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General Education

Writing Across the Curriculum

Frequently Asked Questions about Writing Across the Curriculum

What is Writing Across the Curriculum?

Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) is first and foremost about student learning. It combines frequent informal writing opportunities with multiple-draft formal assignments. It promotes active learning, requiring students to turn information into knowledge. Frequent writing helps students to think critically and to integrate their knowledge across classes. WAC programs share some common principles:

  • When students articulate key course concepts in their own words, they comprehend them better and retain more.
  • Informal, low stakes writing assignments like journals and freewrites can help students to think reflectively and develop their own voice.
  • Each discipline has its own writing conventions, and students learn to write best in their fields when they master those conventions.
  • To become better writers, and better thinkers, students need to practice their writing skills throughout their academic careers.
What can I do about my students' appalling grammar? Do I have to teach grammar myself?

These may be the questions faculty ask most frequently. First, WAC is not Grammar Across the Curriculum. Successful WAC programs focus more on writing to learn than on learning to write. No, you don't have to teach grammar, and in fact emphasizing grammar too much can make them focus on correctness instead of content.

However, you can help students express themselves more clearly. Giving students more opportunities to write will help them write more fluently, and assigning multiple drafts will encourage them to polish their writing. Keep in mind the reasons why students make grammatical errors:

  • They probably wrote the paper the night before it was due.
  • Research has shown that grammatical errors increase when students confront challenging material or begin a new discipline. This is true even for graduate students.
  • They may not realize that you expect them to proofread.
  • They haven't fully mastered the rules.

What you can do:

  • Require more than one draft. One way to do this is to use an in-class peer review.
  • Make your expectations clear-but don't overemphasize grammar. Encourage them to proofread as the last step in the process. Research suggests that most students can recognize and correct about 50% of their errors if they proofread carefully.
  • Avoid editing their papers. Students learn more when they have to recognize and correct errors themselves. You can note representative errors in the margin, or simply let them know that the errors are distracting and make their meaning unclear. Marking all of their errors may send the message that correctness matters more than content.
  • Distinguish between mechanical errors and stylistic flaws. Problems like wordiness and overuse of the passive voice represent stylistic choices rather than mechanical errors.
  • Give students a list of the most common errors you see.
How can I grade all those papers? I'm already swamped.

We're all getting busier, and there often just isn't enough time to grade more papers. There are ways, however, to assign more writing without making your workload unmanageable. Suggestions:

  • Require peer reviews. Give students credit for doing them, and be specific about how they should respond. These can be done in class or online. Writers can get valuable feedback, and peer reviewers can become better editors of their own writing.
  • Assign microthemes. Short, highly-focused writing assignments can help students master content and critical thinking skills. See John C. Bean, Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom.
  • Assign informal writing. This can include in-class freewrites, bulletin-board posts, journals, or responses to specific prompts. We use writing ourselves in many different ways, including brainstorming, note taking, and clarifying our own ideas. Students often don't have that range of writing skills. Students are often more insightful and better critical thinkers when they're not worrying about a grade (or about grammar). You don't have to read every word, though you may want to do some sampling and write occasional brief responses.

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