General Education

Writing Intensive FAQs

FAQs and Answers

What does writing intensive mean?
Any section can be writing intensive when a significant amount of the students' learning and thinking in the course is accomplished through various types of writing.  (See below for suggestions on types of writing assignments.)  The section's structure emphasizes student writing and is often called student centered.

How is a course section designated writing intensive?
When the section is scheduled by the department, the section is submitted as writing intensive, and a ‘W’ is added to the end of the section number. The instructor and chairman agree that the section will follow the guidelines established by the College Curriculum Committee and Academic Senate for these sections.

How much writing is required in a writing intensive?
The actual amount of writing varies with the course and type of writing.  Student writing is a central activity and occurs in a variety of forms and settings, including informal, formal, low-stakes, high-stakes, drafts, group, personal, and so forth.  Measuring the number of pages of student writing required does not adequately describe the variety of teaching styles and writing activities in a writing intensive section.

Nonetheless, how many pages of student writing are required?
The Curriculum Committee Guidelines state: Students should be expected to write approximately 15-20 pages of proofread, typed work that is turned in to the instructor for grading. However, this rarely means one paper, and never a research paper due at the end of the semester that students write on their own.  The page total goal can be attempted in a number of ways: three six-page papers, three or four five-page papers, five three- or four-page papers, or a any combination of a variety of typed pieces prepared out of class.

If the page total goal is so flexible, what then determines whether a section is writing intensive?
The key is the instructor's guidance of the writing process, whereby students receive reactions, comments, and feedback on their writing.  Furthermore, writing as an activity is not limited to the proofread, typed format, but also includes in-class writing, journals, response pieces, letters, dialogue journals, and so forth—oftentimes more than the instructor can correct or evaluate in detail.  Writing becomes a major learning activity and a principal means by which students demonstrate their comprehension and express their own ideas about what they are learning.

So, this means an instructor of a writing intensive section must become a writing instructor?  Must the instructor also teach students how to write?
This depends on the instructor.  Some instructors are trained to do this; others are not and do not teach composition. More to the point, the instructor of a writing intensive section is not a writing instructor, but is rather a responsive reader who gives the students regular feedback on many (but not necessarily all) writing assignments.

Oh, so that means the instructor will be overwhelmed by student writing and must react to an avalanche of essays and research papers?
No, there is no avalanche. The principal advantage of teaching writing intensive sections is that the enrollment is kept small—twenty-two students, and in no case more than twenty-five—this makes “student centered” teaching truly possible, and allows the instructor a realistic opportunity to react thoughtfully to the written work assigned.

OK, so what kind of written work should be assigned? 
First of all, no more than the instructor can handle.  Among the possible written assignments there is the usual, formal writing prepared outside class, sometimes over a period of several weeks.  In addition there are a variety of informal, low-stakes writing exercises. Some of these are relatively innovative activities. Some of the informal or low-stakes writing can be in the form of drafts that help the students get started on the more formal, graded assignments. Ultimately the assigned writing depends on the type and level of the course.  A good question to ask is: what are the types of writing that will most enhance the major conceptual goals of the course? What are the types of writing that will teach students how professionals in this discipline express ideas?

What is included in these informal writing assignments?
Informal writing-to-learn activities take place throughout the semester.  These may include logs, journals, freewrites, reflections  often written quickly at the beginning or end of class; they are ungraded and can be a quick way for the instructor to see what students are beginning to understand, where confusion lies, what needs to be addressed in upcoming classes.  Or they can remain private, as a way for students to 'think on paper' and to record their thoughts about classroom lectures and conversations or about assigned readings.  The audience for this writing is, in most instances, the student writer.  But the writing can also be used as a starting point for discussions or for 'open notebook' exams.

Does this mean that not all student writing needs to be corrected?
There are several types of writing that the instructor need not correct or even evaluate. These are the low stakes, often informal writing tasks, which is sufficient just to acknowledge.

What is special about the way writing intensive sections treat traditional formal writing assignments?
They assign a series of short writing assignments in lieu of one long assignment, so that writing is integrated into the course throughout the semester, or the assignments are structured in such a way that some of the informal writing assignments build to or serve as preliminary drafts of the formal, graded pieces. This may include, for example,  letters, notes, one to two-page responses to readings, revising in different genres, e-mail postings, written responses to other students, double-entry and/or dialogue journals. This writing can be graded or ungraded; students can complete several pieces and then choose one to revise for a grade. In this writing, the student assumes an audience other than herself; although, the writing can sometimes be informal or conversational in tone.

What about the research paper that I usually assign in my section?
This proofread, typed work can be incorporated into a writing intensive course if it is structured in such a way as to include opportunities for revision. Research assignments include essays, articles, reports, proposals, memos, multimedia presentations, and Web publications. These papers will usually be graded or collected in a portfolio from which students choose papers to be revised and graded. The tone tends to be informative or persuasive and is written not only for the professor, but also for readers the student does not necessarily know.

Can I meet the 15-20 page goal by using any of these types of assignments?
Yes, indeed.  The only requirement is typed and proofread writing, which is graded, and the 15-20 pages can include some of the formal types of writing noted above, and may or may not include a traditional research paper, as the instructor wishes. Truly, by mixing the various types of assignments, it is quite easy to meet the page quantity goal (which is not among the chief goals of the course).

Where can I get ideas and examples of how to do these new kinds of writing exercises and how to revise my usual assignments?
Throughout the coming semesters, the College will offer a series of workshops for faculty teaching writing intensive courses. At the workshop, typically, faculty who have created writing intensive sections explain their techniques, discuss practical issues of grading and the quality of writing, and all present share their concerns and ideas about the role of writing in the teaching and learning process. The Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) program provides resources, sometimes including the assistance of Writing Fellows, who can work with instructors to develop appropriate techniques. The College has also developed a number of Writing Specialists in different disciplines who would be willing to sit down and work with you on a one-on-one basis.

How much do I need to change my teaching to do a writing intensive course section?
 Writing intensive does not necessarily reduce the scope of a course, but it frequently increases the active participation of the student in mastering the usual material, with the result that the quality of student performance often will increase.  As a student increases active learning, the instructor's role as teacher changes into something more like a facilitator of learning (rather than just an knowledge delivery system).

It sounds like teaching a writing intensive section can improve the way I teach.  How does this happen?
Once a class becomes student centered, the role of the instructor changes, the students become actively engaged in the learning process, and ultimately they take on major responsibility for their own progress in mastering course material.

What's the next step?
See your chairman about designating one of your courses or sections.

Last modified: Oct 13, 2011

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