positive emotions, moving physically, and problem solving. In comparison, passive learning typically involves less varied activation throughout the brain, in that students sit still and listen. By engaging multiple processes, students learn and retain more information.

Why is Multimodal Activation Important for Learning?

Learning involves physically storing new information- or new connections – in the brain. Therefore, forming new memories requires physical changes to occur between neurons, and this process is aided by the hippocampus. We need our hippocampus for most (but not all) types of learning, and I will explain why a multisensory approach maximizes the work done by this brain region. Many of us have likely heard that the hippocampus ‘does’ memory, but often it is unclear what that means exactly. Some individuals erroneously assume that all of our memories are stored within the hippocampus, but the actual story is much more interesting.

Here is an illustration of where the hippocampi are located (bilaterally):

image of hippocampi






[image from brainconnection.com]

As you may notice, the hippocampus is centrally located, meaning that it can connect with various cortical regions throughout the brain. Cortical regions are the outside layer of the brain, where all higher order processes take place.

When we learn new information, neurons that code for different aspects of this information begin firing at the same time and “wire together” as a result, physically connecting pieces of older knowledge to create new knowledge. When neurons are firing at the same time, this sends a signal that the two areas (or groups of neurons) are responding to the same information source, and the two areas or clusters should ‘meet’.

Neurons becoming friends after responding to the same stimuli:

two neurons firing togethertwo neurons after firing

But what if these neurons firing at the same time are nowhere near each other? Then we need the help of our hippocampi in order to physically connect these distant neurons. First, the hippocampus connects to the cortical regions that are firing together (e.g., perceptual, linguistic, emotional, etc.). Over time, the hippocampus facilitates a direct connection between the two cortical modules, or clusters of neurons, and the specific memory no longer depends on the hippocampus. The memory is now permanently stored in our cortex, or the outer layer of our brain.

Here is an illustration of how the hippocampus connects different cortical neurons by first binding to them, and then aiding memory storage in the cortex itself (Ward, 2015):

mechanism of hippocampus

The hippocampus is like a friend introducing two other people who didn’t know each other previously. While the person is needed for the initial introduction, they are no longer needed later on. In this way, memories get permanently stored throughout the brain.

In summary, as more brain areas are activated, there are a higher number of cortical modules the hippocampi have to connect. This, in turn, makes memories more deeply embedded in the brain, and more easily retrievable.

While passive learning may lead to a weak connection between neurons, active multisensory learning leads to deeply embedded neural connections:

passive vs active


Michel, N., Cater, J. J., & Varela, O. (2009). Active versus passive teaching styles: An empirical study of student learning outcomes. Human Resource Development Quarterly20(4), 397-418.

Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological science, 0956797614524581

Shah, C., Erhard, K., Ortheil, H. J., Kaza, E., Kessler, C., & Lotze, M. (2013). Neural correlates of creative writing: an fMRI study. Human brain mapping, 34(5), 1088-1101.

Ward, J. (2015). The student’s guide to cognitive neuroscience. Psychology Press.

Willis, J. (2011). Writing and the Brain: Neuroscience Shows the Pathways to Learning. National Writing Project, 3.

Wingfield, S. S., & Black, G. S. (2005). Active versus passive course designs: The impact on student outcomes. Journal of Education for Business81(2), 119-123.


The Importance of Varied Modes of Teaching

Earlier this summer, one of our WAC co-coordinators shared this article by Paula Moran that aims to debunk the “Learning Styles” myth. The topic of the various ways in which students learn is something we think about a lot in WAC philosophy, since one of the things that we preach is how writing assignments can vary the mode of course content delivery and therefore provide a break from lecture-based teaching.

To be clear, we ourselves have never used the phrase “learning style” in our workshops or other projects, yet the idea is quite similar to much of the ideology behind what we promote and encourage instructors to do. Have we been wrong all this time? Is there no difference between class content delivered orally through lecture and written assignments?

The answer, thankfully, is no. Moran links to another article by renowned educational theorist Howard Gardner who further argues that his famous “multiple intelligences” theory is not the same as “learning styles.” The real issue here is the lack of sound research to show that teaching to different learning styles has any impact on student performance.

However, as Gardner is quick to point out, that does not mean that students all learn in the same way. Student do learn in different ways, and as Gardner notes, “all of us exhibit jagged profiles of intelligences,” meaning that we process different kinds of information differently in our quest to understand something.

So why teach through writing assignments? Because students have different strengths and weaknesses in processing material, it is crucial that we present them with various modes of understanding the class content. How many times have you heard a colleague say, or said yourself, that “I learn better when I write things down.” This is why we take notes and sometimes don’t ever look at them again. This is why we understand a concept more holistically when we teach it rather than just reading or writing about it. This is why we teach “inquiry-based” lessons, where students acquire knowledge through their own questioning. It is because speaking, writing, reading, and listening are all part of a series of interconnected brain processes, rather than all part of the same mono-process.

While we don’t have to go buy the textbook’s eight different versions, “one for every learning style,” we still do our students a service by teaching in different ways. Using writing assignments to deliver course content is one of the most effective tools we have not only to improve our students’ writing by having them do more of it, but also to encourage a deep understanding and retention of the material. Of course, there is a practical reason to teach with writing too: it breaks up the flow of the class and prevents students from losing focus or getting bored. It’s tough to listen to an hour-long lecture intently, even on a topic you are passionate about!

One of my students, who is also a teacher himself, remarked after being asked to free-write about a topic at the beginning of class, “that was nice. I didn’t think about the topic like that until you asked me to write about it.” Exactly.

Midterm Reflection and Low-stakes Writing

With midterms over, or nearly over, and spring break on the horizon, many of us are taking stock of student performance. In a perfect world we would all look at our grade books or spreadsheets and see that all of our students were right on track. In reality, this is a time when some are left wondering, why are midterm scores are lower than expected? That gap between expectation and performance is an important one to explore, and one of the ways to do so is through low-stakes writing.

Self-assessment has a long history in higher education. Scholars, like the prolific David Boud, and journals, such as Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, have been devoted to the topic since the 1970s. Studies on and strategies for student self-assessment abound, and the above links provide a starting point for those who are interested in exploring the topic. One WAC-friendly approach is low-stakes writing. Low-stakes writing is short, reflective writing. It is also writing that is ungraded or graded simply, using something like a check system or a limited point scale (a five-point scale is common), so that is doesn’t feel like a burden to students or to instructors.

There are a number of ways that you might structure low-stakes midterm self-evaluations. They can be take-home, in-class, or online. They can focus on the midterm exam or assignment, or consider the course up to the point of writing. In any case, prompts should encourage students to think about themselves as learners and set both you and your students up to be more effective in the coming weeks of the semester. Low-stakes writing suggestions include questions about the midterm:

Was the format of the midterm what you expected? What about the content? Was there anything about the midterm that surprised you?

Course content:

  • Are there any concepts that you still do not understand at this point of semester? What areas of course content do you feel particularly strong in? What areas do you need to work on?

Personal performance:

  • Did the grade you received on the midterm match your expectations? Do you know where you stand, grade-wise, in this class? Are you content with your grade thus far? Do you know what you need to do if you want your grade to improve?

Study habits:

  • How do you prepare for class meetings, generally? How did you prepare for the midterm? Is there anything that you would change about your study habits?

No matter what you ask, low-stakes writing assignments like these can be a great way to facilitate communication between you and your students.

A different approach to low-stakes writing is suggested by an article on student anxiety over exams, published in Science in 2011 (Science is available through a number of different databases at City Tech’s library). In “Writing About Testing Worries Boosts Exam Performance in the Classroom” Gerardo Ramirez and Sian L. Beilock discuss two laboratory studies and two randomized field experiments that support the hypothesis that writing about text anxiety can help alleviate its impact on performance. The studies show that students facing high-pressure exam situations, which midterms and finals certainly can be, may perform better if they have the opportunity to write about their concerns pre-exam. This is because, as Ramirez and Beilock explain, performance anxieties disrupt the ability of the working memory to focus on the task at hand. They discovered that getting some of the negative thoughts out in writing before an exam allowed those who suffered from high test anxiety to perform as well as those who did not.

While it may be too late to try this kind of low-stakes writing for the midterm exam, there are still ways to incorporate the insights from this article. You could devote ten minutes to writing-the-fear-away before the final exam. But you don’t have to wait until May to use Ramirez and Beilock’s advice. Their idea to try writing to lower test anxiety was based on the idea of therapeutic writing, which is used over a span of time to help manage negative thoughts and feelings. A classroom application of this concept might be to periodically give students free-writing time to write out all of their concerns related to the class. (If you are concerned about student privacy, these could be uncollected assignments that are graded on the basis of time on-task.) Allowing students to get out all of the “I got a bad grade on the midterm and now I’m afraid I’ll flunk the class” and “I didn’t come to class a lot at the beginning of the semester and now I think the professor doesn’t like me” thoughts might take some of the air out of them. It might even get students thinking about ways to counter them with positive action like developing a study plan or making an appointment to meet with you during office hours.

Low-stakes writing, whatever form it takes, can find a place in any discipline, any classroom. As you look toward the second part of the semester, consider if there are ways that you can use low-stakes writing to meet your course goals. You get further information here or by contacting a WAC fellow.

Effective Assignment Design – Workshop Recap

This past Tuesday September 16th, the WAC program presented a faculty workshop for effective assignment design led by myself and Roy Rogers. We had a wonderful turnout and some lively discussion about innovative assignment design approaches. Among the most helpful according to research in WAC pedagogy (see Bean, 2011 for a thorough description) are informal writing assignments, scaffolding, and typed assignment handouts. Please see our slides from this workshop HERE and our handout HERE.

Informal writing assignments are small, low-stakes (minimal points or ungraded) writing assignments that are often less structured than traditional formal assignments. Informal writing assignments are useful because they

  • provide a less anxiety-provoking route for discussing course content than formal assignments that are graded
  • allow students to grapple with difficult course-related concepts or topics
  • encourage creative idea generation and critical thinking
  • provide the ability for the instructor to check-in early with students to ensure they are on track
  • offer students an avenue to express confusion or questions related to the course content
  • ensure all students (even those that may be shy) participate and regularly engage with course material

Scaffolding is perhaps the MOST useful strategy for creating effective assignments. This refers to implementing multiple small, informal (or semi-formal) writing assignments that build up to a more formal high-stakes (graded and larger in nature) project in a course. They are beneficial because they

  • provide “levels” to your large assignments in that they allow for students to comprehend the information and practice the skills needed to do well before the big project/paper/lab report
  • allow students to build towards difficult larger assignments
  • offer instructors the ability to steadily assess student progress
  • support course learning objectives and make the goals and process transparent to students

Typed assignment handouts are most beneficial when they are provided to students both in class and on Blackboard or Openlab, are discussed briefly in class so students can raise questions if needed, and when they provide the expectations of the instructor regarding the assignment (even for informal assignments) in a clear manner. Typed assignment handouts are practical for both students and instructors because they

  • help students understand what they “need to do”
  • assist tutors in the Learning Center in providing appropriate assistance to students
  • provide a reference for instructors in later semesters, as it is easier to edit unclear wording, etc. for later courses when the assignment handout is readily available

Bean, J. C. (2011). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. 2nd ed. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Writing to Calculate: Ideas for Incorporating Writing into Math Coursework

Estes (1989), in his discussion of the importance of writing in math, refers to writing as a “thinking clarifier,” in that the act of writing out a concept requires understanding that concept. This understanding may even occur in the sometimes painful process of getting a few complete sentences typed out. Unfortunately, though, “a major concern with writing projects in mathematics (and other courses as well) is that they often feel tacked on and artificial” write Parker and Mattison (2010: 47).  “The paper is something they had to do in order to receive ‘writing credit’ for a course. It’s a game and everyone is playing along” (38). Most of us—students, math faculty, and non-math faculty, can relate to this opinion, or recognize it.

Parker and Mattison astutely describe this discrepancy in attitudes toward writing, from one discipline to another, as being—in the case of math—the difference between “writing about math,” which often comes in the form of an assigned paper on a mathematician, and “writing math,” which is actually writing on math content concepts, to facilitate their absorption. Luckily, there are a number of ways to incorporate writing into the math curriculum, that are not only painless, but productive and purposeful as well. For example, they suggest a “textbook writing assignment,” which requires students to write out the mathematical equations they learn in textbook style, and also to explain why the equations are the way they are. By having students write out textbook chapters that will be distributed to the rest of the class, by way of making study materials for everyone, in this example, students are given a clear audience, beyond the professor, and an opportunity to uncover any difficulties they may be having with the material.

Alternatively, there are ways for math professors to incorporate less formal (more lower-stakes) math writing assignments, or instead to incorporate more writing into exams, and therefore into exam study guides. As Estes points out, including short-answer questions on exams need not merely be traditional math “word problems,” which are limited to a short section of the algebra curriculum. In other words, asking students to write out concepts taught, a step beyond only writing out the equations numerically, is beneficial for exams and for exercises to practice for the exams. Estes’ example prompt is as follows: “If two variables have a correlation coefficient of -0.98, explain the meanings of the negative sign and the absolute value of 0.98” (12).

While the non-mathematician reader may need to leave the details of this example aside, it is a helpful illustration of how such word problems may apply to other non-Humanities fields. For example, in my social science field, linguistics, I assign language datasets to my students, and when students volunteer a correct solution in class, I am usually obligated to ask, “and how do you know?” While our students often get the correct answer by calculating it, at other times they arrive at the answer by guessing, or—perhaps more common—by erroneously using incorrect reasoning that accidentally led them to the correct answer. We all know that this will not help them with similar questions in the future. So, this act of explaining out loud how the answer was determined is something we can all apply to our own classes. A parallel example to Estes’ (above) in my own linguistic coursework could be:

Question 1: “For the two morphemes below, identify which morpheme is inflectional and which is derivational.”

Question 2: “For the next two morphemes, explain why morpheme A is inflectional, and why morpheme B is derivational.”

My exams and assignments usually do include a “what is your evidence” question, but asking students to write this evidence out, in prose, is taking the process of writing to learn one step further.

For additional convincing and thought-provoking evidence that it is beneficial to integrate prose into math, Estes also describes an elementary math class lesson plan on fractions, in which the teacher starts with a sentence like “half of ten is five,” then replaces the numbers with digits, “half of 10 is 5,” then the remaining words with symbols, “½ x 10 = 5,” showing that the equal sign functions like the verb “to be,” and so on.

Another idea is to come up with reasons for mathematical concepts that students may not know. For example, Strogatz (2014: 287) describes the light bulbs that go off when he explains that the term “rational number” is so named for fractions like ¾ because that number is a ratio of whole numbers. He also finds it helpful to explain that “squaring” a number is so named because the results can fit in a square, like the number nine, illustrated below:

Without being able to predict exactly what would work for math professors here at City Tech, I imagine that, when I was a student in an introductory math class, I would have greatly appreciated answering an exam question such as, “Write out the meaning of and reason behind the term ‘to square a number.’ Feel free to provide examples and drawings to make your answer clear.”

What kinds of “word problems” do you use in your various disciplines?



Estes, Paul L. (June 1989). Writing across the mathematics curriculum. Writing across the Curriculum. 10–16.

Parker, Adam, and Mattison, Michael. (November 2010). The WAC Journal, 21. 37–51.

Strogatz, Steven. (March 2014). Writing about math for the perplexed and the Traumatized. Notices of the AMS, 61, 3. 286–291.

Writing to Learn

As the fall semester of 2013 draws to a close, it is useful to reflect on what we have accomplished over the course of the semester. We the Writing Across the Curriculum fellows have led three main faculty workshops since September: Effective Assignment Design, Peer Review, and Effective Grading. Despite the three varied topics of these workshops, they share a common thread, which is the WAC philosophy of “writing to learn,” and in addition, their content overlaps nicely.

In order to highlight WAC principles, I wish to focus on one particular aspect of the effective grading strategies that Jake Cohen and I discussed in our workshop on Tuesday, December 12 (the last of the semester). We went over some techniques to improve student writing and work, most of which also incidentally result in reduced grading time, which is always welcome, especially at this end-of-semester crunch grading time. To view our workshop slides, please click here, and check out the handout. (You can also visit this page to download documents from all of our workshops.) We discussed minimal marking, supportive responding when writing comments on student papers, rubrics, and planning assignments ahead of time to make grading more efficient. This last category is closely related to the two previous workshops from this semester: assignment design, clearly, and also peer review, in that having students assess each others’ work can save time, and greatly improve student writing.

This assignment design category is also the “one particular aspect” that I choose to elaborate on for this post. Among the several techniques we suggested for planning ahead to make assignments more “gradable,” one sticks out as being particularly WAC-esque: the uncollected writing assignment. The value of this notion, which is generally under-utilized by faculty in all departments, is two-fold: It is easy to see how uncollected assignments decrease the overall amount of time we spend grading work, of course, but why assign them at all? The answer lies in the foundation of WAC philosophy, which is that people learn by doing—and more specifically, by writing. So, what kind of uncollected writing do we recommend you assign, how do you enforce such assignments without collecting them, and, finally, how do students “learn by writing”?

One of the best illustrations of this concept is provided eloquently by Toby Fulwiler in “Why We Teach Writing in the First Place”: “Writing the thought on paper objectifie[s] the thought in the world… [which] even happens when I write out a grocery list—when I write down ‘eggs’ I quickly see that I also need ‘bacon.’ And so on” (127). This concept works well for professors across the curricula: Think about assigning a five-minute, in-class free-write asking students to describe course content covered in the past month/week/hour, by way of ensuring that they can articulate it well for whatever type of exam they have coming up, and by way of allowing them to discover holes in their understanding of what you have covered so far. If you are concerned that they won’t oblige the assignment without the potential for reward, then you can choose, for example, to select three at random to read aloud in class, or to be posted on your Blackboard/OpenLab page that same evening.

We hope that those who incorporate this technique will ultimately find that the grading process of the final papers you assign will be ameliorated, in that the students have now had a chance to “practice” or “train” for the final writing process, something akin to athletes who could never run a marathon without similar training, without you having been required to grade an intermediary draft. Ideally, as students come across “holes” in their own comprehension of your course content, they may come to you with more questions, or make better use of your office hours. I know that they will arrive at a deeper understanding of your course material in the same way that I have done regarding WAC philosophy, in the process of writing out this blog post.

Happy Holidays!