General Principles for Teaching Academic Writing in the Disciplines

1. Take an inventory of course goals (often stated in syllabus as learning outcomes)

  • subject matter goals–essential concepts and knowledge
  • critical thinking goals—disciplinary processes of inquiry, critical reading, writing, and argument
  • other goals set by the professor or connected to departmental or general-education/core outcomes

2. Design critical thinking problems connected to your course goals.

  • Problems should require students to use course knowledge while helping them learn disciplinary ways of thinking, analyzing, and arguing
  • Problems should engage student interest and promote inquiry
  • Highest level of critical thinking typically comes from "messy," "ill-structured," or open-ended problems with no algorithmically attained "right answer"—problems that lead to a claim with supporting arguments.

3. Develop a repertoire of ways to give critical thinking problems to students

  • Thought provokers for exploratory writing (in-class freewrites; journal entries; one-page "thinking pieces"; other kinds of informal, non-graded writing)
  • Tasks for small-group problem solving or opening questions for a whole-class discussion
  • Short (2-3 page) assignments or even shorter (one-paragraph) microtheme assignments.
  • Longer, formal writing assignments or as options for research paper topics
  • Essay exam questions or practice exam questions

4. Think of writing assignments as a crucial part of course design

  • "Reverse engineer" your course by designing the final assignment first (principle of "backward design")
  • Create earlier assignments that develop the skills needed for the final assignment (sometimes called "scaffolding assignments")
  • Consider breaking longer assignments into stages
  • Consider adding informal non-graded writing to help students explore ideas and promote learning

5. When assigning formal writing, treat writing as a process

  • Create a rhetorical context for assignments giving students a sense of audience, purpose, and genre (Give students a "RAFT"—see next page of this handout)
  • Emphasize exploration, reflective research, good talking, multiple perspectives
  • Encourage imperfect first drafts
  • Stress substantial revision reflecting increased complexity and elaboration of thought and increased awareness of readers' needs
  • Where possible, allow rewrites; write comments that encourage revision and that emphasize the higher order concerns of ideas, thought content, organization, and development
  • Consider instituting peer review workshops
  • Encourage the value of a writing center for all writers

6. Develop clear scoring criteria and give them to students in advance

  • simple numerical or +/check/- scales for exploratory writing
  • grading rubrics or scoring guides for formal writing