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Doing Writing Differently:
Using Writing in New Ways to Engage Students and Boost Learning

John Webster
Director of Writing for the College of Arts and Sciences
University of Washington

Successfully integrating writing into your courses can create more active and engaged students; this in turn can create stronger and more interesting student work.  For many classes, it’s a win-win situation: if you ask for the right kinds of writing, students can be more interesting to YOU even as they find your course more interesting to THEM.


Support Materials for Designing

Writing-integrated Courses 

What is WI Course Design?

Basic Observations Central to WI Course Design

Four Basic WI Course Structures

Low Stakes Writing

Low Stakes Writing-to-Learn Activities—some examples

Five Steps towards Better Writing on High Stakes Assignments

Responding to Student Writing I: Creating Effective Assignment Criteria

Responding to Student Writing II:  What can one do with papers,
and how can one do it efficiently and effectively? 

Commenting on Student Writing—a list of different commenting modes

Pragmatics:  Scalability in Going Writing-Integrated

© John Webster, 2018

What is Writing-Integrated Course Design?

Traditionally, the teaching of writing at the University of Washington has been the province of the English department.  Faculty in other areas have also assigned writing, of course, but once through “freshman English,” many students have graduated without being regularly challenged to develop strong writing skills.  This is now changing.  We in the College of Arts and Sciences have come to understand that by itself traditional writing instruction can offer only an introduction to successful college-level writing.  If students are to graduate as strong writers in their fields they will also have to write regularly, in a variety of classes, throughout their entire undergraduate careers. 

Writing-integrated instruction

Central to the approaches we have developed to reach the goal of better student writing all across the College is the concept of writing-integrated instruction—a strategy for building writing assignments into courses throughout the curriculum in ways that significantly boost student learning even as they also improve student writing. 

What is writing-integrated instruction, and how does it differ from traditional instruction? 

  • Writing-integrated instruction designs writing assignments that are directly related to central course concepts. 
  • Writing-integrated instruction asks students to write frequently in un-graded as well as graded formats. 
  • Writing-integrated instruction scaffolds its writing tasks in ways that build the skills students will need to succeed at writing graded course work.    

Basic Observations Central to WI-Courses

Designing writing-integrated courses begins with four observations: 

1.  While writing-integrated instruction will certainly help students develop strong writing skills, faculty should know that students who write frequently throughout a course also engage more consistently with material, come to class better prepared, and are better able to participate in class discussion.  They also tend to learn material more deeply, and retain what they learn longer.  So yes, integrating writing into a class can certainly improve student writing.  But it can also make teaching and learning more effective—and enjoyable—as well. 

2.  Integrating writing into a course doesn’t necessarily mean more work for faculty.  Though everything a student writes ought to be acknowledged in some way, that doesn’t always mean a traditional “read-comment-and-grade” response.  It can also mean oral response to a class following a quick read-through of selected samples, or grading papers just plus, check, minus, or simply validating the work students have done through in-class exercises.  By experimenting with a range of alternative response strategies faculty can actually assign substantially more student writing without spending significantly more time grading.

3.  Faculty need to ensure that their commenting and grading methods are both effective and efficient.  Not only do many faculty spend more time reading essays than they need to, some traditional practices can actually be counterproductive to student learning.  Combining well-designed assignments with the range of response and commenting options that recent work in the field of composition studies has developed can enable most faculty to offer students substantially better feedback while still keeping workload under control. 

4.  Faculty often think that helping students develop writing skills in their discipline will take time away from covering course material—and when writing is not integrated into the central design of the course, it can indeed do exactly that.  But it doesn’t have to.  In fact, a well-integrated set of writing assignments will help (as I say above) make student learning of critical course concepts both deeper and better retained.  

Four Common Writing-integrated Assignment structures

  • Term Project Model:  Here the course features a single major writing project focused on questions or concepts central to the course itself.  It builds student ability to complete the assignment successfully by integrating into the course structure a series of low stakes papers sequenced so as to prepare students for the project’s demands.  Students may also be asked to rewrite based on peer and/or instructor feedback.   A Portfolio can be used to manage the low-stakes papers. 
  • Sequenced Shorter Paper Model:  Here the course sets up a sequence of 2 to 4 shorter (3-4 pp) high stakes papers, each focused on some course feature—like a set of essential questions basic to the course, or a skill sequence, or some sort of progressive conceptual complication.  Low stakes writing can be deployed for engagement and skill building for each of the high stakes assignments.  A Portfolio can be used to manage the low-stakes papers. 
  • Select, Develop and Re-write Model.  Here a sequence of short, low-stakes papers leads to the selection of one such paper for development into a longer paper.  Often combined with peer review and rewriting exercises.  A Portfolio can be used to manage the low-stakes papers. 
  • Exam-based Model.  Here the high stakes work is solely on exams—either in-class or take-home—and low stakes papers prepare students for exam writing.  At course end the low stakes papers can (again) be submitted in a Portfolio accompanied by a self-reflective and self-assessing essay.  

    Low Stakes Writing

    “Low stakes writing” is any writing students do in or out of class which is either not graded at all, or graded only minimally (e.g., plus, check, minus, or done, not done).    

    What can low stakes writing do for you and for your students?

    • Improve student learning.
    • Improve discussion.
    • Promote higher levels of student engagement with readings and lectures.
    • Produce significantly stronger high stakes writing on midterms, finals, or larger projects.

    How does low stakes writing do these things? 

    Well-designed low stakes writing:

    • Improves learning by giving students multiple occasions to articulate understandings of key course concepts.  Such articulations are likely to be the basic building blocks of deep learning in any course, but because college-level work very often demands ways of thinking that students do not yet control, students can benefit greatly from regular occasions to construct, revise and refine their nascent understandings of course material.  Low stakes writing can provide those occasions, along with some of the base-line rigor that makes such occasions effective. 
    • Improves discussion by engaging students in active preparation for class sessions.   When students must write about their readings, they will have strong incentives to keep up with assignments, and when they have written about what they have read, they will also come to class better prepared to contribute to classroom conversations. 
      • Promotes higher levels of engagement with course materials by making reading a more active, even personal, process.  Much of what we ask students to learn can seem abstract and distant from their life experience, and this in turn makes intellectual engagement with new material particularly challenging.  Low stakes writing can foster engagement by helping students connect class content to their own personal experience (“Velcro” writing). 
      • Produces better high stakes (graded) writing both by offering low risk trial runs for high stakes assignments, and by enabling a quarter-long “scaffolding” to help students develop complex writing and critical thinking skills.  Students often find themselves lost among the sub-skills that the work we ask them to do requires.  Many cannot write strong research papers, for example, because they cannot yet locate, sort, and process the professionally written books and articles in your field.  Low stakes writing can give them practice with such sub-skills, enabling them to write far more effectively than they otherwise might. 

      Types of Low Stakes Writing

      Engagement writing (Short assignments written either before a class or at the beginning of a class hour:  “What grammar means to me”—a five minute in-class essay written before a class on the role of grammar in English language study; or two minutes taken to describe “Three things I already know (or three questions I have) about Subject X”).  Engagement writing:

      • improves engagement with readings by activating prior knowledge.
      • can bridge the academic-personal experience gap by encouraging personal stakes.

      Exploration writing  (Assignments that offer students ways to find their own ways of articulating class concepts and readings:  “Identify and explain three ways in which you see your two most recent readings differing most”—a 1-2 page paper written about currently assigned reading material; or, “For tomorrow’s reading pick 3 terms that seem to you to be essential to its understanding.  Write a paragraph for each with first defines the term, and then describes why you think it is particularly important”—a 1-2 page paper about currently assigned reading material).  Exploration writing: 

      • deepens students’ initial understanding of material.
      • sets the stage for strong group work and class discussion.

      Trial-run writing  (Assignments that offer students experience with one or more of the subskills that will be necessary for a larger project:  “Prepare a list of three sources you have consulted, with a paragraph for each that summarizes its content and explains how you might be able to use it in your project”—a two-page out-of-class exercise assigned early in the development of a student term-project.).  Trial-run writing:

      • gives students practice in transferring general writing skills to disciplinary contexts.
      • allows for experience in new forms without fear of failure.
      • assures instructors that students are not plagiarizing.

      Metacognitive Writing (Assignments that encourage students to assess their own progress as learners in the course:  “My nomination for the key idea of the day” or “Biggest Confusion I
      still have after today’s class”—a paragraph written as an end-of-class assessment of how well students have understood the lecturer’s presentation).  Metacognitive Writing:

      • provides feedback to instructor on what students are (and are not) learning.
      • builds self assessment expectations and skills.
      • promotes stronger learning by creating conscious awareness of strengths and weaknesses.
      • enables instructors to engage in a scholarship of the classroom.

    High Stakes Writing  

    High stakes writing is graded writing, and for that reason can be thought of as “more traditional” than is low-stakes writing. But traditional kinds of High Stakes Writing have many limitations.

    Five Steps towards More Interesting Writing on

    High Stakes Assignments

    If you haven’t always liked what students have written for you in the past, or if you’ve struggled through a set of papers, slipping into a doze, or if you find yourself pulling out your hair, having no idea what you might write as a comment, then consider the following as steps towards more interesting papers, and more effective and efficient grading.

    1. Begin by thinking of how your assignment can be integrated so as to be central—notan add-on—to your course. A course-integrated assignment might ask students to articulate understandings and evaluations of key course questions, or to extend ways of thinking learned within the confines of the course to related material beyond the course, or to engage in one or another course curriculum-related inquiry. Students will write best if, on one hand, they can see clearly how the assignment helps them learn your course material, and if, on the other, the work they do on a day-by-day basis in class helps them develop the conceptual and technical skills the assignment will ask.

    As an added bonus, because integrating assignments into your course makes them dependent on the idiosyncrasies of the course itself, a well integrated writing assignment can also defeat plagiarism both by creating a topic to which generic on-line or otherwise obtained papers cannot possibly be relevant, and (even more important) by enabling students to complete the assignment without recourse to outside help in the first place.

    2. As you develop your idea of what you would like students to write, perform a “task analysis” in which you break down the project in terms of its component sub-skills. Then, “scaffold” students into their high-stakes paper through a short series of low stakes assignments or in-class exercises to introduce them to these necessary sub-skills. Students will write better if they can have trial runs, preliminary drafts, and some form of feedback along the way.

    Sub-skills to a given assignment might include: doing literature searches; writing accurate summaries of resource material; learning to identify in key readings main arguments or supporting evidence; formulating a significant research question; locating and responding to oppositional voices.

    Some of these skills may seem generic (if you understand how to summarize a first-year composition reading it might seem that you could also summarize an article central to political science or art history), but even many seemingly generic skills are in fact discipline-specific in either whole or part. Thus what philosophers think worthy of study and argument is quite different from what chemists or political scientists think worthy of study and argument. Similarly, what counts as evidence in a paper about Shakespeare will be radically different from what counts as evidence in a physics experiment. Most students need help in learning how subskills with which they have experience elsewhere can transfer to your discipline. Think, too, about where in the course this help is going to come.

    3. Give students a clear audience and purpose. Who should students imagine as the reader of their project, and what will that reader do with the paper you ask students to write? Such an audience can be imagined, even playful, but it will work best if it is also specific: “Write as if to a panel of experts in the field who will need to be convinced of the viability of the research project you propose” (for a grant/project proposal project); or, “Imagine you are writing to this class, all of us informed by the readings of the past quarter, though needing your help in remembering and placing the texts and passages to which you refer”; or, “You have been hired as a consultant to J&B Plumbing, to advise them on problems associated with partial upgrades of steel pipe-plumbed houses to copper pipes...” (for a paper explaining the chemistry of electrolysis).

    4. Demystify the process! Students often find that the demands made of them in different courses are in fact (yes!) very different, and they can find these differing demands highly confusing. So be sure to demystify your assignment by writing and sharing with students criteria for a strong performance. Such criteria help students understand exactly what sort of thing it is they are writing (report, for example, or summary, argument, or literaturereview), and both why and how you think this assignment will help them deepen their understanding of course material. (See pp. 13ff for more on Criteria and how to use them.)

    5. If practicable, use models. Show students an example of a successful paper, and, even if you have to write it yourself, show them an example of a good but less successful paper as well, along with an explanation for each as to what works, and what does not. But (especially with less successful papers) be careful to frame your work with them in a constructive way. As you might imagine, it rarely helps to focus too much on the negative; rather I find students learn most when the point of the exercise is to see what positive steps students can take to strengthen their papers, and when they can see contrastive examples so that they can get a concrete sense of what you mean, for example, by an “argument that works,” or an “effective explanation” of a data set.

Responding to High Stakes Writing I: Creating Effective Assignment Criteria

The single best way I know to make grading easier, more coherent, and faster, is to develop, share and use grading criteria. It may take a little time and experimentation to work out what exactly you want students to be showing in a given paper, but that time is repaid many-fold when it comes time to grade.  

Why develop explicit assignment criteria?

  • Criteria help demystify what is for many students a very mysterious process.
  • Because criteria allow students to understand an assignment’s goals, they very often also allow students to write in a much more focused and effective way.
  • Criteria also enable instructors to read and respond to papers more quickly, more consistently, and more effectively.
  • Criteria promote consistency of grading across sections taught by different instructors—whether TAs or faculty.

What makes for good criteria?

  • Clarity of connection of assignment goals to course goals.
  • Concision. Too many criteria, or lengthy explanations of even a few, may render criteria ineffective. (Rule of thumb? Limit yourself to 3-6 criteria, and make sure they all can be set out together in less than a page.)

How can criteria streamline grading?

  • Use your criteria to guide the design of your assignment in the first place. Students will write better, and the task of assessing is much simplified.
  • Share your criteria with your students before they write. Just as important, if you possibly can, give them model papers to show what successfully meeting of your criteria looks like. Students write much better when they know what you actually mean by a given criterion.
  • Limit your commenting. You will save time and be more effective by focusing comments on only those criteria most important to a particular task.


Responding to High Stakes Student Writing II: What can one say on papers, and how can one say it efficiently and effectively?

Preliminary Observations

1. Commenting keyed to grading criteria (see paragraphs above for an example) saves you time by keeping you focused, and it allows for much clearer communication with students. Three key principles for using criteria:

a. articulate your expectations clearly and fully, yet concisely.

b. communicate your expectations to your students, preferably along with models.

c. enact those expectations both in your assignment design and in your grading.

2. As much as many faculty don’t believe this, marking grammar errors actually doesn’t help most students. Indeed, focusing on sentence level error is often counterproductive. Why? Read on!

Marking error may keep you from attending to more important higher level skills, and to how, and how well, a paper deals with the relevant content/knowledge.

Corrections allow students to direct attention away from content and higher order writing skills. But which is actually more important to you: that students understand a key course concept or that they can correct uninflected verbs?

After many years of schooling, sentence-level error is actually pretty familiar ground to most students. To the extent a teacher’s simply correcting things made a difference, that difference, for most students, has already been made. You are just the most recent to do so.

Perhaps most important: as a general (and research supported) rule, the more challenging students find an assignment to be, the more surface-level error shows up in their drafts. This is normal. The human mind has only so much capacity. When students are straining their mental capacities simply to understand how to work with the concepts in your course, many will have little energy left over when the paper is due to take care for surface level error.  

All of that said, if reducing surface error is one of your teaching goals, a very little bit of marking, combined with a requirement for re-submission, is often more effective than extensive identifying of errors throughout a paper. (See Richard Haswell’s “Minimal Marking”.)

3. More comment is not always better. In fact, it can turn out to be much worse! Studies have shown that except under special conditions students do not—maybe even cannot—process more than a limited set of comments. (One way to expand students’ processing of comments is to build a rewrite step into your assignment; another—short of asking for revision—is to ask students to write a short response to your comments in which they explain and give examples of the changes they would now make were they to have time for a full revision.)

4. Pointing out in very specific ways where and how students have been successful is at least as effective in improving student writing as pointing out where they are having difficulty.

  • Many students find professorial response to their writing mysterious, and they are just as unclear about where they have succeeded as they are about where they have fallen short. Specific comments keyed to explicit criteria can help them identify strengths to build from as well as problems to solve.
  • For our part as teachers, we are often so focused on pointing out problems students have that we don’t always remember to identify their successes. And then when we do, we aren’t always clear about exactly how and where a paper succeeded. “Great work!” without indicating just what, exactly, that great work was, may not actually help much.

5. When students are engaged in multiple writing tasks, you don’t always have to comment on or grade everything they write. Indeed, you don’t even have to read it all. To be sure, it’s important to explain what you will be reading, and you should indeed have someway of validating all of your students’ work. But in the end, the point of the paper management strategies you employ is to improve students’ learning. As long as you have ways to explain to them, and to confirm to yourself, that the writing students do truly is helping them learn, and as long as you validate specific assignments in effective ways, you really don’t always have to read everything.

6. When you do read and comment on a set of papers, you have a whole array of response strategies available to you. The next sections outline commenting strategies instructors often adopt—with notes about their strengths and their weaknesses.

Criteria-based grading: Pragmatics

Criteria can be tailored for different courses, different disciplines or different assignments; a relatively flexible/generic version I use for a first-year content-based writing course defines what I want from my students as follows:

Five Criteria for Writing in this Class

Central Purpose : Are the reasons for your writing clear, appropriate, and fully responsive to the prompt?

Details : Are the words and ideas used within the assignment relevant and effective in developing and supporting the paper’s central purpose?

Organization : Can your reader easily follow and understand your paper from beginning to end? Are there writing elements, like transitions and topic sentences, which maintain a coherent flow?

Completeness : Do you do enough to carry your case? Is the document substantial enough to leave your reader believing that you know what you are talking about?

Presentation/Editing : Is your paper well-edited and spell-checked? Have you reviewed your verb tense/agreement, punctuation, and other grammatical elements? Have you followed all guidelines pertaining to formatting, citation standards, and other rules of appearance as they are described in the course syllabus?

Though I do not grade first drafts of work submitted, and though I give holistic number grades to revised drafts, for both I also give primary trait scores, whereby I assign a rating of 1 to 6 to each of the five “characteristics” my sheet defines. One is low, six is high; for each criterion those numbers correspond to the following descriptions:

1 Not enough sense of this category to be functional in college level work. (e.g., a paper without any specific details to explain or clarify the argument.)

2 A start in this category, with some successes, but needs substantial additional work (e.g., a paper that offers some specific details, but doesn't describe or explain them sufficiently to be effective).

3 Functional success with this category, but not yet showing full control (Some exploration of a few details, for example, but not with much fullness, or without consistency).

4 Functional success with this category, with some lapses and/or inconsistencies (e.g., full exploration of some details, but not with all, or without consistency or clear relevance to the paper as a whole).

5 Success with this category, but a success not fully integrated throughout the draft with only minor problems (e.g., a paper with a good sense of how to use details and to develop them far enough to make them useful to the argument).

6 Full success with this category (e.g., a paper with truly insightful, and fully developed details, all pertinent and effectively informative).

I tell students that these numbers do not correspond exactly to grades, though I also tell them that they certainly do have a definite relation to them.

I also usually give a very brief indication of why I gave this number.


How using criteria can help teachers

I find this system helps me keep my comments specific, practical, and short.

First, it allows me to avoid writing some things over and over, while it nevertheless keeps the central writing goals of the course constantly before the class.

Second, the fact that I’ve already given a numeric evaluation of each of the criteria frees me to concentrate my written commentary on the paper’s two or three most pressing problems. Having given at least a minimal opinion about each of the criteria, I need not fear that I have neglected the whole.

Third, the very brevity of my numbers and comments will later give me a good way to begin a student conference, since I can ask students to respond to my estimation. If “Completeness” got a “1,” for example, I can ask them if they can describe why; if it got a “4,” I can ask the same question. Since the mere number doesn’t represent a complete description of how well their papers fulfilled each of the criteria, in responding to my question students can’t be feeling as if they are merely giving my comments back to me. We can have a conversation instead.


Scalability in Going Writing-Integrated

Figuring out how to design and implement fully writing-integrated classes takes time. The concepts involved are not that complex, nor are the various tools and strategies it requires. But as in anything to do with teaching, one change often leads to another, and it may take a course or two before you have figured out what works for you and how best to proceed. Once you have introduced a series of short writing assignments into your course, for example, you may then need time to figure out how to manage the resulting surge of student papers you will receive before you implement a fully integrated course project.

That does not mean that you won’t get good results from the very beginning. Assigning as few as two or three ungraded papers can make an enormous difference in classrooms anywhere across the curriculum, and most faculty can add such assignments even within the frame of courses they already teach. Similarly, developing clear criteria for assignments, and finding ways to make those criteria public, can make a huge difference in the quality of the work your students do.

But while all of us generally know our material backwards and forwards, we still may need two or three tries before we can articulate exactly what we want from students in ways that they themselves will understand.

Fortunately, the Writing-Integrated Course Design process is scalable. You can begin by implementing one set of elements, and then extend that set in subsequent courses. One such implementation sequence might look like this:

  1. Introduction of a few low stakes writing assignments and of new paper management techniques.
  2. Development of assignment criteria and grading rubrics, along with experiments with peer review.
  3. Re-design of the course with a high stakes writing assignment based on concepts central to the learning goals of the course and supported by both a clear set of criteria and an effective sequence of 2-3 low stakes papers that help students develop the sub-skills needed to succeed with the high stakes writing.


That is one path. Some faculty have started by developing explicit criteria for assignments they already use, and then moving on to introduce appropriate low stakes papers. As in much else, it’s less the route you take that counts than the place you arrive.


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