Writing Across Disciplines

Writing Across Disciplines

An increasing number of universities have come to recognize that writing well is a complex skill that students cannot be expected to acquire in one freshman-level course. Writing across the disciplines encourages faculty in  making writing an important part of their course requirements.

The documents below have been designed to help support Point Loma Nazarene University faculty to  incorporate writing skills into their disciplines.

Why Have Students Write & Where to Start

Basic Principles

  • Writing is a complex skill developed only through constant practice, particularly practice involving audience feedback and the chance to reshape writing in light of that response.
  • In order to help students develop into good writers, PLNU needs professors from all disciplines to assign writing, to grade the competence of that writing, and to return writing with comments that can help students either rewrite the original piece or write better for the next paper. End-of-term papers only assess final student outcomes, but papers done throughout a course work effectively to improve writing and thinking skills.
  • Because writing is thought made visible, professors from disciplines other than English composition can pursue their own course goals through work on student writing.

Why include writing in my course?

  • According to current classroom research, writing helps engage students in their classes, increases their sense of intellectual challenge and intensifies their interest in course material.1
  • Research shows that students learn better in courses where they have to write. Writing is a powerful tool to aid deeper learning and integration of learned material with previous knowledge.
  • Writing is a skill that all our students need.

What professors outside of English composition need to know

  • What skills taught in Freshman Composition are most important to reinforce?
  • What assignments can get students writing without drastically increasing a professor’s workload?
  • How can a professor grade papers without the task becoming an overwhelming burden?
  • What assignment preparation and follow-up will empower students to do their best work?
  • What characterizes writing-intensive courses in other disciplines?

What do students learn in Freshman Composition?

  • General Principles of Writing
    • Audience and purpose determine the content, style and even mechanics of a written piece.
    • Process. Good writing develops through a process involving careful reading, creative imagining, thoughtful planning, writing, feedback, and rewriting.
  • Structure and Development of Thought
    • A good paper should have a clear thesis stated early in the paper.2
    • A writer should have several main points that serve to prove the thesis.
    • A good writer should support points by logic and by concrete examples taken from sources whose nature will depend on the discipline.
    • A strong paper will offer a recognition and rebuttal of objections.
    • Papers asking for analysis and evaluation must move beyond mere summary of fact.
  • Documentation of sources and plagiarism
    • All sources must be documented, even textbooks, Internet and oral interviews. Writers must acknowledge a source every time they use ideas from it, even if they do not quote the source directly but only allude to it.
    • Different disciplines subscribe to different style conventions for footnotes, in-text references and bibliography. Students should always follow the standards of the discipline for which they are writing.
  • Academic style should be used in all academic papers
    •  Academic writers should avoid slang and colloquial expressions.
    • Academic writers should use clear, precise vocabulary without indulging in jargon
    • Academic writers know the difference between frequently confused words, such as the following:
      • there, their, they’re
      • here, hear
      • it’s its
      • your, you’re
      • effect, affect except, accept, expect
  • Grammar
    • Issues of primary importance: complete sentences, agreement of subject and verb, agreement of nouns and pronouns.
    • Issues of secondary importance: correct use of verb tenses and forms, correct use of the apostrophe, variation of sentence structure and vocabulary.

1“The relationship between the amount of writing for a course and students’ level of engagement—whether engagement is measured by time spent on the course, or the intellectual challenge it presents, or students’ level of interest in it—is stronger than the relationship between students’ engagement and any other course characteristic.” Richard J. Light, “Writing and Students’ Engagement,” in Writing and the New Academy. Peer Review, Vol. 6, No. 1.
2 If the writer does not state his thesis early, he should at least imply it by a clear consistent direction made evident from the beginning of the paper.

What To Say and What To Do

What to say

  • Writing is a process
  • Writing is hard
  • Writing is becoming part of an academic conversation
  • Writing is thought in words; it is important to think before you write
    •     You can also learn what you think when you write
    •     But be prepared to re-write—often

What to do

  • Assignments must be clear
  • Define your expectations
  • Establish models of good and bad writing
    •     Analyze these with the class
  • Do layered re-writing in front of the class
  • Break writing into stages
  • Share standards with the whole group in a rubric
  • Have students create a rubric together
  • Have students re-submit work
  • Provide selective feedback
  • Practice triage

Helping Students Write Well

How To Empower Students to Succeed

Before students do written work

  • Create an expectations sheet .
    • LJML and CTL can help you do this (see example below)
    • This should reflect grading and performance criteria
  • Provide examples of good work or otherwise explain criteria that may not be obvious to students.
  • Specify any style sheet you wish students to use. A style sheet should provide precise examples of the appropriate style for footnotes, for references within the body of a paper and for a final bibliography.

After students have done some written work (and before subsequent work)

  • Focus student attention (as a class) on one specific issue for improvement after each writing assignment.
  • Be sure to praise whatever new skill the class seems to have managed well. Even if there is lots of room for improvement, find something positive to praise. Always look for signs of growth, even if it is just the high level of class frustration (which shows students are grappling with the real task of developing thought). When that level eventually diminishes, comment to students that their diminished frustration shows that skills with which they initially struggled have now become integrated into their skill set. Attention to student process and frequent, brief references to it also encourage students to think about the process of thinking and encourage them in continuing in the development of critical thinking skills.
  • Show them how to move from their writing (often first-draft quality) to better writing. Try to focus on one or two maneuvers that would improve their writing. Take 5 minutes and illustrate your point; provide a handout with examples so that they can consult it as they are writing. Again CTL or LJML can help show you how this can be done. Although it may take a little time at first, helping students become stronger readers, thinkers and communicators will ultimately improve the quality of their learning and translate into better classes, better discussions, and better absorption of material.
  • Grade their writing . Do not overlook the quality of the writing when you assign a grade. If students see that sloppiness won’t affect their grade, they will continue to be sloppy writers.
  • Provide immediate feedback . Try to get papers back the next class period, if possible. Never take more than a week. Feedback plays a crucial role in the development of good writers. Always comment on both the good and the bad in the paper. Never hand back a paper with a grade and no comment.
  • Demand process as much as possible. Have students rewrite (handing in old and new copy).
  • Grade papers in 2 easily distinguished colors . Use one color for grammatical and mechanical errors. Use the other for errors of thought development. This helps students recognize that they must address your deeper concerns if they are to do a good job rewriting their paper. If they never address the comments in red, they have not really rewritten the paper.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

Assignment Criteria

Topic or Topic Range

  • Topic should be clear
  • Should be in an area of debate in order to generate material for writing
  • Should allow student to focus in on something


  • Student should have some sense of the investment of the audience in this topic
  • How much does the audience know about this topic

Purpose of the assignment

  • Purpose needs to be clear—what kind of writing (persuasion, directions, explanation)
  • Connection to course goals
  • Practice of academic skills (see process steps)
  • Connection to real life
  • Writing about service learning
  • Writing about real problems in real world
  • Ability to teach from some expertise
  • Example: you are an advice columnist writing to a young couple who have argues over a topic. Decide who is right but help them feel OK.

Steps of the assignment (staged assignments)

  • Explain what steps the student should go through in assignment completion
  • How to narrow topic and find sources
  • How to evaluate sources
  • How to summarize, refer to sources
  • Style sheets
  • Skills of argumentation
  • Writing process as a process


  • Best given as word count so that students have no motivation to mess with the margins and the font


  • Specify format (margins, spacing, header with student name, page numbers, font type and size)

Sources to be used

  • Style sheet to be used if references are made

Grading Criteria

  • Students can create their own grading rubric or you can choose one

Positive and Negative Examples

  • Provide short examples and more than one good one
  • Good example should be varied—don’t squelch student creativity and originality


  • What things are open for the student to choose and what things are not

Level and Genre

  • Level of vocabulary and analysis
  • Genre of writing

User-test the assignment by doing it yourself

Defining Terms

Often students do poorly on academic tasks we assign (on papers, reports, tests) because they do not actually understand the terms that we are using when we give them directions. A clear definition of terms can help students do better on assignments and speed up the learning process.

The definitions below are also available in handout form in the CTL folder that can be found in the Shared Faculty Folder on Socrates. Please feel free to download it and to adapt it to fit your class and your assignments.

Analyze:  divide an event, idea, or theory into its component elements and examine each one in turn.
Compare and/or contrast:  demonstrate similarities or dissimilarities between two or more events or topics. Both sides are important because dissimilarities help clarify the individuality of each item, while similarities may point to over-arching identities.
Define:  identify and state the essential traits or characteristics of something, differentiating them clearly from other things.
Describe:  tell about an event, a person, or a process in detail, creating a clear and vivid image of it.
Evaluate:  assess the value or significance of the topic.
Explain:  make a topic as clear and understandable as possible by offering reasons, examples, etc.
Summarize:  state the major points concisely and comprehensively.

Fifteen Assignments to Practice the Work of Writing

Although end-of-term papers force students to write, they require a lot of time to grade and do little to improve student writing. Professors wanting to include writing as an important class component may want to require two or three short papers and then several other kinds of assignments, less time consuming to grade, but effective in practicing one or more important writing skills.

This teacher-friendly approach also results in good learning. Research has shown that four five-page papers stimulate more student engagement with the material than one twenty-page paper. Writing steadily throughout a semester, students learn more about the material, more about writing, and more about critical thinking.

Below is a list of assignments less difficult to grade than complete papers, but focused on skills needed for effective thinking and writing. Be sure to utilize several different types of assignment during the semester since the various assignments teach slightly different skills.

3-Minute Response Paper

During the last 5 minutes of class, ask students to do a quick write. Count on a minute for directions and another minute for collecting papers. Because this assignment permits multiple variations, you can use it to focus on a variety of specific skills.

  • If you ask students to write down, in their own words, the main point of the day’s lecture or discussion, you exercise their ability to listen critically to material presented.
  • You can ask students to write down the supporting reasons for something. If you ask them to write down all the supporting reasons mentioned in your lecture, you exercise their memory. If you ask for only the one or two best reasons, you exercise their discernment as well. If you ask for all possible supporting reasons, you exercise their mental flexibility and imagination.
  • You can ask students to write down the main point of the lecture and two supporting points in order to exercise their ability to listen critically for how major ideas fit together and to discern the difference between major and subordinate ideas.
  • If you ask students to write about the implications of an idea, or about a further question to be explored, or about connections between current material and earlier material, or about the most obvious objections to an idea, you can exercise evaluative skills.
  • You can also make this writing assignment more informative about student understanding by asking students to write down what they did not understand in the day’s explanation or what they believe was left out of the lecture/discussion.

Administration and Implementation

This assignment becomes easier to grade and a better writing (and thinking) exercise, if you specify that students must limit themselves to one or two clear sentences (not just a set of small sentences connected by ands). This condition as well as your strict adherence to a time limit pushes students to think before writing.

You can use group feedback from these 3-minute papers as a springboard for starting discussion or lecture at the next class since they will give you a good read on what students do or do not understand. You can provide affirmation, clarification or even ask students to comment on something interesting or unexpected that you discovered in their responses.

Note: If you warn students in advance that you will be asking them to write on a specific topic at the end of class, you will help them learn to listen in a more focused manner. The 3-minute paper then becomes more of a learning and less of a testing tool.

Method variations on the 3-minute response paper

You can ask students to do this 3-minute paper at the beginning or in the middle of a lesson and use the paper as a springboard for collaborative work or for a general class discussion.

You can also ask them at the beginning of class to write down the main points of the reading done for class in order to encourage students to do the reading and in order to assess student understanding of the assigned readings.

Outline of a Paper (Or Paragraph)

Students outline a paper (thesis, main points to prove the thesis, examples and arguments to prove main points, consideration of objections, and conclusion). Insist that each outline item present a single idea and a complete thought. You may also want limit the outline to one page, single-spaced.

Students must do the thinking for a paper without so much of the writing. Since many students have trouble writing because they haven’t done much thinking before they start writing, this assignment may help reveal the actual source of a student’s writing problems.

You will also see more easily and quicker when students have little to say because they cannot rely on all the empty words behind which they usually hide lack of content. In addition, you can see who has trouble developing an idea and who has trouble establishing logical connections between ideas.

Because this assignment focuses on thought development, it will indicate what students haven’t really understood and where they need more help. (When you first give an assignment like this, you may be shocked to discover the weakness of students’ thinking skills. But this task offers the opportunity to strengthen their thinking.)1

A variant of the outlined paper is a simple outline of a small portion of the class text. This assignment helps students learn to recognize the difference between main idea and supporting detail, to look at the logic of argument that exists in a text and to become more perceptive readers. (Here again, you may be surprised to discover poor student reading skills. Good reading is, of course, a foundational skill in good thinking.)
1You can ask students eventually to develop an outline into a paper in order to allow the student to experience how much a good outline makes writing easier and improves the quality of the resulting paper.

Single Idea Development

For this assignment, students write a one-page development of a specific idea. The idea should be clearly articulated, have adequate examples and logic for proof and should be placed into some meaningful context.

This assignment involves more sustained writing and allows you to judge the student’s capacity to express ideas in fully written form. For suggestions on how to grade assignments like this in ways that will safeguard your time and still allow you to provide students with prompt and helpful feedback, see the next section on grading.

Objection Development Exercise

This is a variant of the previous exercise. Again the students write only a portion of a paper. Here they take an idea they have already developed and provide the arguments against that idea. Asking students to develop opposing ideas forces them to develop flexible thinking and to recognize the rational basis of their opponents’ truth claims. This work forms the groundwork for students then being able to treat opposing ideas seriously and argue against them cogently.

Two Sided Exercise

Ask students to take a simple idea and, in a short essay (no more than 2 pages), offer one paragraph proving it and another disproving it. Again students are being asked to see both sides of an issue and to learn what serious reasons may exist for believing other than they do.

You can build on this writing assignment by then asking students to answer the objections raised by the opposing view.

Article Review

An article review exercise would be a standard summary and critique. The critique will require more evaluative thought and the ability to combine new and old knowledge. Students need to know that a simple summary will not suffice.

Précis Work

The Rhetorical Précis Format originated with Oregon State University. The link to their site is provided below.

The Rhetorical Précis Format

a) In a single coherent sentence give the following:
-name of the author, title of the work, date in parenthesis;
-a rhetorically accurate verb (such as “assert,” “argue,” “deny,” “prove,” disprove,” “insist,” etc.);
-a that clause containing the major claim (thesis statement) of the work.

b) In a single coherent sentence give an explanation of how the author develops and supports the major claim (thesis statement).

c) In a single coherent sentence give a statement of the author’s purpose, followed by an “in order” phrase.

d) In a single coherent sentence give a description of the intended audience and/or the relationship the author establishes with the audience.

Rhetorical Précis (Student Example)

Charles S. Peirce’s article, “The Fixation of Belief” (1877), asserts that humans have psychological and social mechanisms designed to protect and cement (or “fix”) our beliefs. Peirce backs this claim up with descriptions of four methods of fixing belief, pointing out the effectiveness and potential weaknesses of each method. Peirce’s purpose is to point out the ways that people commonly establish their belief systems in order to jolt the awareness of the reader into considering how their own belief system may be the product of such methods and to consider what Peirce calls “the method of science” as a progressive alternative to the other three. Given the technical language used in the article, Peirce is writing to a well-educated audience with some knowledge of philosophy and history and a willingness to consider other ways of thinking.

*James Wicks’ Lit 201 Course uses the Rhetorical Precis writing developed by Oregon State University.

*List of Rhetorically Accurate Verbs to help students with their Précis writing.

Rhetorical Precis Paper

Journal or Log Entries

You can ask students to keep a journal or set of logs about readings or other work in the course. You will need to provide specific guidelines about length, grammatical expectations, and content expectations. Students will also need to know how often they are to turn in this work.

Study Questions

Ongoing writing about course elements can be more formalized into a series of short-answer questions related to readings or to class lectures or other course elements.

Double-Entry Paper

When students hand in a paper (that you have told them needs to be kept on a thumb drive or their computer as well as given to you in hard copy), give them the following assignment to be done by the next class period. Have students create a table in Word with two columns but only one row. Have them place their entire paper in the right-hand column. In the left-hand column they are to put evaluative comments about the effectiveness of the paper they have written.

You can thus provide two grades for this paper. The first grade will be for the paper itself. The second grade will be for the student’s paragraph-by-paragraph assessment of his paper. This assignment helps train students to read their own work critically. It also can be followed up by a re-write.

Note: Since the ability to discern quality writing usually develops faster than the ability to produce it, you probably need to support this assignment with some in-class reflection on how the development of a critical ear can initially make a student feel that his writing has gotten worse because he is finally noticing its inadequacy. Students can feel in despair at this juncture and a word from the professor to normalize this feeling can help students see their frustration as a sign of positive growth and may encourage them to persevere.

Double-Entry Journal

In this assignment a student again uses a double-column paper created in Word. In the right-hand column is a brief summary of some assigned portion of the text. In the left-hand column the student places commentary on the text.

Students can also be asked to use Bloom’s taxonomy to label their own comments. This can help make them more aware of the levels at which they are thinking (as well as the levels at which they are not thinking). Bloom’s taxonomy is as follows:

  • Remember—recall previously learned information
  • Understand—restate meaning of the material
  • Apply—apply information to new situation
  • Analyze—separate idea into component parts, with connection between them
  • Synthesize—combine component parts into new structure
  • Evaluate—ability to judge value of material according to a specific criterion

You can vary this assignment by asking the student to provide very specific information in the left-hand column.

  • You can ask students to provide examples for ideas in the text
  • You can ask for them to provide analogies to relationships noted in the text
  • You can ask them to think up applications that are outside the text’s material
  • You can ask them to spell out logical implications of ideas in the text
  • You can ask them to detail the presuppositions underlying arguments in the text

Meta-Cognitive Journal

Making Comments on Student Papers

The following suggestions offer a strategy for teaching through the comments you make on a student paper or set of papers.

  1. Read the paper through once before making any marks on it.
  1. Identify the one or two problems you will concentrate on for this draft.You should pick problems whose solution would vastly improve the quality of the paper.
    • When dealing with a whole class, again pick the one problem made most often that could most improve the student papers. This usually means starting with problems that, if uncorrected, will automatically ruin the rest of the paper.
    • This means focusing initially on issues of thesis, audience and purpose.
  2. Note what the student has done well and, when possible, tell the student why that works well.
  3. Ask open-ended questions that encourage the student to re-examine the paper and become self-critical.
  4. Play the role of reader, not editor.Instead of correcting the student’s paper (and doing his work for him), simply share your reactions as a reader.
    • “I don’t understand your meaning here.”
    • “How does this follow logically from the material above.”
    • “What is the connection?”
    •  “You sound bored.”
  5. In your final comments, be sure to :
    • give legitimate praise to at least one thing
    • identify one or two problems and explain why they make the piece hard to understand
    • set a goal for the next draft or paper
    • suggest specific strategies for reaching that goal
  6. Xerox your final comments so you can chart your students’ progress.

Writing Intensive Courses

Writing in the disciplines represents a national trend and multiple examples and models can be found in a variety of universities. In general schools define a discipline-specific writing intensive course by the following four criteria.

Process Writing

Professors wanting to integrate writing into classes in their discipline allow students to experience writing as a process activity not a summative evaluation. Students need to write, receive feedback, and then write again in the light of that feedback. The more students experience this process, the more opportunities they have to grow in writing and thinking skills.

Quantity of Writing Required

Although inclusion of writing used to be expressed in terms of a minimum number of pages required, many schools are also looking at the number of writing assignments required as well. The more students write on a continual basis, the stronger their engagement with the material and with the intellectual work of the course.

Meaningful Writing

Effective writing in the disciplines establishes a strong connection between writing assignments and the course material and course objectives. Writing should be an effective tool for student learning of the subject matter, should be designed to help students investigate the subject matter or to gain experience in interpreting data. Finally, the discipline’s audience and traditions should shape the writing.

Significant Writing

Finally, if we want students to take writing seriously and progress in learning to think and write, we must grade them on the competence of their individual writing. In addition, writing will have to represent a high enough percentage of the student’s course grade to motivate the student to take the writing task seriously.

Examples of writing assignments within writing intensive courses at PLNU:

Academic Argument (Problem / Solution) – Used in Writing 110 and taught by James Wicks

Ancient Literature Writing Assignments (Expository Paragraph, Reflection Paper, Theme Analysis, and Bibliography Project) – Used in Ancient Literature, LIT 201 and taught by James Wicks

* Sample Bibliography Project Paper

Film Commentaries – Used in World Cinema, LIT 351 and taught by James Wicks

Writing Checklist