Guiding Students Toward Successful Discipline-Specific Writing

One of the fundamental tenets of WAC pedagogy is that learning in every discipline is enhanced by writing. This is one reason you will often see WAC linked with another acronym, WID. Writing in the Disciplines, or WID, is a category of WAC practice that seeks to “introduce or give students practice with the language conventions of a discipline as well as with specific formats typical of a given discipline.

As has been noted in the Fellows’ Corner before, it can be difficult for instructors to introduce discipline-specific writing in the classroom. The academic, technical, or professional writing in your field may be obscure and full of jargon, rigidly formatted, or otherwise intimidating to novice learners. As instructors, one of the most important things that we can do is to acknowledge the complexities of writing in our respective fields and help students take the first steps toward mastering it.

Providing a variety of examples of professional writing from your field for students is a good way to get started. Even better is guiding them through the first one or two readings. This may mean sharing insights into how you read writing of this kind as an expert in the field, or perhaps assigning simple, informal writing assignments to help students articulate their understanding of content or structure (see this post for more suggestions on assisting with difficult readings).

While professional writing provides good models and can be inspiring for students to see, it can also be daunting. Students may find themselves wondering how on earth they are going to produce writing that looks like the samples they have read, leading to unnecessary anxiety and discouragement. Providing examples of successful student writing can be a counterweight to these negative feelings.

Samples of non-professional writing are concrete evidence that good discipline-specific writing is within reach for students. You may choose to pull samples from the internet (this journal of student writing from Middlesex Community College contains some good examples from a variety of fields) or gather your own. The more unique the assignment is to your course the more you may want to collect one or two exemplary assignments per semester to serve as models to future classes (be sure to get permission from the student to use their work in this way, and always remove the name from the sample).

Supporting discipline-specific writing is a major goal of the WAC program at City Tech. Follow the links in this post for more helpful tips, or contact the WAC fellows through the OpenLab.

Scenario-Based Homework Questions: Instructor Creativity Results in Student Creativity and Deeper Learning

Recently, Claire Hoogendoorn wrote about problem-focused activities in the classroom. The focus of this post is closely related to her insightful ideas. Scenario-based questions are homework or exam items that are based on real-life situations as opposed to abstract questions that pinpoint specific course content (e.g., terms, equations) without requiring students to link the content to its application. In my classrooms, they are effective due to the following reasons:

  • They’re more fun and interesting for the students to do.
  • Students’ answers to them are more fun and interesting for us as instructors to read.
  • Scenario-based questions are harder to plagiarize because they are creative in that they require more than a simple definition to answer them.
  • These items or questions require students to APPLY the concepts from your course instead of being satisfied with route memorization.
  • This question type leads to more critical thinking and active learning for students.

Below are a few scenario-based questions from my own courses that involve the above elements.

From Social Psychology:

Daniel is watching a television advertisement about a new brand of vitamins. He decides to buy them the next time he goes to the store because there’s a doctor and a professional athlete endorsing them in the advertisement so he figures it must be a great product. Which of the aspects of persuasion as discussed in class does his decision depend on? Defend your decision with a 3-5 sentence explanation.

From Statistics:

Scenario: An organization is interested in whether an employee’s job type (administrative assistant, salesperson, or research and development) impacts his or her perceptions of the organization’s culture.

Which is the dependent variable?
Which is the quasi-independent variable?
What is the alternative hypothesis in words?
What is the null hypothesis in words?

Run the appropriate statistical analysis in SPSS and highlight the relevant values on the output that should be used to answer the organization’s question. 

Explain the findings in a manner that a senior leader could understand who does not have expertise in statistics (Hint: Explain the results without statistical language or notation).

Now describe these results to a scientific audience that does have expertise in statistics (i.e., in APA style).

Try your own scenario-based questions in a few homework assignments to examine if your students seem to grasp the content better when they know they will be asked to apply the information they learn in novel ways. After they are used to the structure of such questions, you can begin to ask them to come up with similar question types themselves and answer these as an additional homework question at the end of an assignment. This will give them the opportunity to produce creative applications of your course content that are inspired by the world they experience around them.

Writing in the Disciplines – A Case for Multiple Drafts

Writing in college-level courses (especially in the STEM fields) is often assigned by asking students to mirror professional scholarly writing. For example, students are often required to compose assignments following the format and style of those we read in the professional literature – a journal article. In other courses, writing may take the form of proposals or literature reviews. Asking students to learn to write this way is immensely useful to inuring them to the thought-process of the discipline they are studying. This kind of modeling encourages critical thinking, precise word use, and command of the field’s vernacular. There is just one problem.

In such classes, students are generally required to write multiple papers on widely varying topics. For example, in an experimental psychology class, students might write separate papers on a perceptual, learning/memory, cognitive, and/or social processes study that they conducted in class. Students are often given feedback on these papers (let’s avoid a conversation about the nature of instructor feedback for now), which they are then expected to read, understand, and then incorporate into the next paper they write, which will often cover an entirely different topic. Transferring comments about the content and writing of one paper does not always easily transfer to a paper on a novel course topic.

If we want students to model our discipline’s writing process, asking students to write this way may be detrimental to the learning objectives we set for our courses. As professionals, when we compose a draft of a manuscript/proposal, we undoubtedly receive feedback from others –  coauthors, advisers, peer reviewers, other colleagues – before submitting a final product for publication. Rarely (if ever) are these comments incorporated into a new manuscript that addresses a completely different question or topic. While they may inspire us to begin a new project or paper, they rarely result in abandonment of the entire manuscript. We spend much of our time incorporating these comments towards improving the original manuscript. One technique we can employ as instructors may be to require students to submit multiple drafts of their papers in our courses. Allowing students to write multiple drafts and experience the process of professional scholarly writing (and, therefore, the discipline’s thought process) is an immensely useful tool for teaching both writing and course content to our students, just as it is for our professional development as scholars.

Any course that wants students to learn course content and improve their writing skills will find that requiring multiple drafts of a paper will lead to better student learning outcomes. Personally, I would rather my students write one or two solid papers on fewer topics (incorporating multiple drafts) than three or four mediocre papers on more topics.