Teaching & Learning Resource Center

Helping Students Write Across the Disciplines

Fingers type on a laptop keyboard.

Educators often expect the writing skills students bring from previous schooling to prepare them to write well in their varied disciplines. In an episode of Write. Think. Teach., a podcast by Ohio State’s Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC), Jackie Kauza Ph.D, winner of the 2019 WAC Graduate Teaching Associate Award, explains:

“Depending on where students are transferring (from), you as the instructor don’t always know what skills are going to transfer. So you can’t always say, ‘Do exactly this, in exactly this context.’ But you can say, ‘Think about what you have done previously. How can you use those skills in this new setting?’”

Jackie helps her students transfer their prior knowledge about writing through activities that encourage them to think about a range of audiences for their work. One example is a project which asks students to imagine themselves as curators of a popular museum and create an exhibit for children and adult museum goers. By thinking about the materials and setup that will capture the attention of different age groups, Jackie’s students practice considering their work’s purpose and the needs of their audience. Guiding students to consider who they are writing for is one useful skill that overlaps into any discipline.

UX Tip

Reflect
Think about your own development as a writer in your field. What different kinds of writing have you had to master? How do you approach these different tasks? Who have you turned to in order to master these forms of writing?

Background

You as a Writer

As an educator or scholar, what comes to mind when you think about the various kinds of communication and composition required for work in your discipline?

As an experienced writer, it is likely that you:

  • Write for a range of audiences, in varied contexts, and in different forms
  • Compose through an iterative process, developing your work step-by-step over time
  • Use feedback from readers at each stage of the process to help you shape your work

As you’ve developed as a writer, you may have also noticed that:

  • Audiences in one context may have different expectations or interests than those in another
  • Strategies for writing might change as you figure out what works best for you and for different projects
  • Revisions are largely informed by the feedback you receive from readers

Considering these aspects of the composing process when designing writing assignments can support your students to become better writers, and not just for a single assignment. Consistently guiding students to think about the setting in which they are writing (context) and who will be reading their writing (audience) will help them transfer skills they practice in your class across disciplines, throughout their academic careers and beyond.

What the Research Says

Over the past few decades, researchers studying composition at the college level have observed how students transfer their knowledge about writing from one task to another—that is, how they take what they learned about writing in their K-12 schooling or in a first year composition class into courses in their majors and even into their early jobs (Beaufort, 2007; Moore & Bass, 2017; Yancey, Robertson, & Taczak, 2014).

This research has shown that:

  • Students draw on previous knowledge to make sense of composing tasks. This knowledge can be immensely valuable, but students must be able to adapt what they already know to a range of new and different situations throughout their educational and professional lives (DePalma & Ringer, 2011, Nowacek, 2011).
  • Students bring their core identities, key dispositions, and habits of mind to their learning. This can have a profound effect—positively or negatively—on how they adapt their learning in new contexts. Instructors should value and build upon the knowledge and habits that students already bring to their learning to facilitate success with new writing tasks (Elon Statement, 2015; Moore, 2017).  
  • Educators should make space for students to intentionally and continually reflect on what they know about writing within new contexts (Green, 2015; James, 2010).

In order to help students effectively transfer their knowledge to the writing within your discipline, researchers suggest some core strategies:

Varied opportunities for composing

Give assignments that vary in one or more key rhetorical components, such as audience, genre, or modality (visual, oral, or written). Providing this variety—and asking students to consciously reflect on the decisions they make in a given scenario—helps them develop a flexibility to adapt to different writing contexts (Beaufort, 2007).

Iterative practice

Researchers have long suggested giving students low-stakes opportunities to practice writing and scaffolding formal final projects through step-by-step activities. Breaking a large assignment into smaller parts, in ways that allow students to explore audience expectations or conventions for writing in different contexts, helps them consciously build a range of writing strategies to draw from. Including reflective activities throughout the process allows students to articulate their composing choices and connect what they’re learning to their prior knowledge.

Multiple opportunities and sources of feedback

Research on learning theory has articulated how important timely feedback is for student learning (Hattie and Yates, 2014). For writing, scholars note that one of the most important skills students must develop is how to get feedback from a range of readers and respond to that feedback as they compose (Huot, 2002). A well-designed framework for feedback gives students a sense of the expectations and responses readers might have as they write in contexts both inside and outside the classroom (Leijten et al., 2014).  

Opportunities to reflect

Researchers have argued that intentional, ongoing reflection is one of the most important tools students need to build flexibility into their writing practice. Students are more likely to successfully transfer their knowledge when they can articulate how the writing strategies they learn apply toward new writing tasks and see how this is relevant to their aspirations as writers in their field (Yancey, 2016).

 

In Practice

As you support students to write in your field, consider your classroom context and disciplinary conventions as well as the diverse knowledge and experience that your students bring to class. Students can write not only to communicate their ideas, but also to structure their thinking; in other words, they can write to learn the content of your course.

Image
Students gather around a laptop to work together on a collaborative writing task.

Provide opportunities to compose for different purposes and different audiences.

As students engage in meaningful dialogue with others about and through writing, they draw upon their prior knowledge and experience to express diverse perspectives and explore new ideas together. Socially engaging in writing to communicate important concepts to real audiences helps students articulate what they are learning, clarify and refine it, and grapple with new genres. Share varied models of writing in your discipline (or ask students to seek out these models) to help them understand criteria for effective writing that will inform their own work in a variety of situations.

Create scenarios that require students to take on a particular role in a specific context. You can then reframe a scenario so students have to remix the project for a different audience or in a different format. Scenario activities guide students to carefully consider a rhetorical situation and make relevant choices, reducing the tendency for students to write only to their instructor.

Examples

In a history class

Ask students to write a letter to a specific person in a specific time or place.

“You are in the United States in 1944. You have a brother on the front lines in France. Write a five-page letter to tell him what's going on in the U.S. Remember that your brother will want to hear about both local and national politics, as well as more domestic social and familial issues.”

To reframe this scenario, you could have students look at contemporary news articles and rewrite their story for a local newspaper of the time.

In the sciences

Have students write a research aims statement for a project as if they are submitting it as part of an National Science Foundation or National Institutes of Health grant. Later in the term, when they have data to share, ask them to create a poster that they would present at a local professional meeting.

UX Tip

Authentic Assignments
In addition to hypothetical scenarios, you can create opportunities for students to write for real-world purposes and audiences in your university or local communities. For example, they could make a podcast for fellow students, submit an article to a university publication, write a letter to a government official, or create a product pitch for a local company. Learn more about Designing Assessments of Student Learning.

Scaffold large assignments with smaller, low-stakes writing tasks.

Dividing major projects or assignments into manageable parts allows students to approach the process of research and writing more intentionally and effectively. Scaffolding activities can help students understand various expectations or frameworks for writing in your discipline, such as how the scientific method undergirds lab reports. You can guide students through their work, providing resources and advice along the way.

Low-stakes activities do not necessarily need to be graded. They can be used as jumping off points for in-class discussion or group work, and can be easily adapted for synchronous or asynchronous online settings as well. Remember that it is important for students to get meaningful feedback on each component part before compiling them into a final product.

Examples

In the social sciences

For an ethnographic project, you might break the research process into multiple lower-stakes assignments, such as the following.

  • Articulate a critical question to explore
  • Identify the communities you’d like to engage with
  • Outline the ethical considerations to account for in your research design
  • Create a data collection plan
  • Collect data
  • Develop a coding framework
  • Code and interpret data
  • Draft a report or presentation
In the sciences

Break a lab report into its component parts: Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion (often called “IMReD”). Create lower-stakes assignments for each section, emphasizing the core conventions or scientific thinking that are crucial for those parts. For example, have students do a literature review and identify a knowledge gap their research could address in the introduction. Once they have been guided through each lab report component, they can pull their work together into a polished report.

Engage students in giving and receiving feedback on one another’s work.

Giving and receiving feedback from readers at each stage of the writing process—and deciding what to do with that feedback—is a core skill all writers need to develop. Consider how you can include opportunities for peer feedback, both informal and formal, for the writing assignments in your course.

Examples

Collaborative revision

In a nursing course, have students work in small groups to revise an existing document or article for a different audience, such as fellow practitioners, hospital administrators, or patients in a particular community. After researching what might interest their assigned audiences, have each group present their work; other groups can offer feedback from the perspectives of that audience. This is a useful activity for evaluating focus, organization, evidence, and use of jargon.

Condensing an essay

In an engineering course, have students write a one-page executive summary that gives an overview of a design project or interprets a key set of data related to a course concept. Have students read each other's summaries and write feedback from the perspective of stakeholders who would have an interest in the project or make decisions based on the data set. This activity provides practice in revision, synthesis, and peer review while reinforcing key course concepts.

Provide opportunities to reflect on learning through writing.

Writing gives students an opportunity to reflect on their learning in your course, which in turn give you immediate feedback on their comprehension and progress. Incorporate informal or formal written reflection activities around key content or important assignments throughout the term. These writing activities can help students work out their thinking, wrestle with difficult concepts, and practice crucial habits of thought that will build their disciplinary knowledge and communication skills.

Examples

Assignment cover sheet

On the day students turn in a paper, have them write for 5-10 minutes, reflecting on their experience drafting it. What problems and concerns did they have? What insights did they gain? Ask them to pose 1-2 specific questions for a grader to respond to and attach their reflection to the paper. Cover sheets can give you a sense of the problems students had with assignments, making your feedback more efficient and focused.

Revision submission letter

Have students write a response to the feedback they have received—from their peers or from you—when they turn in a revision of an assignment. This ensures that students read and consider feedback as they revise, helps them weigh which feedback is most useful to incorporate, and provides a forum for evaluating and responding to the perspectives of different reviewers.


Consult Writing to Learn: Critical Thinking Activities for Any Classroom, a booklet from Writing Across the Curriculum, for more examples of activities you can adapt to any number of purposes and contexts.

Summary

In order to help students make best use of their prior knowledge and succeed in writing within your discipline, you should:

  • Vary audiences, formats, and contexts for assignments so students can be flexible with their communication and practice a variety of appropriate writing strategies.
  • Scaffold large writing assignments through lower-stakes activities, and allow students to revise their work, so they develop varied strategies for composing.
  • Provide multiple opportunities for feedback from different sources so students can consider how to respond to the insights and needs of readers in their writing practice.
  • Include reflection activities alongside writing assignments so students can build a thoughtful and resilient approach to composition.

References

  • Beaufort, A. (2007). College writing and beyond: A new framework for university writing instruction. Logan: Utah State UP.
  • DePalma, M-J., & Ringer, J. M. (2011). Toward a theory of adaptive transfer: Expanding disciplinary discussions of “transfer” in second language writing and composition studies. Journal of Second Language Writing, 20, 134-147.
  • Elon Statement on Writing Transfer. (2015). Elon Center for Engaged Learning. Retrieved from https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/elon-statement-on-writing-transfer/
  • Green, J. H. (2015). Teaching for transfer in EAP: Hugging and bridging revisited. English for Specific Purposes, 37, 1-12.
  • Hattie, J. A. C. & Yates, C. R. (2014) Using feedback to promote learning. Applying the science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Ed. V. Benassi, C. E. Overson, & C. M. Hakala. American Psychological Association.
  • Huot, B. (2002) (Re)Articulating writing assessment for teaching and learning. Utah State University Press.
  • James, M. A. (2010). Transfer climate and EAP education: Students’ perceptions of challenges to learning transfer: English for Specific Purposes, 19, 183-206.
  • Leijten, M., Van Waes L., Schriver, K., & Hayes, J.R. (2014). Writing in the workplace: Constructing documents using multiple digital sources. Journal of Writing Research, 5(3), 285-337.
  • Moore, J. L. (2017). Five essential principles about writing transfer. Understanding writing transfer: Implications for transformative student learning in higher education. Ed. J. L. Moore and R. Bass. Stylus Publishing.
  • Nowacek, R. (2011). Agents of integration: Understanding transfer as a rhetorical act. Southern Illinois University Press.
  • Yancey, K. B., Robertson, L., & Taczak, K. (2014). Writing across contexts: Transfer, composition, and sites of writing. Utah State University Press.
  • Yancey, K. B. (2016). Introduction: Contextualizing reflection. A Rhetoric of reflection. Ed. K. B. Yancey. Utah State University Press.