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What is Writing in the Major (WM)?

A page within Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning (CATL)

Writing in the Major is a programmatic and developmental approach to advancing writing and learning. Since writing, like other complex skills, develops over a long period of time, it is important to create a program that extends across the entire undergraduate experience. Department-based programs give special attention to students' capacities in formal writing and writing-to-learn. By acting collectively — with shared goals, expectations, criteria, and standards — instructors can have a potent, cumulative effect on students' writing and learning.

Students who complete the requirements for a major with an approved Writing-in-the-Major program also satisfy the university Writing Emphasis requirement. Departments work through a collaborative, developmental process, consulting with the CATL Writing Programs Coordinator, before submitting an official proposal form to the General Education Committee.

A Writing-in-the-Major Program has six essential features:

Essential Features

1. Clearly defined goals, outcomes and standards for student writing.

Coherent goals, outcomes, and standards – defined by the department – are extremely important. They provide students with a model of the competence they are expected to develop. Imagine trying to learn a complex skill without a sense of what accomplished performance looks like – learning to play the violin, say, without ever having heard a skilled performer. Or imagine trying to develop a complex skill when the performance standards change continually. Both of these conditions are what students typically experience as instructors use widely different standards. (See  Why Learning to Write Well in College is Difficult.) The lack of consistent performance standards makes it very difficult to develop a strong sense of good writing and promotes the belief that good writing is simply a matter of the individual instructor's personal preferences.

Recommended Practices 

  • Publish goals, criteria, and standards for student writing in "handbooks" and/or on a web site.
  • Make available examples of student writing. Preferably, these should be annotated to highlight key features of written work.
  • Expose students to examples of good – and poor – published work, again annotating or pointing out what effective and what is not. In classes, call attention to how writing of students or professionals meets departmental criteria and standards.
2. A shared evaluation framework.

Faculty use a shared evaluation system for assessing the quality of students' writing based on department-wide criteria. This does not mean that every instructor must use this framework for every piece of student writing. It does mean that faculty agree to use some shared criteria to evaluate student work. A consistent evaluation system helps students internalize the criteria for effective performance. If students experience quite different evaluative criteria as they go from one class to the next, they quite rightly develop the idea that those criteria are a matter of the instructors' taste. Rather than developing a strong sense of good writing, students focus on figuring out what the instructor wants-which tends to be different from one class to the next. This lack of consistency on the part of faculty can be a major reason for students' failure to show cumulative progress in their development as writers as well as a reason for their failure to be reflective and skilled at self-assessment.

Recommended Practices

  • Instructors agree to use a shared set of criteria and standards to evaluate student writing.
  • Instructors develop some common language and nomenclature for evaluating student writing.
  • Instructors use common evaluation rubrics which incorporate the departmental criteria and standards, and modify the rubrics to suit different writing assignments.  
3. Effective writing processes throughout the major.

Formal writing skill develops best when students engage in a recursive process of writing drafts, revising, and editing. Students need feedback and guidance throughout the process in the form of clear expectations, models of acceptable work, help in shaping their subject and purpose, feedback on approaches, and so on. A writing-in-the-major program structures effective writing processes which includes well-informed feedback and guidance.

The most labor intensive part of teaching writing is providing effective feedback and guidance. However, it is unfeasible and probably ineffective to respond in detail to all student writing. This project departs from the idea that the only way students can learn to write well is by having each instructor labor over students' every written word. The challenge is to determine when and how to give feedback and guidance, selecting optimum "teaching moments." For example, since writing-to-learn activities focus on the development of ideas, you wouldn't choose to give feedback on the mechanical aspects writing. Instead, you would give feedback about their understanding-for that, after all, was the point of the assignment. Or, in the case of formal writing assignments, you would give feedback at pivotal points in the development of the assignment when students can still make revisions, rather than after the assignment is completed.

Recommended Practices

  • Students analyze and evaluate their own and their fellow students' written work according to departmental criteria and standards.
  • Instructors provide clear criteria and standards for writing assignments linked to departmental criteria and standards.
  • Instructors give feedback strategically.
  • Students learn to revise their work in response to feedback and guidance. 
4. Integration of writing-to-learn throughout the major.

Faculty coordinate the use of writing-to-learn strategies throughout the major (i.e., strategies intended to help students learn and understand the subject matter of the discipline). The writing-to-learn component of the project is an opportunity for faculty to cultivate students' deep understanding of important disciplinary knowledge. Recognizing that students rarely achieve the depth of understanding we want, Writing in the Major invites instructors to approach the problem of student understanding programmatically, by identifying the "big ideas" all students should understand and by using writing as one of the tools to help students achieve that understanding.

Recommended Practices

  • Instructors identify disciplinary knowledge that all students are expected to understand well.
  • Instructors use writing-to-learn activities to monitor the development of students' understanding in the program.
  • Instructors use writing-to-learn to address persistent student learning problems in the major. 
5. Development of mindful writers.

Faculty help students develop their abilities to evaluate their own learning and writing. This is an explicit effort to promote students' effective self-assessment and increasing independence as learners and writers. A good writing-in-the-major program produces students who not only write well, but who are mindful of how to improve their own skills. An important goal of the project is to cultivate students' capacities for self-assessment and independent work. As students progress through the major, they should internalize the criteria and standards for writing in the program and become better able to judge the qualities of their own work.

Recommended Practices 

  • Students analyze and evaluate their own work according to departmental criteria and standards.
  • The department creates "self assessment standards" that clarify progressively more sophisticated self assessment skills. 
6. A strategy to improve the writing-in-the-major program.

Faculty collectively assess student learning and writing and use the results to make decisions about how to improve teaching and student progress in the program. Assessment is essential for the long-term development and improvement of the program and its goals. By using shared criteria to evaluate student writing, teams will be able to develop a way to collectively analyze student progress and make changes in the program to better meet its goals. There is an opportunity in this project to use assessment of student writing as part of the department's assessment of student learning outcomes. We encourage faculty teams to think about how to accomplish both types of assessment through a single process.

Recommended Practices 

  • The department evaluates writing developmentally at several points in the students' program (e.g., entering, sophomore year, junior, exit)
  • Students learn about their progress from the assessment process.