Why Teach with Writing Assignments?

When a group of faculty are asked why they would use writing in their courses, without hesitation they offer reasons. Here are a few common ones:
  • To make sure students have completed reading and have some understanding of it;
  • To give students practice in skills such as summary, comparison, description, or narrative;
  • To determine whether students understand concepts;
  • To promote class "discussion" in an online environment;
  • To teach students how to communicate observations, data collection, analysis, and interpretation;
  • To offer students a toehold in a scholarly conversation; and
  • To learn from students as they pursue sophisticated research related to the course or major.

These examples speak to assignments of varying length and complexity. Writing can be low stakes, informal, and ungraded or as high stakes as a senior thesis or even a doctoral dissertation. Writing is a flexible means of demonstrating learning as well as a method of exploring one's thinking to stimulate learning, which is why the literature on writing instruction emphasizes both learning to write and writing to learn. Peter Elbow, in the introduction to his Writing without Teachers (1973) makes the bold claim that there is no necessary connection between teaching and learning—that writers can write themselves into better learning through practice mediated by feedback from readers. Fortunately, Elbow concedes that teachers do have a place in helping students learn to write, and assignments that vary according to discipline, purpose, and audience are critical for providing abundant writing opportunities, particularly in college, where students are expected to write in many curricular situations.

A little history of writing across the curriculum or WAC: WAC had its roots as a pedagogical movement in the mid-1070s in small liberal arts colleges in the U.S. In a chapter on Beaver College (now Arcadia University), Elaine Maimon and colleagues (Fulwiler and Young 1990) recount the 1975 experiment conducted by Dean Harriet Sheridan at Carleton College in which the ubiquitous required freshman composition course was replaced by introductory courses in subjects ranging from biology to philosophy. Sheridan reasoned that students were already writing in dozens of courses out of the English department; why not help faculty offer writing instruction as well as assignments? What seems obvious now was a bold experiment at the time, and Sheridan's insight that faculty themselves need instruction in assignment design continues to be a theme of WAC workshops all over the higher education world.