Perceiving Writing As a Process, Not a Product

Supposedly there is a quote by author John Dufresne that goes “the purpose of a first draft is not to get it right, but to get it written”. Unfortunately, as with many historical quotes, I can’t find where or when he said it, but that doesn’t diminish its sensibility. When I came to know this quote, I immediately interpreted it as a type of ‘done is better than perfect’ logic. A (badly) written thesis is still better than the (obviously great) thesis existing solely in my mind, so let’s buckle up, push this draft out, and we can move on to the next writing hurdle. In a sense, it motivated me to produce writing, because a product is better than no product.

I feel that this production perspective on writing was also encouraged by my education. Typically, most courses I took during my bachelor and master’s degree culminated in a term paper where students could demonstrate their mastery of the subject. I say culminated because there wasn’t really a practice built around submitting several drafts. On occasion I was asked to submit an outline first which was supposed to detail the paper’s premise and arguments. This typically resulted in me scrambling a skeleton together, because I didn’t know yet what I was going to write about. Also, which element of the subject one had mastered exactly tended to be open to interpretation, since most term paper assignments were not specific. I recall taking a course one semester that was called International Relations and my term paper discussed Harry Truman dropping the bomb, which seemed to make perfect sense at the time.

Lately, my perspective on writing has changed though and that is due to being a part of the Writing Across the Curriculum fellowship program (WAC) at City Tech. The nice thing about City Tech is that we’re exposed to the WAC pedagogy, mostly via discussing John Bean’s book Engaging Ideas (2011). Bean talks (writes really) a lot about the relationship between writing and critical thinking. The whole premise of the book is that writing is an active learning task, which evokes a high level of critical thinking. Why is it an active learning task? Because writing is simultaneously a process of doing critical thinking and the product that communicates the results of the critical thinking.

This blew my mind. Mainly because I perceived writing as a product alone for years. And, as mentioned above, not just any product but the end product: The written culmination of all my thinking efforts. This view does not acknowledge at all the thinking that goes into the writing. It can essentially be summarized as: Think first, write second. Whereas Bean’s perspective posits: Write first, you’ll think during. Consequently, he takes this philosophy even further: Writing does not only trigger thinking, it strengthens the thinking itself. Though this perspective may be new to me, this feeling is familiar: Being forced to formulate (and justify) my ideas often strengthened the ideas themselves.

So my perspective has shifted from perceiving writing as the end of the thinking, to the process of thinking itself. I think this resonates so much with me because it explains why I had such trouble scrambling a skeleton together in college. At the time I thought I was just a bad student who couldn’t think together an outline, but there were good students out there who could. However, the whole assignment now strikes me as curious. How am I supposed to think together an outline, without any of the writing (thus thinking) having taken place?

Moreover, WAC’s philosophy around critical thinking explains my issues with the lack of focus in term papers. Critical thinking is most evoked by problems (Kurfiss, 1988). Therefore, part of teaching critical thinking is making problems apparent to students. Most term paper assignments I encountered were not problem focused. Most of them didn’t seem to have any focus at all which is how I ended up writing about Truman and the bomb at the end of the International Relations course. I’m not saying that there’s something wrong with that, but I do realize now that unspecific term paper assignments do not evoke critical thinking. Plus, the whole concept behind the term paper seems to foster the perspective of seeing writing as an end product instead of a process.

Therefore, my change in perspective on writing is accompanied with a change in interpretation of Dufresne’s quote. Done is still better than perfect, but the quote no longer encourages writing as a finished product. Instead, it now encourages me to perceive writing as a thinking process. Perhaps I can remind myself best by rephrasing it: “The purpose of a first draft is not to get it right, but to get thinking” (free after supposedly John Dufresne).

Could we flip the fellowship, or Why are we doing this in year 5?

I just started my Writing Across the Curriculum year at City Tech and I love it. I’m getting taught how to teach. Specifically, how I can use writing to promote critical thinking, without the extra grading load. How I can move from a lecture-centered course to an assignment-centered course (Bean, 2011). Thanks to WAC, I’m working towards becoming a “guide on the side” instead of the “sage on the stage” I’ve apparently been (Johnson, Johnson, and Smith, 1991).

Although I’m grateful (very grateful), I wonder, why now? I’ve been teaching at CUNY for four years. Until now, I received zero formal pedagogical training. Instead, I was sent two example syllabi and that was it. To infinity and the wolves. No one wants to disappoint, so four years later my “pedagogy” consists of a grassroots hodgepodge involving many conversations with colleagues, self-organized workshops, Teaching and Learning Center support etc. My inner socialist points out now that much of this training went unpaid because it came out of my own initiative and, therefore, my own time but in any case: Can’t we do it differently?

Of course, we can. No one thinks that training teachers how to teach is a bad idea. But, the struggle is in the implementation. Initially, I thought that WAC was a great contender to provide this much needed pedagogical background. All we have to do is move WAC from year 5 to year 1 and – poof – future teachers don’t have to self-scramble pedagogical skills. A central issue with this idea is the variation within WAC program execution. Each campus has defined their own set of goals when filling out the WAC Fellowship. Therefore, although my fellowship has a pedagogical focus, this may not be the case for other positions. This variation is detrimental to the goal: Training teachers to teach and the solution being moving WAC.

So if not WAC what then? There is the Teaching and Learning Center. Apart from individual consultations they offer all kinds of workshops. Although I have personally benefited from the support the TLC offers, relying on them to provide the necessary teaching background is naive. Graduate students would have to add this search for pedagogical self-improvement on top of their other responsibilities. Plus, I expect the occasional workshop won’t do the trick. But, the TLC also offers an entire course on pedagogy to graduate students. This course is also worth zero credits. Nonetheless, had I known about this I might’ve actually considered taking it – thinking back about all the hours I spent just figuring it out – and that’s how this problem persists.

The problem being: Although everyone agrees that providing pedagogy 101 to future teachers is a good idea, it’s not a priority such that implementation of this idea has been successful. The thought of shifting WAC has been expressed before. Most recently, one of my fellow CityTech Fellows mentioned it in our WAC WhatsApp group (specifically: “also, this bean book is great! i wish i had it when i was actually teaching”). More formally, this thought is expressed in a ten-year review of the WAC program at CUNY: “… there is a greater need for professional development of Enhanced CUNY Fellows prior to their fifth year of the fellowship” (Aries, 2010:26). The review was published ten years ago, yet here I am, doing WAC in my fifth year.

Similarly, although the Teaching and Learning Center has been lobbying for a required, credited course on pedagogy (keywords underlined), they didn’t get that far. Some of the push-back is coming from PhD programs themselves, not wanting to give up a program course in exchange for the one on pedagogy. So, although I don’t criticize or invalidate the TLC’s work, they are currently yet another helpful resource graduate students have to go out and locate.

There’s a compelling tragedy in a problem that everyone agrees is important, but nevertheless persists. I don’t have a solution either other than raising it every so often, like in this blog-post. Hopefully, we make some moves by continuing the discussion. I know that there were plans to reevaluate WAC again before COVID hit. Also, the TLC itself is a relative new resource and their Summer Institute and the zero-credit course are all steps in the right direction. No one thinks training teachers is a bad idea, but until we hash this out, we clearly think it’s an acceptable idea to send unprepared teachers into the classroom.

Aries, N. (2010). Writing Across the Curriculum at CUNY: A Ten-Year Review. City University of New York.

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

Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T., and Smith, K.A. (1991). Cooperative Learning: Increasing College Faculty Instructional Productivity. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 4. Washington, D.C.: George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.


Aligning Instruction and Assessment in Writing Pedagogy

In the classic work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paolo Freire articulated a radical critique of what he called the “banking model” of education. In this model, Freire argued, teachers “deposit” information into the minds of students, who are seen as passive recipients rather than active participants in the process of learning. Against the authoritarianism of the banking model, Freire offered an emancipatory vision for education, one that sought to overcome the student-teacher dichotomy and to replace the transmission of information with a “problem-posing” approach. Foregrounding the validity of student experience and emphasizing the posing of problems over the transmission of information empowered students as agents in their own education. “Problem-posing education,” Freire wrote, “affirms men and women as beings in the process of becoming – as unfinished, uncompleted beings in and with a likewise unfinished reality” (1970, 84). The role of the educator, in this view, is not to mold students into certain expected outcomes, but to help them become attuned to their own process of becoming. Freire recognized that education itself is a political process,  the structure of which plays a central role in the reproduction of broader relations of power and oppression. A more democratic pedagogy, one that challenges the teacher-student and active-passive dichotomies, would empower students as agents of change, not only in the classroom, but in the world at large.

In many ways, WAC pedagogy is informed by the democratic ethos of Freire’s “problem-posing” education. WAC pedagogy views learning as an active process grounded in “critical thinking,” and writing as an integral aspect of that process. As John Bean suggests, awakening students to problems and encouraging them to engage them lies at the core of teaching critical thinking (2011, 3). Moreover, in WAC philosophy, understanding is not derived from the passive process of memorizing and internalizing information, but comes from actively engaging with course material. Writing is seen as a prime vehicle for this engagement, creating a space where students become agents in the process of knowledge production. Therefore, implementing WAC principles can have a democratizing effect in the classroom, as students experience agency and voice in the process of writing. In this sense, WAC emphasis on “critical thinking” and the student-oriented qualities of “writing-to-learn” can be seen as part of a broader project of emancipatory education.

Although the radical language of emancipation has been displaced by a more technocratic jargon of best practices, writing pedagogy has largely embraced the ideas that underpin Freire’s “problem-posing” education. And yet, despite the ways in which writing instruction has democratized the classroom, student assessment has often remained stuck in the more authoritarian mentality of the banking model. I would suggest that there is now a disjuncture between the more processual and recursive understanding of the writing-learning process, and a system of assessment that reduces student effort and engagement to a single quantifiable metric. Even as we endorse a more student-centered understanding of learning, we participate in the reproduction of a system of grading that sees learning and assessment as independent rather than interconnected. It is as though there is a disconnect between our ontology of learning and the epistemology that informs how we evaluate it.

To begin to think about how we might begin to bring our process of assessment in line with our understanding of learning, it is worth considering why we assign grades in the first place. The “A-F” system itself is somewhat arbitrary, but there are at least four reasons that proponents often give for why we grade student work. First, grades have a communicative function, providing students with feedback about their performance in a class, or on an assignment. Second, grades provide an incentive structure intended to motivate students to do the work asked of them. Third, grades provide a simple, quantifiable metric of performance that enables teachers (as well as colleges and employers) to compare students to one another. Finally, grades are thought to perform an evaluative function, providing information about the quality of student work.

Do grades actually perform these functions? A review of the research on grading suggests that the validity of these assumptions is questionable at best. First, receiving a letter grade does provide feedback to students about their performance, but on its own, a grade provides no indication of the rationale, and as a consequence, does not link performance and assessment in a manner conducive to student improvement. Written feedback can be effective in communicating areas for development, but attaching this feedback to a grade often discourages students from even reading the feedback. Second, rather than increasing student motivation, a number of studies suggest that grades as an incentive, especially for creative tasks, may reduce intrinsic motivation to learn, undermine performance, and increase anxiety. Third, grades do enable comparison, but the practice still begs the question what is being compared and why? On the one hand, grade inflation and the subjective nature of assessment undermine the reliability of grades as a metric of student performance. On the other, because they “flatten” students to a single category, grades ignore the diversity of student experiences outside the classroom and reproduce patterns of oppression (Inoue 2019). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, counter to their basic premise, grades do not provide an “objective” evaluation of student work. This is true even of multiple-choice assessment, since teaching method, exam construction, and student backgrounds all influence student performance. These problems are exacerbated by the undeniable subjectivity and bias introduced in evaluating written and creative work.

As instructors, we are often obligated to assign grades by our institutions, but are there strategies for assessing student writing that contribute to the learning process rather than undermine it? Are there ways in which the democratic ethos that informs our writing pedagogy might also inform our assessment practices? Briefly, I would like to suggest that there are. In the remainder of this post I want to briefly offer a few strategies that not only serve to democratize the assessment process, but can also improve the communicative, motivational, comparative, and evaluative functions we often ascribe to letter grades.

Transparency: Given the subjectivity involved in assessing student writing, we should be as transparent as possible about our expectations for students, and our processes for assessing their work. Using rubrics is one way to both communicate our expectations to students and to keep ourselves accountable and consistent in our assessment of student work. For rubrics to be most effective, they should be provided to students at the outset.

Feedback Timing: Instructors often provide students with comments on written work in addition to the letter grade. Written feedback is an excellent way to communicate to students what they have done well, what they could develop further, and how they might go about revising. However, providing such feedback once a grade has already been assigned does not give students an incentive or opportunity to actually respond to the comments. By limiting substantive comments to earlier drafts, we can give students an opportunity to respond to our feedback and to develop their ideas more fully before they are evaluated. Feedback given on earlier drafts that identifies a few primary areas for improvement gives the student a concrete direction forward for developing subsequent drafts. As members of the academic community we know how crucial feedback is to developing our ideas, but in the classroom we often do not give students the same courtesy we offer to our colleagues.

Peer-Review: Peer-review workshops where students speak about their own work and receive suggestions and feedback from their colleagues can be a valuable way to elevate student perspectives and strengthen final drafts. The effectiveness of such workshops depends, in part, on how they are structured; providing explicit instructions that guide student feedback on a few aspects of the rubric can help focus discussion. For example, asking students to do a reverse outline of their peers’ work can help students identify ways to improve the structure and organization of their writing. Peer-review also gives students a sense of accountability to one another that may help incentivize on-time submission of work.

Self-Reflection: Asking students to provide evaluations of their own work can be helpful for a number of reasons. In giving insight into the challenges students face, self-reflections can facilitate more targeted comments that are tailored to the needs of individual experiences. Additionally, self-reflections can help instructors to understand how much time students spend on assignments and whether some of the difficulties may have stemmed from the assignment design itself. Finally, students often write more clearly when they do not feel pressured by the task of a formal writing assignment. By asking for an informal reflection, students often have a chance to talk about their ideas freely in a manner that can be helpful for instructors in deciphering student intent in formal papers. Because grading is subjective, and because student experience is so diverse, having insight into the writing process can be a helpful tool in assessing what kind of feedback would be most helpful for developing an improved draft. Moreover, it gives students the sense that their experience matters.

The mismatch between commonly understood reasons for grading and the mixed empirical evidence about whether grades fulfill these objectives, suggests that we need to rethink student assessment. The institutional inertia of our current grade system is immense (although it appears to be changing), but transparency, feedback before grades, peer review, and self-reflection are all practices that align with a the democratic ethos of WAC writing pedagogy. More importantly, we need to ensure that the reasons we assess correspond to the reasons we teach. I teach because I want to help students foster their curiosity about the world, identify and think critically about substantive problems, and develop a sense of empowerment in their own process of becoming. WAC pedagogy, in emphasizing the processual and recursive aspects of the writing-learning relationship, and in privileging ideas and engagement over presentation and product, seems well-suited to these aims. A grading system that reduces the complexity of student experience and engagement to a single letter arguably does not. As we revise our syllabi to incorporate practices of informal writing, scaffolded assignments, and revision, we often cling to a mode of assessment that reflects the rigidity and depersonalization of the banking model of education. Moreover, when the expectations, standards, and process are not fully transparent, we run the risk of reproducing authoritarian tendencies in the classroom that seem at odds with the democratic ethos of WAC pedagogy. To the extent that we deem critical thinking a foundation of substantive pedagogy, we should imagine practices of assessment that can reflect and strengthen this foundation.


Freire, Paolo. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Inoue, Asao. 2019. Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom. Fort Collins: The WAC Clearinghouse and University  Press of Colorado.

Kohn, Alfie. 1994. “Grading: The Issue Is Not How but Why.” Education Leadership 52(2): 38-41.

Shinske, Jeffrey and Kimberly Tanner. 2014. “Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently.” CBE Life Sciences Education 13(2): 159-166.



This Friday: Presenting on a Writing Across the Curriculum Collaboration


Hostos Image.png

This Friday May 13, 2016 we’ll be presenting our assessment of a WAC Collaboration at the 12th annual Coordinated Undergraduate Education (CUE) Conference “Walk the Talk: Inspiring Action on the Concourse and Beyond”.

The conference is focused on “showcasing action, articulating outcomes with evidence based results, and engaging in continuous improvement.”

We’re excited to share our journey working to assess and improve our collaboration with the Honors and Emerging Scholars Programs at City Tech. Specifically, we provide a workshop on abstract writing, which is part of a mandatory series of workshops for students. As part of this workshop, we focus on when and how abstracts are used and review the 5 main components that make up an abstract (i.e., motivation/significance, problem / objective, methodology, conclusions / results, and implications).

Abstract Workshop image

Our project aim was to enhance learning outcomes for students in the Honors and Emerging Scholars Programs, as related to their student project carried out with a faculty mentor that results in a poster and abstract. The two outcomes we focused on were abstract quality and student perceptions (of conceptual understanding, utility and satisfaction with the workshop).

To improve abstract quality, we developed an assessment framework utilizing the standards that we communicated to our students as our own assessment rubric. Over the course of 3 semesters, we quantified and reviewed abstract quality, to inform improvements to the workshop.

Results showed that students typically had a strong introduction to their abstract (motivation, goals, methodology) but abstracts weren’t as well-developed at the end (conclusions, implications). Given these data, we amended our workshops to increase the focus on conclusions and implications, and taught students techniques to help them develop these sections further.

Abstract Quality

Student perceptions were collected using a standard student survey. Students reported strong conceptual understanding after the workshop, and high satisfaction, though students felt less well-prepared to write an abstract in the future. This is an area we can address to improve.

Student Perceptions Image

What have we learned so far? Reviewing data from past semesters is useful for improving the workshop and student outcomes in following semesters. Further, it would be useful to incorporate other measures of student progress and student perceptions, especially those that are validated.

From the lower ratings of student preparedness to write their own abstract, we also learned that scaffolding the abstract workshop would be helpful, such as incorporating a second follow-up workshop later in the semester. Further, to improve assessment, we could collect and rate abstracts both before and after the workshop, rather than only after workshop completion.

Come join us at Hostos this Friday to learn more about our approach and join in on a discussion. You will also have a chance to learn about projects led by other fellow CUNY faculty. Our presentation is part of the “Assessing the Effectiveness of Action” track and we’ll be presenting at 10:50 am in room B-506.

We hope to see you there!

CUE conference

Student Stress & Learning: How ‘Writing Across the Curriculum’ Can Help

Our student’s lives are filled with stressors. Students have the pressures of part- or full-time jobs, child and family care-taking responsibilities, financial difficulties, interpersonal relationship problems, and also mental and physical health issues. In fact, the prevalence of anxiety and mood disorders is quite high, with 32% of adolescents meeting criteria for an anxiety disorder, and 14% meeting criteria for a mood disorder like depression (Merikangas et al., 2010; Watkins, Hunt, & Eisenberg, 2012).

Unfortunately, chronic anxiety and depression can reduce our ability to focus and learn new information. For professors, this should be of significant concern. Luckily, we are in a position to help our stressed students improve their learning while reducing the negative effects of stress on their lives. And by helping our students, we too can learn to better manage the effects of stress in our own lives.

Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) pedagogy offers several strategies that can help students better manage stress and reduce the negative physiological effects of stress on our brains and bodies.

Psychological distress & Learning

When a person is chronically stressed or depressed, their physiological stress systems that regulate physical well-being become altered (Grenham, Clarke, Cryan, & Dinan, 2011; Eskandari & Sternberg, 2002). In the brain, these changes are associated with damage to the hippocampus, a brain area that is very important for learning. We reviewed the importance of the hippocampus in learning in an earlier blog post, but in short, the presence of anxiety and depression can impact the size of our hippocampi (Bremner et al., 2000; Campbell, Marriott, Nahmias, & MacQueen, 2004) and thus reduces our ability to form new memories. Additionally, chronic psychological distress is also associated with altered attention and reduced cognitive performance (Eysenck, Derakshan, Santos, & Calvo, 2007).

What can professors do?

  1. We can teach our students profession-specific ways of dealing with psychological distress

We teach our students how to utilize information specific to their field, but isn’t it equally important that we help students manage the stress of these professions? There are a variety of ways that professionals practice self-care to remain effective, and we should be helping students develop these skills. You could even model this, by describing what self-care routines you follow yourself. Reviewing this can benefit the student as well as the teacher, as it may also make the professor more aware of the importance of self-care. Some ways that professionals manage stress include:

  • Physical exercise. Physical movement is one of the most effective ways to reduce psychological distress. Research has even shown that regular exercise can be as effective as antidepressant and anti-anxiety medication. With many Americans and students sitting for much of the day, it is important to review how physical movement can be incorporated into one’s professional life. One effective way to encourage physical activity is to incorporate physical activities into the classroom.
  • Meditation and/or mindfulness. This is an effective method to relax and focus, and is popular among psychologists, medical professionals, business people and athletes. Such techniques can be incorporated into classroom learning, even just by asking students to self-reflect and be aware of their current state. Low-stakes writing assignments may be especially helpful here.
  • Gratitude. Practicing daily acts of gratitude can reduce stress and elevate mood. This could be tied to any field, but may be particularly useful to those in professions where they may encounter a significant amount of stress and sadness as part of their jobs.
  1. We Can Incorporate WAC Classroom Activities That Promote Stress Reduction

While reducing psychological distress is not necessarily an explicit goal of WAC pedagogy, many WAC strategies do fulfill this function. Below we discuss specific WAC strategies that may be particularly beneficial for anxious and depressed students:

  • In-class writing exercises. Expressive writing is a powerful tool for reducing stress and depressive symptoms (Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005; Gortner, Rude, & Pennebaker, 2006). By making these low-stakes writing exercises specific to self-care topics, it could benefit the students further. Here are some examples:
    • When introducing a large, scaffolded project to students, a professor could begin by having students’ free-write and reflect on their procrastination habits, what thoughts and feelings come up? How may they be able to manage these habits better for the upcoming project.
    • When reviewing a midterm exam, you could ask students to free-write about their awareness of their stress. Ask them to reflect on the thoughts and feelings that come up as they review the exam material. Do they notice any physical reactions to stress? By having students identify their emotions, and bringing awareness to the impact of these emotions on their physical bodies, students can become more mindful of their emotional responses and be in the present moment.
    • Self-criticism is highly prevalent amongst anxious and depressed students, and is often associated with perfectionism and procrastination. A free-write assignment could be included asking students to reflect on how they feel about themselves as students (do they feel like they’re good enough?), and asking them to imagine how their most compassionate selves would respond to their initial self-view. Such an exercise may be particularly helpful before exam grades are handed back.
  • Scaffolded class assignments. One WAC strategy that helps fight procrastination is a scaffolded assignment design, a central practice of WAC pedagogy. Scaffolding means breaking down larger assignments into smaller tasks with due dates throughout the semester. Not only will you receive better developed class papers and projects, you will also assist your students in experiencing less anxiety and depression by reducing procrastination.
  • Incorporating physical movement into class activities. Create activities that involve some level of movement. A great way to reduce the physiological effects of stress is through moving the body. A few activities could include:
    • The Snowball activity: As a brainstorming session, have students answer a question on a piece of paper that they then crumple up and throw toward the front of the classroom. Students then have to get up and pick up a “snowball” in order to respond to the first students’ response.
    • Creative Assignments: Send students to do assignments on campus or in the city that involve exploration. For example, for a history class, you could ask students to visit historical locations throughout the city. Students could be asked to film themselves at the site, explaining the location’s importance and relevance to other historical topics.
  • Creating fun social in-class activities. One of the biggest antidotes against stress, anxiety and depression is social involvement. Laughter, feelings of happiness, and social connectedness reduce stress and cortisol levels. WAC pedagogy promotes group and peer activities, as this increases active learning. These social activities also have the added benefit of reducing stress and depression.



Anderson, G., & Horvath, J. (2004). The growing burden of chronic disease in America. Public health reports119(3), 263.

Baikie, K. A., & Wilhelm, K. (2005). Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Advances in psychiatric treatment11(5), 338-346.

Bremner, J. D., Narayan, M., Anderson, E. R., Staib, L. H., Miller, H. L., & Charney, D. S. (2000). Hippocampal volume reduction in major depression.American Journal of Psychiatry.

Campbell, S., Marriott, M., Nahmias, C., & MacQueen, G. M. (2004). Lower hippocampal volume in patients suffering from depression: a meta-analysis.American Journal of Psychiatry.

Eskandari, F., & Sternberg, E. M. (2002). Neural‐immune interactions in health and disease. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences966(1), 20-27.

Eysenck, M. W., Derakshan, N., Santos, R., & Calvo, M. G. (2007). Anxiety and cognitive performance: attentional control theory. Emotion7(2), 336

Gortner, E. M., Rude, S. S., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2006). Benefits of expressive writing in lowering rumination and depressive symptoms. Behavior therapy37(3), 292-303.

Grenham, S., Clarke, G., Cryan, J. F., & Dinan, T. G. (2011). Brain-gut-microbe communication in health and disease. Front Physiol2(94.10), 3389.

Merikangas, K. R., He, J. P., Burstein, M., Swanson, S. A., Avenevoli, S., Cui, L., … & Swendsen, J. (2010). Lifetime prevalence of mental disorders in US adolescents: results from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication–Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A). Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry49(10), 980-989.

Perrin, J. M., Bloom, S. R., & Gortmaker, S. L. (2007). The increase of childhood chronic conditions in the United States. Jama297(24), 2755-2759.

Watkins, D. C., Hunt, J. B., & Eisenberg, D. (2012). Increased demand for mental health services on college campuses: Perspectives from administrators. Qualitative Social Work11(3), 319-337

Utilizing WAC Pedagogy to Support Your Professional Development

Learn and Lead

Faculty introduced to Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) principles often note how implementing WAC practices may support their students’ academic development.

What teachers may not immediately realize is that WAC pedagogy can also support their own professional development in the following ways:

  1. Be More Productive

In their article Enhancing Pedagogical Productivity, Walvoort and Pool (1998) discuss how implementing WAC techniques can reduce costs in relation to outcomes. The authors argue that by varying the modes of content delivery (e.g., journal writing, group activities, and peer review), faculty can free up time previously devoted to delivering class content through lecture. Additionally, by designing scaffolded assignments and implementing WAC best-practices for grading, faculty can further free up time while improving learning outcomes. By becoming more pedagogically productive, faculty can devote more time to research, publications and other important aspects of their professional development.

  1. Expand Your Research and Publications

In conjunction to freeing up time to devote to research and writing, your experiences with WAC pedagogy can itself be the focus of your research and writing. You could examine several outcomes related to implementing WAC practices, including student interest in class topics, pass/fail rates, exam grades, writing quality, etc.

Several journals are devoted specifically to WAC pedagogy. For example:

  • Writing Across the Curriculum
  • Language connections: Writing and reading across the curriculum
  • Language and Learning Across the Disciplines

Other journals that publish WAC-related research:

  • American journal of Education
  • Assessing Writing
  • College Teaching
  • Research in the Teaching of English
  • Communication Education
  1. Be a Stronger Collaborator

Faculty often collaborate with their colleagues on projects. In the same way that WAC principles help improve student critical thinking and writing skills, applying these principles to your own work can have the same effect. For example, you may realize that it’s helpful to scaffold your own group projects, with due dates for outlines, drafts and peer reviews. Further, your feedback to collaborators may improve when you focus on higher order concerns and provide forward-looking feedback, without copy-editing your colleagues’ work.

  1. Improve Your Teacher Evaluations

Improved teaching performance is related to a teacher’s sense of satisfaction and commitment to teaching (Hughes, 2006; Peterson and White, 1992). Research further supports that student achievement is closely tied to the quality and training of the teacher (Darling-Hammond, 2000). By completing WAC training and implementing WAC pedagogy, teachers are better prepared and often increase their performance and sense of satisfaction, which in turn translates to more positive evaluations from both colleagues and students.

For example, one study by Blakeslee, Hayes and Young (1994) provides support that faculty who participated in WAC training differed significantly from non-participating faculty on attitude and teaching behavior. Specifically, participating faculty were more likely to view writing as a means for learning rather than testing, developed stronger writing assignments, and spent significantly more time answering student questions.

Positive teacher evaluations are associated with several professional development factors, including increased publication record and improved job opportunities (Feldman, 1987).



Blakeslee, A., Hayes, J., & Young, R. (1994). Evaluating training workshops in a writing across the curriculum program: method and analysis. Language and Learning Across the Disciplines, 1(2), 5-34.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2000). Teacher quality and student achievement. Education policy analysis archives, 8, 1.

Feldman, K. A. (1987). Research productivity and scholarly accomplishment of college teachers as related to their instructional effectiveness: A review and exploration. Research in higher education, 26(3), 227-298.

Hughes, V. M. (2006). Teacher evaluation practices and teacher job satisfaction (Doctoral dissertation, University of Missouri–Columbia).

Walvoord, B. E., & Pool, K. J. (1998). Enhancing pedagogical productivity. New Directions for Higher Education, 1998(103), 35-48.

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]

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 Benefits of Peer Review

As I finalize and submit my class grades, I tend to reflect on class components that worked well and didn’t work so well. As I reflect, I often create a list of strengths and weaknesses for the course and note the chapters and concepts that students had the most difficulty with.

When reading student exam responses, I often find myself frustrated with the fact that a large number of students still had difficulties grasping certain core concepts, even though I felt that I had covered the topic adequately in my lectures and assignments. Over the years I realized that in order to understand certain complex concepts students need something that I can’t provide myself: their critical engagement. I have previously discussed the benefits of in-class exercises to promote critical thinking, and these types of exercises (as well as writing assignments) can be further expanded to include a helpful peer-review component.

As professors and academics scholars we learn so much from our peers. Peer reviews can provide us with some of the most insightful feedback, and help us develop stronger work. The American Psychological Association (APA), for example, reports that a majority of peer-reviewed articles are accepted with contingencies. This means that papers are accepted with the agreement that the authors improve or clarify several aspects of their work based on feedback from peers. So why is it that we, who benefit so greatly from the peer-review process ourselves, don’t utilize this resource more when helping our students grow as professionals?

There are several benefits that students may gain. It can be helpful to communicate these to students as well, so that they know why they are being asked to review their peer’s work.

  1. Students often learn more from people at their level of learning.

Professors feel responsible for their students’ learning, which is great! However, it is okay to step back and have students learn more independently; allowing the student to discover knowledge for him or herself can be very powerful. And one way that many students learn well, is from one another (Boud, Cohen, & Sampson, 2014).

  1. Peer-review can build comfort and normalcy around receiving constructive feedback.

Being able to listen to others and utilize feedback effectively is important to future career success. When writing recommendation letters for students, I’ve noticed that many graduate programs ask that we discuss the student’s openness to feedback, as this is central to student success. To better serve our students, it is thus important that we help them develop their ability to effectively work with constructive criticism early on. With this, it is also important to monitor that feedback remains constructive. The teacher can assist in this by developing a guided peer-review worksheet and by discussing acceptable feedback in class.

  1. Providing peer feedback can strengthen students’ own work.

By providing feedback to peers, students often begin to think more flexibly about their own writing. For example, by taking the grader’s perspective, a student might start to better understand that the writer isn’t always successful in communicating something clearly. This experience may then promote the student’s ability to take the grader’s perspective when they review their own work before submitting it for a grade.

Additionally, by having students review each other’s writing assignments, they have to divide the paper writing process up into at least two stages: the draft and final paper. Scaffolding assignments in this way is known to lead to more critical engagement and learning (Bean, 2011).

  1. Peer review can save grading time.

This can be a nice added benefit! However, implementing a peer-review component may not immediately save you time. It is important to think about the design of the peer-review activity, so that it is designed to integrate well with your current grading system. If you feel that you need assistance with this, don’t hesitate to contact one of our writing fellows for guidance.

How do you develop a strong peer-review exercise?

It is important to lead the students through their own discoveries. This means that you as the teacher want to think about the cognitive steps students need to take in order to come to the appropriate conclusions about the assignment they are responding to. This will facilitate their ability to provide constructive feedback and accurate peer grades.

Here is an example of a peer-review exercise for an annotated bibliography assignment. In this exercise, the teacher uses specific questions to help the student focus on the most important aspects of the assignment: the peer’s clarity in communicating ideas and the quality of the research methods they used.

As you update your class syllabi this summer and think about improving coverage of certain topics, consider developing a peer-review component!


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

Boud, D., Cohen, R., & Sampson, J. (Eds.). (2014). Peer learning in higher education: Learning from and with each other. Routledge.