About Writing Intensive Courses

The WAC Requirement

The York College Writing Across the Curriculum requirement legislated by the York College Senate in May, 2001 includes provisions for Writing Enhancement in General Education courses and for Writing Intensive courses in all the disciplines.

The provision for Writing Enhancement reads:

"All courses included among the College’s General Education requirements will be designated and taught as Writing Enhanced."

It continues by specifiying that the writing activities and assignments be "designed to develop students’ competence in reading, critical thinking, and writing." Writing enhanced courses not only include writing; they use it as a means to develop thinking and the ability to express thoughts.

Completing three Writing Intensive courses is a graduation requirement at York College. The specific number of courses that each student must take depends upon whether the student started at the College as a freshman or entered the College as a transfer student. These courses exemplify the principles of the Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) movement by advancing writing skills within the disciplines. A Writing Intensive course is a work-in-progress for the student. It is another way to move the student toward becoming a liberally educated person who can think critically and communicate effectively in a given discipline.

All instructors of courses that can be offered in fulfillment of the York College General Education requirement have a responsibility to incorporate informal writing-to-learn exercises and writing assignments-not only to promote the learning of the material, but to develop students’ competencies in analytical reading, critical thinking, and writing.

A handbook is available to all General Education instructors to share best practices in using writing within the context of General Education courses.

An important aim of the WI requirement is to help master the skills needed to write for the curriculum of a particular discipline in the language and style preferred in that field.

The provision for Writing Intensive Courses reads:

"For graduation the College will require completion of two designated Writing Intensive (WI) courses in the lower division of the curriculum (at the 100- or 200- level) . . . and one designated WI course in the upper division (at the 300-level or above), within the major discipline design."

"WI courses are subject-area courses that build on the foundational writing courses (English 125 and Writing 301, 302, or 303) to practice and extend skills in reading, critical thinking, and writing by incorporating guided writing assignments."

This second provision of the WAC legislation requires students to elect the appropriate number of WI courses, and requires the academic disciplines to define and designate WI courses in sufficient numbers for students to be able to meet the requirement in a timely way. Courses may be designated either on a semester-to-semester basis, or as a permanent part of the curriculum.

An emphasis on high-stakes writing assignments (see "Low- and High-Stakes Writing" on pages 24-25) also distinguishes WI courses from the Writing Enhanced courses in General Education.

Currently, students who entered York College in or after Fall 2003 must complete a minimum of three writing intensive (WI) courses, two in the lower division, and one in the upper division within the major.

Defining a Writing Intensive Course

The York College WAC program is built on the model of a "spiral curriculum," and the Writing Intensive courses play a key role in that model. The WI courses extend the learning of the foundational writing courses to new contexts in the disciplines. To repeat the language of the provision:

Faculty members and students must understand that there is a distinction between a WI course and a course that is intense because it includes a lot of writing.

  • A WI course includes carefully crafted formal writing assignments that are linked to the unfolding of course material. Assignments are not "add-ons."
  • Formal writing assignments are guided; that is, assignment sheets are detailed and students receive ongoing feedback and advice on work in progress.
  • The assignments and guidance build on the work of the foundational writing courses to promote a common vocabulary and approach to the writing process; there is an emphasis on critical reading and thinking as well as an insistence on professional preparation of written work.

The designated WI courses must meet defined criteria because they are part of a graduation requirement; completion of WI courses is noted formally on each student’s transcript.

Rationale and Criteria for Writing Intensive Courses

The criteria for WI courses keep the focus on the process of engaging students in writing activities for the discipline in a way that can lead to improved reading, writing, and thinking skills. These criteria are based on the recommendations of the CUNY-wide Faculty Advisory Committee for WAC.

  1. "Formal papers" means that these assignments usually draw upon reading and/or research and require thought, planning, organization, reflection, and some form of scholarly research. "Finished pages" means the standard typed,double-spaced page with one-inch margins. Note: Essay examinations are not formal papers because they do not involve planning and revision. Therefore, essay examinations are not included toward the 10-12 finished pages required in WI courses.
  2. Papers are assigned in a way that further develops students’ writing competence through a process of drafting and revision, drawing on the learning of the foundational courses, with individual feedback on work in progress.
  3. This pedagogical design involves working with each student in a process approach that systematically moves the student toward a final paper. This process is introduced in English 125 and in the Writing 300 courses.
  4. The process requires the student to think critically, revise, and edit the paper so that the final submission is closer to the goal of the assignment. In upper-division WI courses, the paper should begin to reflect the dexterity of communication skills needed in graduate school and the workplace.
  • Some in-class attention is given to the writing process.
  • Informal reading, critical thinking, and writing activities are used during the semester.
  • Instead of the traditional "assign-and-grade" approach, instructors of WI courses take responsibility for helping students learn how to complete their assignments, and in the process, students learn to write better. These teachers do so by:
    • preparing written assignment sheets and responding to work in progress
    • arranging for students to respond to classmates’ work in progress
    • explaining the format(s) particular to their own discipline in which written work must be completed
    • giving feedback that lets students know where their work has succeeded and where it has fallen short.
  • Course grades are based in significant part on student’s written work. The percentage of the final grade determined by formal writing is, of course, at the instructor’s discretion in the context of each course. A survey of faculty practices indicates that written work, including the process that leads to the final submission, generally accounts for 40% to 60% of the final grade in many WI courses.
  • The special objectives of a WI course are incorporated into the syllabus. Students need to know why a particular course is designated WI and how this affects the coursework. An explanation is needed in class and on the course syllabus. This explanation should include a clear description of the process that an instructor will use to move students toward the final submission and the role preliminary submissions will have in the paper’s ultimate grade, preferably on the course syllabus.
  • Course enrollment is capped at 25 so that student work receives appropriate attention and that the process of writing for the discipline can be adequately addressed.
  • Writing to Learn - Not Just Learning to Write

    Writing to Learn is writing that is closely associated with the learning process as it occurs in class (lecture or discussion) and as it occurs outside of class (reading and assignments). It is the effort to articulate thoughts that move students toward clarity and coherence.

    Advocates of WAC have had success with writing-to-learn exercises like these:

    • Asking students to write their questions about the course on the second day that it meets
    • Quizzing students during the second week of the course on the content and intent of the course syllabus
    • Having students brainstorm on paper what they know or would like to know about a topic before it’s introduced in lecture or discussion
    • Stopping the lecture or discussion to have students write briefly about how they are experiencing it or about a concept presented in it

    Most often, these assignments are not graded, and teachers simply respond to the content and not to the correctness. Such writing reinforces learning and helps students to clarify their ideas. Because it is an exercise in articulating thinking as it develops, it is at the same time an exercise in developing the ability to articulate. How students are thinking, what the class has derived from the assigned materials, and what difficulty students are having with them are discovered. Informal writing-to-learn activities have many benefits for students. Students:

    • write more and get used to it
    • think more about what they are reading or listening to
    • become more reflective and more aware of what they do and do not know
    • do better on formal writing assignments

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