Writing Matters: Crafting a Syllabus that Supports Student Writers

Matthew Luskey

August in Minnesota is a fine time to visit lakes, try unusual foods at the State Fair, and (re)design course syllabi. This post doesn’t offer local travel or culinary advice, but it does suggest three ways your syllabus can support student writers in your classes this semester.

Suggestion: Situate Writing in Your Course & Discipline

A good deal of research on college writing and learning theory has identified how undergraduate writers often operate with a one-size-fits-all view of writing. (See How Does Students’ Prior Knowledge Affect Their Learning?) Such a fixed view can lead students to rely on strategies (e.g., organizing papers with a five-paragraph model, avoiding the use of first-person pronouns, etc.) that were taught, learned, and used successfully in the past but may no longer be appropriate or effective in specific fields of college writing. One way to help students transfer, adapt, and develop new writing strategies in your course is to provide explicit descriptions for how writing is situated in your course and how it functions in your discipline. How do molecular biologists use writing to convey discoveries? What questions do political scientists pose? What descriptive techniques inform writing in Art History? A “role of writing” statement in your syllabus will help students link writing with disciplinary thinking, and it can serve as point of instructive discussion throughout the term.

Pen on a notebook on a keyboard

Here’s an example from a professor who teaches courses on international trade in economics:

Economists write in several genres: scholarly papers (empirical, theoretical, and historical), survey articles and literature reviews, handbook and encyclopedia entries, book reviews and review essays, popular economic books for general audiences, and op-ed columns. Their arguments typically use certain kinds of evidence (economic assumptions, concepts, and theories; quantitative data; econometrics; and economic modeling) in order to study how people choose to use resources, focusing on labor, land, and investments; money, income, and production; and taxes and government expenditures. Although the behavior of individuals is important, economists also address the collective behavior of businesses and industries, governments and countries, and the globe as a whole.

Additional examples of discipline-specific descriptions of writing are available on the Center for Writing’s Teaching with Writing website. If you would like to consult about a “role of writing” statement for your syllabus, please set up an appointment to talk to a member of the WAC team. We’re happy to chat with you about this!

Suggestion: Stress Process, Not Just Product

Many syllabi contain due dates and descriptions of major writing assignments. While these are useful, it is even better to include descriptive details about stages of composing, along with a schedule for completing them. These stages might include the use of invention strategies (e.g., brainstorming, freewriting, clustering, outlining etc.), along with drafting and revising activities. Emphasizing the stages of composition, especially revision, does not require that the instructor intervene at each point; it need not add more work to your teaching. However, allotting time in the course schedule for the writing process will convey two important messages. First, it will encourage a writing approach that mirrors ones used by expert writers. As Linda Flower and John Hayes have documented over several decades of research, a key distinction between novice writers and expert writers has to do with process: novice writers rely on a linear, single-draft approach, while expert writers utilize a multi-draft, recursive approach. Unless time is scheduled into the course for recursive writing—that is, writing and revising—many students will likely approach assignments with a single-draft strategy.

Stressing the writing process within your syllabus will also convey a second powerful message: you want students to succeed as writers in your course and discipline. As Ken Bain describes in his book, What the Best College Teachers Do (Harvard 2004), almost all outstanding educators create a “promising syllabus” for their courses. And a key component of the promising syllabus are descriptions of the important activities that can help students with core assignments.

Read more about the promising syllabus. If you would like to discuss ways to make your syllabus more promising, please make an appointment.

Suggestion: Anticipate and Provide Support for Students

The first two suggestions stress ways your syllabus can demystify how writing works in your course and functions in your field. Nevertheless, regardless of how clear and comprehensive your syllabus is with its writing expectations, students will still need support throughout the term. An invitation to meet and discuss writing during office hours affirms this need. Additionally, your syllabus can provide links to useful writing resources in your discipline. Vetting online writing sources and providing a select list is often more effective—and promising—than offering general admonishments. One of the very best resources—Student Writing Support (SWS)—is right here on campus. The following statement, which you are free to reproduce in your syllabi, will further underscore the importance of writing in your course and your desire to support students:

Student Writing Support (SWS) offers free writing instruction for all University of Minnesota students—graduate and undergraduate—at all stages of the writing process. In face-to-face and online collaborative consultations, SWS consultants from across the disciplines help students develop productive writing habits and revision strategies.

Consulting is available by appointment online and in Nicholson Hall, and on a walk-in basis in Appleby Hall. For more information, go to writing.umn.edu/sws or call 612.625.1893.

In addition, SWS offers a number of web-based resources on topics such as avoiding plagiarism, documenting sources, and planning and completing a writing project.

Further support

For further support, see the Teaching with Writing resource pages, including sample assignments and syllabi. As many of you know, our WAC program also hosts the popular Teaching with Writing event series. Each semester, this series offers free workshops and discussions. Visit us online. To schedule a phone, virtual, or face-to-face teaching consultation, click here.

If you are graduate student who will be an instructor of record or a teaching assistant, consider registering for one of the 2018 Annual Teaching with Writing Workshops at the end of August.