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Writing Across the Curriculum

Lee Schulman, president of the Carnegie Foundation, recently wrote that until students take new knowledge, incorporate it with the old, and then "make it public" by articulating to others, either in written or oral form, do they really learn. That is a pivotal statement reflecting what we have learned about learning. What is important here is that it is not possible to have time for all our students to articulate orally and receive feedback from us, so writing becomes the viable alternative. This is in addition to the many other advantages of having students Write for Learning.

Employers in practically every field want their employees to be able to write. This includes engineers, criminal justice employees, health care workers, politicians, teachers, blue collar workers, government employees, contractors, etc. Employees need to write to accurately document events that have transpired. We use communication to influence others, so college students need to learn to write persuasively. We use written communication to reach out with compassion in critical times, so college students need to learn to write from the heart. We use communication to clarify and explain, so college students need to be able to express themselves clearly. Learning to think and write creatively is also an added skill in the job market.

A movement called Writing Across the Curriculum began at the college level in the 1970's-1980's. Educators were concerned with the lack of writing ability of their students, so the movement was begun to convince instructors in all courses — not just English courses — to include writing assignments in their curriculum. It's been said that students don't know what they think until they have to write it down. Obstacles for such a program revolve mainly around the fact that reading and giving feedback on writing assignments can be very time-consuming for the instructor. Students in some classes — for example science classes — may balk and say that they've already taken an English course — that they don't see the need to write in their other classes. But if thinking is writing, and if we all engage our students in some kind of writing activity, the quality of college students' writing will dramatically improve and we will produce better thinkers and writers for the community.

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Words of Wisdom

  • Minute papers are an excellent way to introduce writing into practically any course. At the end of the class, leave a few minutes and ask students to write down what they got out of the lecture. You can have the students identify themselves on their papers and use the papers to take attendance. Or, instead of collecting the papers, you might have your students keep their summaries in a notebook that you collect part-way through the semester. (Note: if you have your students identify themselves, you're obligated to give them some feedback.)
  • Worksheets are another way to get students to practice their writing. This is an excellent technique if you find that your students aren't coming to class prepared. Create a worksheet with three to five questions on their reading assignment and collect their answers at the beginning of the class. These papers can be worth a few points that count toward their grade for the semester, and your students should be much more prepared to engage in discussion of the assignment.
  • Ask your students to keep a journal. Use the three-column approach originally by Jane Kirkpatrick, a nursing professor at Purdue. She was not pleased with her students' journals the first time they were assigned. She thought the content was superficial and that the students didn't delve into the thinking process as much as she would have liked. She now uses a three-column approach where students divide their papers into three columns. In the first column, the students write a description of the event. In the second column, they write an analysis of it. And in the third column, they answer the question "How will you apply this in the future?" Her results are much more satisfying.
  • For longer papers, make sure the assignment is written out and then explain it as clearly as possible. Give your students a rubric for how the paper is going to be graded. Shortly after the paper is assigned, ask them to submit an outline and meet with them to go over it. This should help to reduce procrastination, give you a chance to give each student a pep talk and answer any questions they may have about the assignment.
  • To avoid plagiarism, make the topic of the paper specific to the class. For instance, don't assign a paper on a famous person, like Christopher Columbus. Instead, assign a comparison-contrast paper between Christopher Columbus and Ponce De León.
  • Teach your students the art of proofreading. Give them time in class (and encourage them to do this out-of-class as well) to exchange papers and edit each other's work. Don't just set them loose without some instruction for editing and offering feedback.
  • Encourage students who are having difficulty with grammar or the basics of writing to go to the Writing Lab in Heavilon Hall.
  • Use a rubric for grading papers. For instance, if a paper is worth 100 points, you could assign a scale from 1-10 points for the outline that was submitted, and then 1-10 points for the thesis statement, etc. This makes grading much more objective.