Using Writing in the Disciplines to Help Students Succeed (and Stay)

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As a writing teacher, my number one goal is to see students succeed. I live for those moments when students write something that brings them pride, when they connect with a community or idea that resonates with them, or when they realize they can do something they thought was impossible. These are the moments when I see the rewards of teaching reflected through my students.

College and university administrators also place a high premium on “student success,” even naming entire offices or divisions after that goal. Yet, administrators are often looking at specific data when they talk about student success—things like grades, retention, and graduation rates, to name a few.

While some of these metrics might seem like impersonal numbers when viewed from a distance, my instructional evidence of individual student success and university measures of student success aren’t really that far apart. In some ways, they are two sides of the same coin. When I encourage students to find solutions to writing problems on their own and they succeed, they develop skills of persistence that will help them later in college. And if students begin to develop a set of tools in my class that will help them tackle tough writing projects later in other classes, they will have a better chance of success.

I have become increasingly convinced that a focus on Writing in the Disciplines (WID) in writing courses can be a powerful tool to partner with other efforts on campus to build student success. WID helps students think about the transition from their prior writing experiences to college and beyond, and it asks them to think about their future college and career aspirations. In other words, WID can help them transition to college and begin to explore and identify with a future major and career. 

The transition to college can be a challenging one. Vincent Tinto, a researcher interested in what helps students succeed as they make that transition, has written extensively about three stages that he identified that students go through as they adapt to college: separation, transition, and incorporation (Tinto, 1988). At the separation stage, students might feel disconnected to prior communities and commitments, and successful students move through a transition stage and then find a way to connect themselves with new communities in college (incorporation). Our goals as educators is to help shepherd them through that process.

Think about the kinds of assignments that are common in a WID approach and how they might help students work through these stages:

  • A Literacy Narrative: When students write literacy narratives, we can give them the space to think about the process of separation and the transition they are making to writing in college
  • A Literacy Profile: A literacy profile of a professional or a scholar in the student’s field of study can help them make a connection to someone who can mentor them in the kinds of writing they might be expected to do in their field
  • An Annotated Bibliography: Compiling a list of sources that document what others have written and said about an issue can help a student figure out how to enter the conversation.

By helping students build connections between the content in their writing classes and their future majors and careers, WID helps students with the process of transition and incorporation. As writing teachers, we can be partners in a campus-wide effort to give students the tools they need to succeed.


These are just a few sample assignments. What other assignments can you think of that would help students move through the three stages of separation, transition, and incorporation? 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.