Student Writing Before—and in Addition to—WI Courses

Many faculty are understandably curious about the writing instruction students will receive as students here. To earn an undergraduate degree at MU, every student is required to take three writing courses: English 1000 followed by two WI courses, one of which must be at the upper division level in the major. ENGL 1000 is overseen by the Composition Program in the Department of English, while the WI curriculum is overseen by Campus Writing Program.

Most of this page deals with the informal writing assignments I have used in the ENGL 1000 class I’ve taught at the University of Missouri for the past five years. I focus on the informal assignments because they show (more clearly than the formal assignments do) how I attempt to relate writing and learning to other courses, WI or otherwise. Informal writing can be used by all instructors in virtually any class to improve student learning and to help instructors themselves understand what and how students’ learning is happening.

But first, to put MU’s first-year composition course in context, in 2014-15 approximately 230 sections of ENGL 1000 were taught to 4450 students (excluding online sections). However, not all MU students take ENGL 1000 at MU. In Fall 2015, about 200 students will enter MU having already satisfied the ENGL 1000 requirement in one of these other ways:

  • Advanced Placement courses taken in high school
  • Dual Credit courses taken in high school
  • Transfer Credit earned at other colleges or universities before enrolling at MU

Moreover, the field of Composition Studies does not advocate any one “best” way to teach first-year composition. Multiple models exist that enable writing courses to accomplish the same ends. MU’s new ENGL 1000 instructors are encouraged to use the Composition Program’s “starter syllabus,” when they begin their teaching here. And all ENGL 1000 instructors enjoy substantial discretion in designing their own courses, syllabi, and assignments. This wide latitude honors the expertise that instructors bring to their classrooms and is essential for graduate students’ preparation for their future careers. It also means that MU’s ENGL 1000 courses vary widely from section to section.

Three Main Messages

One of the main messages I wish to convey through his page is that no one course, nor any set of courses (i.e., ENGL 1000 plus two WI courses) can fully prepare students to write for college or for their careers following graduation. ENGL 1000 can start the process, and MU’s two required WI courses can continue the process. But instructors in all classes—WI and non-WI—need to follow through to reinforce what students are learning in order to advance their knowledge of how writing works. This idea has been central on our campus since MU’s WI requirement was enacted by faculty vote in 1987.

Therefore, my second message is that responsibility for student writing rests with all faculty across the entire curriculum of a student’s college education. Many faculty wonder why students aren’t better writers after they’ve had ENGL 1000 and maybe even a WI course or two. The reality is that students who legitimately earn A’s or B’s in ENGL 1000 can struggle with writing when they get into subsequent courses. Even after one or more WI courses, students can continue to struggle. There are a couple of good reasons why this can happen. For one, ENGL 1000 can’t expose students to all of the genres and all of the ways of thinking they will encounter in subsequent contexts. Second, students don’t always know how to transfer what they learned in ENGL 1000 to challenging new rhetorical situations—or even that they should transfer this knowledge. These new situations require new explanations, and even then, students need practice with the new levels of thinking and new kinds of writing that are being required. Eventually, students’ writing ability does catch up to the new ways of making meaning through writing. (These claims, by the way, are well supported by scholarly research in Composition Studies and Writing Across the Curriculum.)

Third, informal writing can play a significant role in helping students appreciate the value of writing in their lives. It can also play an important role in helping students make connections among and between their other courses. And, all professors can incorporate informal writing into their classes without adding to their own workloads. The tips at the bottom of this page can help all faculty, WI or not, help students improve their writing.

These three messages aren’t meant to let ENGL 1000 and WI instructors off the hook for failing to teach “good writing.” They are intended as a reminder that “learning to write” is, in fact, a life-long endeavor for virtually everyone, especially for those of us in academia. In thirty years of facilitating writing workshops, I have asked hundreds of faculty in the disciplines to list what was difficult about the last piece of professional writing they did. Their lists are always long. And their difficulties are the same ones our students struggle with. We just grapple with them at a higher level.

How I Teach ENGL 1000: “No-Text/Two-Text”

In 2006, I stepped down from a fifteen-year run as director of MU’s Campus Writing Program, a career move that allowed me to return to first-year composition where I began my teaching life. Because of the flexibility that MU’s Composition Program allows all ENGL 1000 instructors, I had the luxury of developing the course I describe here. I have taught this course eight times over the last five years—six honors classes and two “regular” classes for the general student population.

My course design draws heavily on Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing (2011) and on the WPA Outcomes for first-year composition, which are embedded within Framework. “No-Text/Two-Text” refers to my not using a traditional composition textbook. Instead, my two “texts” have been MU’s summer one-read book for incoming freshman and Framework itself, a professional document intended for writing instructors, policymakers, employers, parents, and the general public.

The WPA Outcomes are described on the Composition Program website. The site also shows how courses that follow ENGL 1000—WI and non-WI—might build on what students bring from first-year composition. It’s an excellent document. I encourage everyone to read it.

In addition to the WPA Outcomes, Framework incorporates eight habits of mind: Curiosity, Openness, Engagement, Creativity, Persistence, Responsibility, Flexibility, and Metacognition. These habits constitute “ways of approaching learning that are both intellectual and practical and that support students’ success in a variety of fields and disciplines” (this quote and some of the language below is borrowed freely from Framework).

Packing all this into one fifteen-week semester

My ENGL 1000 course addresses all five WPA outcomes. Depending on individual students, all eight habits of mind may be addressed as well. The course requires three formal (revised) papers, plus substantial informal (not revised) writing. The grading scheme comprises four equal parts, each worth 25% of the course grade:

  • Paper 1 (PDF) is a 4-pg rhetorical analysis of the entire one-read book
  • Paper 2 (PDF) is a 4-pg research-based, critical “spin off” from the one-read book
  • Paper 3 (PDF) is a 4-pg personal response to the one-read book for a public audience
  • Course participation, based on contributions to our classroom community (all informal writing goes here, including the one just below)

I focus on informal writing on this webpage because of its benefits for students and faculty, in all disciplines and at all levels—even graduate students. Whether you’re in biology, engineering, music, philosophy, or math, informal writing can add an unexpected dimension to your teaching that students appreciate. Just one caution: students must be able to see how informal (unrevised, often ungraded) writing connects to what they are learning, or it can be perceived as busy work.

My “No-Text/Two-Text” day-one informal research assignment

This assignment sets up the whole semester; the class meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays for 75 minutes. On day one, immediately after reviewing the syllabus, I divide the class into four random groups. Each group of four or five students is assigned a different set of research questions, the results of which will be presented over the next two class periods. A one-page handout (PDF) condenses all of the questions, but offers minimal instructions. Questions are standard from year to year, but because the book changes, plagiarism isn’t an issue, nor do I get bored. Using my spring 2015 class and book as an example, the groups set out to learn:

  1. Who is Mike Rose and what are his credentials for having written The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Work? What are his background and education?
  2. What else has Rose written? Where and by whom has his work been published? What is the credibility of the publishers?
  3. How has The Mind at Work been critically received? Who are the reviewers, and what is their credibility? What is the impact of the book?
  4. What kind of book is The Mind at Work? What genre is it? Where would you find it shelved, say, at Barnes and Noble? Why does genre matter? Is this an “academic” book? How do you know?

Assured that presentations constitute a low-stakes assignment, an unspecified percentage of which factors into the total class participation grade of 25%, students dive in. They decide what their question entails; where they might find the information they need (and if not online how to find the library); how to divide up the work; plus how, when, and where to meet to prepare their presentation. The exercise is an inquiry-based assignment, so I answer only the most basic questions. Students know we will devote two full class periods to the four presentations.

In one way or another, this informal research assignment touches on all five of the WPA outcomes, and depending on individual students, it can touch on any or all of the habits of mind. Given the bare bones instructions that I give them, students prepare surprisingly thoughtful reports on their research findings. We post bibliographic data and other links to the class Blackboard site. Most come with technologically sophisticated presentations that employ PowerPoint or Prezi, into which they’ve embedded text, audio, images, and video clips. I remind students that one responsibility of being a curious college student is to “listen rhetorically” (Ratcliffe), and that everyone should be prepared with meaningful questions or comments following each presentation. I debrief each group afterward by having students examine the process they used in doing their research and evaluate how effective they believe their presentation was.

By the end of all four presentations, students’ knowledge of the book and author has grown substantially; they have learned who their classmates are and have begun to develop a classroom community; they have begun to collaborate and to conduct research individually and collectively; and they have some sense of what they might have done differently. More important, their engagement in the course is heightened, and we have begun to address virtually all of the outcomes and habits of mind in Framework. We refer back to discussions that occurred during these presentations for weeks to come.

In doing this informal assignment, students inevitably realize they have not read the book as closely as they might have, that there is more to be gained by doing a closer reading than they have done to this point. So, the semester begins with a discussion of what “reading” in college means and how a rhetorical approach to reading, and writing, will benefit them in college and beyond. Without overt pedagogical instruction or textbook intervention, this inquiry-based low-stakes research assignment lays important groundwork for the semester.

Framework-based and other informal assignments, adaptable to any course

  1. I have assigned Framework itself as a text for a second informal group project/presentation. Answering these questions reinforces both the WPA outcomes and habits of mind: (1) what is the purpose and genre of Framework? (2) Who is the audience for Framework? (3) What is the content of Framework? Summarize it. (4) Who are the authors/sponsors of Framework? Students appreciate that they have analyzed a professional document for which they are not the primary audience while at the same time discerning the way their course to come is structured.
  2. Students select one or two habits of mind they most need to work on during the semester. Informal polling shows the habits students have chosen, and we strategize how to address them. The fall 2012 and 2014 classes, for example, overwhelmingly reported they most needed to work on persistence, with the other habits receiving only scant attention. Whenever a free moment presents itself in class, we check their progress on the habits they’re working on—an opportunity for more informal writing.
  3. Students write a poem to share with the class on the habit(s) of mind they have selected to work on. Modeled on Art Young’s poetry across the curriculum concept, this assignment doesn’t seek to create works of art but to creatively contemplate the habit(s) of mind students are focusing on. The fall 2011 class recommended by a vote 15 to 2 that I repeat the habit of mind poem with future classes. The fall 2013 class asked that their poems be collected and distributed to all.
  4. Occasional “metacognition/transfer” quizzes combine metacognition with all six of the course outcomes. This assignment requires students to “think about their thinking” (metacognition) and to account for how they are using their knowledge in other classes (transfer). A fall 2013 student reported that he “used rhetorical knowledge in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering 1000 when writing homework assignments by keeping in mind [his] audience and what they are expecting to hear.” Another fall 2013 student reported that she “used critical thinking in [her] calculus class when interpreting a word problem.”
  5. “What We Learned This Semester” is an informal, in-class assignment in which students create a bulleted list of everything they have learned throughout the term. After five minutes of silent brainstorming, we compile all responses until every item has been accounted for (with a sample here – PDF). When we finish, students often comment, “I can’t believe we learned so much in this class.” I email the compilation to them to keep as a reminder of what they collectively reported.
  6. When I don’t use the “What We Learned” exercise above, students write an in-class one-page reflective memo (PDF) about what they learned during the semester. I give them a summary of Framework’s outcomes and habits of mind as a prompt to jog their memories about what we did over the fifteen weeks. The write this in lieu of a final in-class exam and email it to me.

Tips All Faculty Can Use to Reinforce Students’ Desire to Write Well

Yes, research shows that the vast majority of students really do want to write well. These suggestions derive from research in Composition Studies and Writing Across the Curriculum, plus fifteen years of my directing Campus Writing Program and thirty years of teaching composition and WI courses. They really do work! Whether you’re in the sciences, social sciences, or humanities, these suggestions can help your students become better writers.

  • Tell students that good writing matters to you, that you expect them to apply what they learned in ENGL 1000 and other classes, WI or not. Every class is a “writing” class.
  • Hold them accountable for good writing. Writing Center for help with their writing. It’s free!
  • Finally, let students see that their writing is important to you. This is one of the most important ways of encouraging them to produce good writing.

Marty Townsend directed MU’s Campus Writing Program from 1991 to 2006. She is Professor of English, with research interests in writing-across-the-curriculum (WAC) program development and assessment. Marty has consulted on writing and general education for over 100 colleges and universities in the U.S. and abroad. She is author of numerous refereed articles and book chapters, most of them on (or inspired by) WAC. She also has a chapter on the No-Text/Two-Text course featured here in Intersections of the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing: Scholarly, Theoretical, and Practical Application, forthcoming from Parlor Press.