Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

Planning WR Courses

In writing-intensive courses, teaching writing and teaching the course’s subject matter are not separate endeavors. WR instructors use writing activities and assignments to teach their subjects more effectively. The disciplinary practices that promote strong learning and scholarship are embedded in the expectations for good undergraduate writing for that discipline. Naming those expectations for good writing, coordinating those expectations with the course’s other learning goals, and planning for improvement over time are key strategies in this effort.

Develop writing goals for your course

Most professors can name four or five qualities that distinguish good undergraduate papers. If you write these down and distribute them to your students, they can think about the skills involved even before they start writing: when they’re reading for your course, during lecture and discussion, when thinking about their topics, etc. This handout can greatly enhance the discussion of writing in your course. For examples of this kind of handout, see Writing Guides.

Pair content goals with writing goals

Consider how the scope and pacing of writing assignments can contribute to the course’s overall goals. For example, if one of the goals for the course is to help students understand and synthesize the current academic debate about the course’s topic, then creating a writing assignment that asks students to make an argument about two readings from the course can help students practice that synthesis. As you plan the course, think about what you’d like the students to do with the course content, and try to translate that practice into a writing assignment.

Plan for student improvement over time

Students’ writing improves through practice over time. Keep this principle in mind as you plan different kinds of writing assignments and the timing of each in terms of the course’s arc. For example, if you plan to assign a capstone essay for the end of the course, consider assigning shorter essays that ask students to practice skills needed for the final essay, such as analysis of a single source or synthesis of multiple sources. If your course features a research essay, consider setting deadlines throughout the semester for topic proposals, annotated bibliographies, outlines, or drafts. These deadlines will enable students to develop the project carefully over time and create opportunities for guidance and feedback from you.

Yale WR course planning case study: Introduction to Environmental History, Professor Paul Sabin

Here is an example of how one Yale faculty member, Professor Paul Sabin, has planned his WR course, “Introduction to Environmental History.” Professor Sabin’s course goals include: 1) engaging students in a survey of U.S. environmental history from the pre-colonial period to the present; and 2) providing students with experience in methods of historical inquiry, including working with primary and secondary historical sources and conducting historical research. Professor Sabin pairs these content and disciplinary goals with the design and placement of his writing assignments throughout the semester. For example, Professor Sabin assigns two short essays (500-700 words) in the first half of the course; the first is a critique of a secondary source, and the second is an analysis of a primary source document. Students then are required to use both primary and secondary sources in an 8-10 page final essay assignment that asks students to make a historical argument about a person, place, or issue in U.S. environmental history. Professor Sabin also gives small assignments leading up to the final research essay, including a draft research proposal due in Week 4, a library session in Week 7, and the first 2-3 paragraphs of the research essay due in Week 10. A pdf illustrating in more detail Prof. Sabin’s assignment planning and how it corresponds to the progress of his course goals is available here.