Learning Innovation Teaching Resources

Writing Across the Disciplines

While it is commonplace for writing and English classes to require written assignments make up the bulk of students’ grades, other disciplines are often uncertain how to incorporate writing into their classroom. Common resistance stems from insecurities on how to grade such assignments or ambivalence over how much time grading writing assignments might take.

However, incorporating writing assignments into the classroom is an excellent way to encourage critical thinking in students. Far from only using essays for such engagement, the incorporation of writing into the classroom, regardless of curriculum, helps achieve the learning outcomes of a course. With proper execution, these assignments will not require excessive, time-consuming grading.


Incorporating Formal Writing Assignments

These are assignments that will be graded and receive feedback. When presenting these assignments, it’s ideal that they relate back explicitly to course goals or learning outcomes, with a clear grading criteria. 

Below are some suggestions for formal assignments to bring into the classroom:

  • Thesis-governed essay: The traditional mode of formal writing, this can be achieved through providing the main topic, or presenting a thesis for students to refute or prove.
  • Exploratory essay: This assignment typically asks students propose a problem and then write a narrative of their own thought processes to think through the problem. It presents more thesis-seeking than thesis-proving.
  • Reflection essay: This assignment requires more personal writing than the standard top-down academic essay. Its nature is the exploration of connections between course material and a person’s individual life experience.
  • Alternative viewpoints writing: Instructors can use alternative viewpoints as a means to enhance critical thinking. For example, a history instructor can ask students to write a historical event from a different point of view, a literature instructor asks students to rewrite the ending of a story from a different narrator’s point of view, or a psychology instructor asks students to craft a poem from the perspective of someone with anxiety to help better understand the concept.
  • Interview writing: Having students interview someone who has a job, lifestyle, or worldview very different from the student can help them better understand the academic discipline as well as promote empathetic connection.

Incorporating Informal Writing Assignments

These assignments are typically non-graded or graded for completion, used as a means to facilitate thought, class discussion, or synthesis of ideas. With less pressure and more opportunity to explore, students typically use informal writing assignments as a means to take risks.

A common resistance students might present is the concept of such assignments being “busy work.” To avoid such protests, it’s important to frame why an assignment is being assigned and what it will do to help promote success in the course.

Below are some suggestions on informal writing assignments to incorporate into the classroom:

  • Journal writing: Either with prompts, free-writing, or responding to texts in the class, journal writing allows students to explore their own thoughts or work through questions they might have regarding the course. Journals can be used for in-class writing to reshape discussions, sum up lectures, or clear up questions. Journals can be used outside class for exam preparation, marginal notes/focused reading notes, reading logs, student responses, imagined interviews with authors, and so on.
  • Creativity exercises: These exercises stretch language and thinking skills in valuable ways, often serving as stress-relief and fun for students. Creativity exercises such as writing dialogues, bio-poems, metaphor games, or unsent letters can help facilitate class discussion and bonding with peers.

Encouraging Critical Thinking

Incorporating writing into the non-writing classroom helps facilitate critical thinking. Students who are made to engage more closely with concepts from lecture integrate it into their knowledge more effectively.

Below is a list of suggested tasks which can be used in a variety of ways through writing, either formally or informally, or verbally during class discussion:

  • Think of tasks which help students link concepts in the course to their personal experiences or prior knowledge.
  • Ask students to teach difficult concepts in the course to a new learner.
  • Think of controversial theses in the discipline’s field.
  • Think of problems, puzzles, or questions to ask students.
  • Give students raw data and ask them to write an argument or analysis based on that data.
  • Think of opening “frame sentences” for the start of a paragraph or short essay; students have to complete the paragraph by fleshing out the frame with generalizations and supporting details.
  • Have students role-play unfamiliar points of view or “what if” situations.
  • Select important articles in the field and ask students to write summaries or abstracts of them. Alternatively, ask students to write summaries of lectures from the class.