Low-Stakes Writing in a WID-Based Curriculum

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When a program or an individual teacher initially makes a turn toward focusing on writing in academic disciplines, inevitably it involves rethinking how the course progresses. Often we immediately think about the big, high-stakes assignments first:

  • What major assignments am I going to give students?
  • Will I need to rethink the kinds of writing projects students do in my class?
  • What assignments can I adapt from my previous curriculum?

It’s also important, though, to think about how to support students through low-stakes writing assignments and activities. The work that students do every day helps them build toward the bigger assignments in the class, and often a change in curricular focus means rethinking some of the kinds of go-to activities teachers use to support student work in the course.

I argue that we should also be asking these kinds of questions about how to support students in everyday, low-stakes assignments:

  • What kinds of meaningful exploratory activities support understanding writing in different disciplines?
  • What kinds of low-stakes activities anticipate and help students work through places where they often struggle with a WID-based approach to writing?

I thought I would share a few low-stakes assignments that I have found to work when introducing students to disciplinary genres and writing about the disciplines.

Writing mini-academic literacy narratives

Have students interview each other and write mini-literacy narratives about how they have learned what they know about academic writing. This can be a fun, low-stakes way to begin to understand what your students bring with them to class in terms of prior (academic writing) knowledge.

Analyzing writing from other classes

Ask students to bring in writing that they have done for other classes to analyze how they understand the expectations, similarities, and differences in writing in different subject areas. One of our graduate students at the University of Arizona, Rachel Buck, has collected data about how having students analyze the assignment sheets from other classes can help students understand how disciplinary writing varies. See also Dan Melzer’s outstanding study of writing assignments across the curriculum.

Translating a scholarly article into a new form

An Insider’s Guide to Academic Writing provides an example assignment for having students translate a scholarly article into a new form or genre. Consider having students translate the article for social media as a low-stakes assignment. A more intense assignment might be to translate the article into a press release or a news story.

Playing around with citation styles

Instead of asking students to memorize citation styles, I ask them to analyze the style guide to understand how it works. Then we talk about how citation styles reflect different disciplines. I might ask students to role-play scholars from different disciplines to argue for some of the idiosyncrasies of their styles or stump each other with sources that are difficult to find in style guides.

Are there other approaches you’ve considered for teaching a WID-based curriculum? What are the biggest questions and concerns that you have about trying a WID approach? If you’ve tried it already, what are some of the strategies you have found to be most effective?

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About the Author
Susan Miller-Cochran, now Director of the Writing Program at the University of Arizona, helped shape the First-Year Writing Program at North Carolina State University while she served as Director from 2007-2015. Her research focuses on instructional technology, ESL writing, and writing program administration. Her work has appeared in College Composition and Communication, Composition Studies, Computers and Composition, and Teaching English in the Two-Year College, and she is also an editor of Rhetorically Rethinking Usability (Hampton Press, 2009) and Strategies for Teaching First-Year Composition (NCTE, 2002). Before joining the faculty at NC State, she was a faculty member at Mesa Community College (AZ). She has served on the Executive Committee of the Conference on College Composition and Communication and the Executive Board of the Carolinas Writing Program Administrators. She currently serves as President of the Council of Writing Program Administrators.