Frequently Asked Questions

What are the specific requirements of Writing-Intensive (WI) courses?

What are the specific requirements of Writing-Intensive (WI) courses?

According to current Council on Liberal Education guidelines, all WI courses need to

  • Integrate writing into course content. This means that writing assignments work toward specific course objectives, and that writing activities take place throughout the semester.
  • Provide explicit instruction in writing. (See list of teaching ideas below.)
  • Require a cumulative minimum of minimum 2500 words of formal writing apart from any informal writing activities and assignments. This minimum word count can be comprised of several assignments.
  • Include at least one formal assignment that requires students to revise and resubmit drafts after receiving feedback from the course instructor.
  • Tie final grades substantially to writing assignments. At least 30% (33%) of students’ final course grade must be tied to the written work they did for the courseA student cannot pass the course and fail the writing component.

What is the rationale behind the WI requirement?

What is the rationale behind the WI requirement?

The University of Minnesota’s WI requirement is based on three assertions, namely: (1) writing is a tool for learning and communication (2) only by reading and writing within a field can students advance their understanding of that field, and (3) writing is at the center of the academic experience and is the responsibility of the entire academic community.

These assertions are based on several complementary findings:

  • Because writing is a continuously developed ability, rather than set of skills that can be mastered, successful writers write a great deal; they practice on a continuing basis. For this reason, WI course instructors should involve students in numerous writing activities throughout the semester, rather than simply requiring them to write one lengthy paper.
  • Successful academic writers are able to write for a variety of audiences and to produce a range of different kinds of writing; they understand that effective writing depends on context—who is writing what to whom, in what settings, and for what purposes. So, the nature of the writing done in "writing-intensive" courses should vary considerably. Upper-division WI courses should provide students with opportunities to learn and practice writing within the parameters of the discourse, opportunities to write (informally and formally) in ways that academics or professionals in the field write.
  • Experienced writers know that the ability to effectively revise their own writing is informed by feedback given to their writing. Thoughtful response reveals to them the extent to which they are successfully articulating, developing, and structuring their ideas—achieving, in other words, their communicative purposes. Commenting on students’ writing is a key tool of writing instruction.

How might I go about developing a WI course or converting a non-WI course into a WI course?

How might I go about developing a WI course or converting a non-WI course into a WI course?

  • Consider objectives. Effective course development begins with a clear articulation of objectives—statements about what students should walk away from the semester knowing, being able to do, and/or feeling. Among the many factors influencing a course’s objectives are the course’s place in the discipline’s curriculum and the level of students who will enroll.
  • Match assignments to objectives. Once course-specific objectives have been named, an instructor can consider writing assignments that can be used to advance these objectives and help students to become familiar with the kinds of writing done in your field. If, for example, an anthropology instructor wants students to learn how to analyze cultural differences using specific protocols, that instructor might want to sequence a series of observation-based writing assignments. The engineering instructor who wants students to engage in a thoughtful and sequential design process, may want to ask students to keep design notebooks and work in teams to develop design proposals. A history professor who wants students to learn to analyze primary documents may ask students to research and present a history of one specific date.
  • Sequence assignments. The 10-15 page minimum can be broken up any number of ways and spread throughout the semester. Whatever design seems most appropriate, instructors should consider the value of responding to student writing and asking for revisions early on in the semester.

    Optimally, writing assignments will build logically from one another. A summary style taught at the beginning of the semester builds into a critical analysis. A lab report builds into a data analysis paper and finally a scientific argument and finally a poster presentation.

    Finally, assignments should convey grading criteria. These criteria can be created when one revisits objectives on which the assignment is based, considers the characteristics contained in successful responses and determines the relative weight of each of these characteristics. For more information, see: http://writing.umn.edu/tww/responding/index.html
  • Consult. Colleagues within the department who have developed writing assignments and WI courses can provide invaluable insights and strategies. The University’s Center for Writing also offers instructional consultations to any instructor assigning writing. To make an appointment contact Pamela Flash, flash@umn.edu / 626-7639.

What is meant by “writing instruction”?

What is meant by “writing instruction”?

Explicit instruction in discipline-specific writing is a required component of an upper division writing-intensive (WI) course. The writing also needs to be integral to the course. Thus, assigning an end of term 10-15 page paper and copy-editing it for student revision would NOT meet the WI requirement. At the same time, writing instruction need not take over the course! Consider brief discussions in which you elicit ideas and model options (versus lecture) on relevant writing topics. You may also find it helpful to peruse this document, Strategies for Incorporating and Documenting Explicit Writing Instruction in WI Proposals.

  • Discuss strategies for (and engage students in) locating, honing in on, and developing compelling arguments and counterarguments.
  • Take time to describe the design, rationale, and grading criteria you’re using for current writing assignments. If students are unable to summarize the gist of an assignment and recognize the relation of the grading criteria to course objectives and content, chances are they won’t do as well as you want them to do on the assignment.
  • Discuss and model effective commenting practices with students and then structure opportunities in which they can comment on peers’ drafts or sections of drafts.
  • Assign analysis of discipline specific-text in order to assist students in noticing organization, use of precedents, tone, level of analysis, address of target audience, etc.
  • Elicit students’ views on the strengths and weaknesses found in writing done by past student papers (used with permission and without names).
  • Go over common and problematic patterns you’re finding in the drafts students are turning in (wordiness, redundancy, lack of focus, lack of development…).
  • Model expected formats and sequences, for example the structure of a scientific article; or tactics for effectively reducing content into an abstract or summary, or for writing fluid process descriptions, or for transforming a paper into a PowerPoint or poster presentation.
  • Discuss ways to avoid inadvertent plagiarism, effectively paraphrasing, summarizing, and citing sources, determining what information needs to be cited and what information is considered common knowledge.
  • Engage students in discussions of usage norms expected by the discipline (and the rationales for these norms). Examples include use of active and passive tenses, use of present and past tenses, citation and bibliographic formats, use of graphs and other visuals, and so forth.

What is meant by “informal and formal writing assignments”?

What is meant by “informal and formal writing assignments”?

WI courses integrate writing with course content and provide a variety of formal and informal occasions for students to write. Formal writing, require students to demonstrate their understanding of formats characteristic of a particular field, such as a research report, a critical essay, or a laboratory report. Informal assignments, which might include logs, journals, or short in-class responses to readings and lectures, help students to learn course material or to trigger ideas that can later be developed in formal drafts. Through both formal and informal writing, students further their understanding of disciplinary goals, assumptions, and key concepts operating in your discipline.

For more ideas see http://writing.umn.edu/tww/assignments/index.html

How much of this pertains to directed studies courses that are WI?

All of it. To meet the Council of Liberal Education requirements for WI, instructors need to indicate on the directed research contract how writing serves the goals of the project; show that the amount of formal writing is at least 10-15 pages apart from informal writing; specify the types of writing instruction that you will provide; include at least one assignment requiring revision. In addition, although directed research/studies projects are designated S/N, course grades must be significantly tied explicitly to the course’s writing component. A student cannot pass the research component of the course and fail the writing, yet still obtain a grade of S. In WI courses, the writing component needs to constitute roughly 30% (33%), or one third of the final grade.

Instructors need to engage students in writing instruction regularly, from the start of the semester onward. This can be trickier in one-to-one environments than in larger group formats, but is not impossible. Start the semester out with a contract in which regular meetings are scheduled and short assignments or drafts of a longer assignment are paced. Sequenced meetings in which you and the student start off discussing research and readings, then move to analyzing published and unpublished models of relevant texts, and then lead to discussions of student writing allow you to avoid the unhappy situation in which students are out on their own and instructors feel that the only thing they can offer is copyediting and grading services. If you decide that you want students to write a longer term paper, start out by working with topics, and ask for a developed proposal before discussing research and models. Finally, asking students to keep a process or research journal, blog, and/or reading log throughout the semester can lend focus to these meetings.

What about grammar?

What about grammar?

You may not be a grammarian but you know a garbled passage when you see it and you know what is expected of successful writing in your discipline.

Provide feedback from a reader’s perspective! In other words, respond to unclear passages as a reader rather than a grammarian by jotting down what the passage forces you to wonder (e.g.: "Do you mean…".or "As I read this, you are saying ___. Do you mean something else? ) Noting that a passage is "unclear" doesn't give students enough information. Specifying your confusion as a reader may give students enough information (and perspective) to correct the error.

If your confusion is caused by a sentence-level grammatical problem, at minimum you can place a checkmark or other symbol in the margin by unclear passages, directing students to refer to handbooks or online references. It isn't as important for students to know the grammatical name of the construction they are having difficulty with—if the naming were important, you would probably still remember what they were called!

Don’t copy edit. By serving as students' copy editor, you're exhausting yourself and, in effect, teaching them very little. Research has shown that students will have difficulty recognizing enough about the mistake that you've corrected to avoid repeating it.

For more on grammatical and usage-related issues see:

Where can my students go for help?

Where can my students go for help?

You are your students’ most important resource and will want to encourage them to bring drafts, questions, and concerns to your office hours. Students can also find writing help when they refer to a writing handbook or online resource, and/or by working with a writing consultant at the Center for Writing’s Student Writing Support program.