The Writing Center

An Ideal WAC Experience for You and Your Students

If you are thinking of designing a course to be credited
for Writing Across the Curriculum, the ideas in this sheet aim to make
the whole experience a fruitful one for you and your students.  With some help from composition theorists,
you can get better writing with less grading on your part. 
To have a course approved as a WAC course, please see the following web page:

Develop Cognitive Complexity

According to James Britton, the highest level of cognitive complexity is
found in the college argumentative essay.  The
lowest levels, by comparison, are found in note taking or in the narrative
structure.  Therefore,
courses that require students to write 2,000 words but in forms that
do not require them to develop cognitive complexity through synthesis,
argument, analysis, and even insight would not be ideal WAC courses.  An
example of such a course would be one that requires only narrative
writing, such as a journal or synopses of articles.  Journal writing is an essential part of the development of
one’s ideas—some of the greatest scholars, artists, and
writers have kept them—however, the journals are never separate
from serious academic research, scientific data, or imaginative content.  Synopses
require discipline, but not the cognitive complexity of argument structures. 

Developing Cognitive Complexity with Planning

The best way to foster cognitive complexity is to introduce planning into
your course.  Some planning
exercises that can be modified to your goals are found in this packet
and on the WAC web site (  The rationale behind planning is this:  in classical rhetoric (which has been
lost for over 400 years) planning, or the invention of argument as
it was called, was the driving force of this great art form.  When
we lost it in 1605, rhetoric was made synonymous with eloquence, which
is why most people today think of writing as style.  In the 19th century, the romantic
notion that writers are inspired led to a lack of practical instruction
in the art of writing too:  many
instructors think it is a “gift” that cannot be taught.  Without
planning, students often do what they did in high school—summarize—which
is not useful for college-level work.  When you offer sequenced assignments
that ask them to progressively examine ideas from your course materials,
they will begin to exhibit the kinds of thinking that you wish. 

Developing Organizing Skills with Model Papers

Many students have never seen an argumentative essay, but they have followed
many arguments.  If you
put on reserve a set of model papers or even model essays from a relevant
magazine, you would help them to understand your standards regarding
writing.  Ideally, this set on reserve would not
be from the same course, but it would contain a variety of grades
and writing styles.  Professional
writing from your area would also be an excellent resource. 

Giving Expert Feedback That Students Take Seriously

Composition expert Nancy Sommers found that students consider grammatical
comments as important as those related to the development of a thesis.  They are likely to think that improving
the mechanics of a paper is all you want.  In
order to secure richer thinking and writing, many professors use the
analytic grading sheet that is included in this packet and on the
web site.  It can be modified easily to fit your
goals.  A separate grading
sheet tells students your values regarding the assignment.  Most
people find using this sheet much faster than grading in the traditional

Offering Relevant Writing Assignments

If students will not be doing much writing in the field you are teaching,
then they might profit from writing models of what they will be expected
to write.  Adult learning
theory holds that adults do their best work when they see it as relevant
and they choose that work themselves.  Designing
assignments that they will complete in the field will help motivate
them to do their best work.

Offering Students a Chance to Write to a Wider Audience

Although WAC aims to have students benefit from your expert feedback on
academic work, too many college students graduate without the writing
skills to address employers and community members about issues that
they have studied for years.  Offering
students a chance to write for a wider audience can help them develop
important rhetorical skills.  Such
assignments might include letters and written speeches.  It
would be helpful to have students develop an audience profile before
writing a letter and to have them study letter format as well. 

If you would like to consult with the Director over any of these suggestions,
please dial extension 6982 to set up an appointment.


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