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An Instructor’s Guide for Writing-Intensive Courses

The WAC guide to teaching Writing Intensive courses, including sample assignments and syllabi.

Defining a Writing Intensive Course

Writing Intensive (WI) courses encourage student engagement with the writing process via scaffolding--including low-, mid-, and high-stakes writing assignments. WI courses also involve recursive writing by requiring a minimum of ten pages of formal written work which undergo a feedback loop through drafting and revision. Instructors communicate the writing goals of WI courses on the syllabus by including at least one writing-specific student learning objective and a tailored statement about the course’s relationship to writing. Students’ written work constitutes a significant portion of the final grade in all WI courses.

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.

An important aim of the WI requirement is to familiarize students with the discourse practices of a particular discipline: the language and style preferred in that field. WI courses extend the learning of the foundational writing courses to new contexts in the disciplines. 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

On the Writing Intensive Course Proposal [link], the following items define the characteristics of a Writing Intensive-designated course. They do not exhaust the possibilities for writing in a course, nor are they a mere checklist against which a proposal will be measured. They are intended to assist you with incorporating writing into the course. 

Lower-division (100- and 200-level) WI courses reinforce the foundational writing habits students learn in introductory composition courses and give students opportunities to practice discipline-specific writing conventions across the curriculum. Upper-division (300- and 400-level) WI courses, which are taken in the students’ major program, give students opportunities to practice advanced formal writing in their own discipline.


1. Learning objective: 

The syllabus should include at least one writing-focused learning objective, course objective, or course goal. We encourage faculty teaching WI courses to review the sample SLOs below and create their own, or to tailor the sample objectives with language that is discipline-specific. These SLOs were reviewed and approved by the Writing Intensive Advisory Committee (WIAC) in Oct. 2021.

Option #1:
To analyze and articulate central course concepts through in-class writing exercises, reflection papers, and a formal 10-page research paper.
 
Option #2:
Use argument and evidence in an original and effective way to communicate understanding of [core course concept] in a theoretically informed, clear, and concise analysis which employs research tools appropriate to the discipline.
 
Option #3:
Advance critical thinking in written work by synthesizing key [course] concepts, developing an argument supported by evidence, drawing conclusions from the research, and using the citation style appropriate to [discipline].


2. Writing Intensive statement: 

Students need to know why a particular course is designated WI and how this affects the coursework. This should be explained 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 formal writing and the role drafting will have in improving the final grade.

The syllabus should include an explanation to students of: 

1) the significance of WAC pedagogy as it relates to this course's objectives, and 

2) how students will engage with different levels of writing throughout this course 

Examples of 2) include: low-stakes / in-class "writing-to-learn" assignments, mid-stakes writing assignments as part of an in-class exam, high-stakes formal writing assignments with a revision process, etc. 
This statement should appear early in the syllabus and should be 100-250 words in length.
 

3. Page minimum:

The syllabus should clearly specify that the course includes a minimum of ten pages of formal written work involving a feedback loop
Ten pages indicates standard 8.5 x 11” double-spaced pages with one-inch margins in 12-point standard font. For assignments that use word count rather than page count, this is about 2500 words total.

For WI courses, formal written work is defined as assignments which include a drafting/revision process or smaller assignments that build towards a final draft. 
This recursive process should include a feedback loop, meaning that students have an opportunity to gather and apply instructor and/or peer comments before submitting the final draft. Essay examinations are not considered formal papers because they do not involve drafting, feedback, and revision. 

There are a number of ways to include ten or more pages of formal written work in a WI course; in some courses, this takes the form of a single term paper, which the course builds up to through low- and mid-stakes assignments. In others, this involves two five-page papers, or three or more shorter formal essays. 

In some cases, the formal writing is not a standard academic paper, but instead takes the form of a series of case reports, lab reports, or other kinds of professional writing. In these contexts, the feedback loop might be conceived of as practice or iteration rather than the more standard drafting and revision.


4. Writing-based grading: 

In a Writing Intensive course, a significant portion of the final grade should be based on students' formal written work (10 or more pages).
This means that for a student to pass the course, they will need to engage with the written component of the coursework. A survey of faculty practices indicates that written work, including the process that leads to the final submission, accounts for at least 40% of the final grade in WI courses.


5. Prerequisite (for permanent WI courses):

Please note that unlike temporary or ad-hoc WI courses, which are approved on a semester-to-semester basis solely by the WAC Program, permanent WI courses are governed by the York College Curriculum Committee in consultation with the WIAC.

For permanent WI courses, 

  • The syllabus should have ENG 125 or ENG 126 as a co- or prerequisite. WI courses are intended to build upon writing practices that students develop in these foundational courses.
  • The course description in the syllabus should reflect the Bulletin in stating “This is a Writing Intensive course.” The Bulletin will not reflect the WI status of a course until it has completed the Curriculum approval process.


Principles of Writing Across the Curriculum

WAC pedagogy emphasizes writing as a process, historically summarized as ‘writing to learn and learning to write.’ Instead of an ‘assign-and-grade’ approach, instructors of WI courses guide students through low-, mid-, and high-stakes writing assignments, and through this recursive process, students develop effective habits for writing which can be applied flexibly across genre, discipline, context, and occasion.
 
Assignments and Prompts
WAC encourages faculty to deliver formal assignment prompts in a written or otherwise recorded format, and devote time in class to explaining the assignment prompt and responding to student questions. Students should be able to return to the assignment prompt as they draft, peer-review, and revise. (In an asynchronous online course, some faculty create videos in which they go over the assignment guidelines).
 
A key element of WAC pedagogy is familiarizing students with the discipline-specific conventions they are being asked to employ; much of this work can be done in the feedback loop as the instructor responds to students’ work in progress. 
Writing Intensive courses typically include a range of writing assignments, which are often referred to as low-, mid-, and high-stakes.
 
Low-stakes Writing
Low-stakes writing is an informal way for students to engage with new content. Examples of low-stakes writing include free writes, reading responses, discussion questions, journal entries, note-taking and annotating, summaries, and discussion board posts. While low-stakes writing may be briefly reviewed, it is not generally evaluated in the same way as formal assignments. Low-stakes writing may carry a participation grade, but instructors are encouraged to respond to content rather than to correctness. Low-stakes writing is useful in introducing course material and generating ideas that can be explored in mid- and high-stakes assignments.
 
Mid-Stakes Writing
Mid-stakes writing occupies a middle ground between low- and high-stakes writing. The goal of these assignments is to help students make a transition to more formal writing by focusing their writing and considering its purpose and objectives. Short essays, summaries, blog posts, and critical responses to readings are all examples of mid-stakes writing. Compared to low-stakes writing, mid-stakes writing takes more time to complete and is often assigned as homework. Mid-stakes assignments are frequently connected to more formal, high-stakes assignments.
 
High-Stakes Writing
High-stakes writing is attached to a grade, offers opportunities for students to engage in-depth with a given content area, and demonstrates awareness of discipline-specific conventions. Examples of high-stakes writing include formal essays, research papers, portfolios, lab reports, case studies, and other advanced compositions particular to a given discipline.
The WAC program encourages instructors to design low- and mid-stakes assignments to proceed sequentially toward high-stakes writing. Instructors should also make the connections between the assignments clear to their students.
 
Drafting and Revision
Drafting is the process writers use to compose formal assignments. In line with common practices among instructors of WI courses, the WAC program recommends that drafts not carry a grade of their own. This practice emphasizes that drafts are works in progress. 
Instructors of WI courses should make clear the distinction between revision, editing, and proofreading. Editing and proofreading have to do with the surface-level appearance and mechanics of a paper and its adherence to ‘academic’ and disciplinary conventions; revision, on the other hand, is always substantive and involves significant labor.
 
The Feedback Loop: Responding to and Grading Student Writing 
The CUNY-wide Faculty Advisory Committee for WAC recommends that course enrollment be capped at 25 so that student work receives appropriate attention and that the process of writing for the discipline can be adequately addressed. The National Council of Teachers of English, on the other hand, writes:

“Institutions can provide reasonable and equitable working conditions by establishing teaching loads and class sizes that are consistent with disciplinary norms. No more than 20 students should be permitted in any writing class. Ideally, classes should be limited to 15.”

This section begins with a discussion of course caps because class size is directly linked to instructors’ grading labor and student outcomes. This section will outline some practices for instructors to consider in relation to the labor of grading student writing.


Peer Review
One way to address the labor of evaluating student work is to use peer review. Peer review is a process through which students read and critically evaluate each others’ writing. It is a good idea to collaborate with students in determining which aspects of writing need feedback, and how to provide constructive comments that address substantive issues and elicit meaningful revision, rather than simply editing or proofreading a paper. 
 
Conferencing
Another way to address the labor of evaluating student work is through conferences. Individual conferences are meetings between the instructor and students to discuss plans for drafting and/or revising formal written work. Conferences held in pairs or small groups can be particularly efficient in concert with peer review; students may benefit from feedback given to their classmates, whose work they’ve already read and evaluated. Conferences provide a space to identify common challenges and to address patterns of error, which help instructors avoid intensive sentence-level marking. An additional benefit of conferences is that students may raise their own concerns and questions and receive individualized support from the instructor.
 
Minimal Marking
As a final note on minimizing the labor of grading, the York College WAC Program recommends this brief guide on minimal marking from Macaulay Honors College at CUNY. In essence, instructors are advised to address the highest order concerns in a limited number of comments.
https://eportfolios.macaulay.cuny.edu/tlc/minimal-marking/ 

What Faculty Teaching Writing Intensive Courses Need to Know about Multilingual Learners
Jonathan Hall and the Writing Fellows at York College created this CUNY-specific handout for an April 2010 CETL Presentation. It offers facts and tips for faculty teaching Writing Intensive courses with MLL students

Multiple Language Learners
This page is an effort to bridge the theoretical and practical divide between approaches to Multiple Language Learners (MLL) and Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) pedagogy. Below you will find an abbreviated list of resources that respond to some of the questions the two approaches provoke.