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Developing a W or C Syllabus

The challenge in developing a W or C course syllabus is in seamlessly integrating the writing/speaking with the course material. Your aims should include (1) reinforcing and extending mastery of course content by means of writing or oral communication; and (2) providing practice in the types of writing or speaking students will do in either the academy or the workplace.  Keeping these aims in mind, design a syllabus that includes not only graded documents but also steps for creating those documents. Include readings, lectures, web pages, homework, workshops, drafts, or class activities that lead progressively to finished, graded documents or oral performances.

Reinforcing and Extending Mastery of Course Content

One of the best ways to use writing is as a mode of learning or discovery. Writing that is not graded—but to which you, a grader, or peers respond—works very well for this purpose, and gives students practice in getting words on paper, which will in turn help them in more formal, graded writing. The same process can work for informal opportunities for speaking or discussion. Students can work through concerns, brainstorm, and get feedback on their ideas in small discussion groups. And, of course, writing is usually a preliminary part of preparing any oral performance.

Often the composing process is described as a series of recursive steps that include rewriting, writing, revising, and editing. Writing to learn can be a powerful way to assist prewriting, the stage in which a writer thinks through a topic, on paper but also in conversation. There are many techniques for jump-starting the prewriting process, including:

  • Class or small-group discussion
  • Invention techniques such as focused free writing that help students develop content
  • Preparing visuals such as drawing, charts, table, and graphs
  • Journals or blogs
  • Listservs, chat rooms, wikis, or other forms of computer conferencing
  • University Writing Center consultations (See Refer Your Students to the University Writing Center for a blurb to put on your syllabus.)

Just as informal writing can reinforce course content, formal, graded writing can as well. Writing a paper or delivering a presentation helps novices practice and master the vocabulary and ways of organizing and thinking characteristic of a discipline. However, as novices in your discipline, students will need guidance in how to write or speak like an expert in the field. Models and written instructions (assignments) will help them move from novice status.

Providing Writing Practice

One way to provide a stepwise progression to graded documents is to take advantage of the natural composition cycle, the recursive movement from prewriting to writing to revision to editing and finally publication or performance. Build into your syllabus opportunities for students to practice at each step, and you will see improvement in student work. You may also cut down on students’ temptation to plagiarize by helping them avoid a time crunch.

Besides the techniques listed above for prewriting, build in drafting and editing techniques as class activities, for example:

  • Class or small-group critiques of drafts, visuals, or outlines for speeches
  • Class discussions regarding questions about the assignment
  • Oral or written reports of work in progress
  • Email or computer-conferencing critiques
  • In-class workshops
  • Early draft due dates
  • Discussion of student or professional writing or speaking  models

Number, Type, and Sequence of Assignments

A major decision you must make up front is the number of graded writing assignments your course will include. The recommendation from the W Course Advisory Committee is a total of at least 2000 words or eight pages of graded writing for a W course and 1200 words and 5 minutes of individual oral performance for a C class. You will have to decide on the (1) length of assignments; (2) type of documents or performances; and (3) sequence of assignments.

One point to consider is what types of communication students in your course are likely to need in the university or in the workplace. Once you have determined that, see if your assignments can give them the necessary practice. Do you want to limit the course to familiar documents (reports, essays) for familiar audiences (professors like you, for example)? Could students also write to a lay audience? Could they write brochures or letters, popular articles or book reviews?

Another point to consider in deciding on the types of documents students will write, is the learning outcomes for the course and for a given assignment. See Developing Assignments for more information.

The sequence of assignments should be based on learning outcomes. Generally, move from low to high order skills, from simple to more complex documents.

Or, if an objective is to have students write a complex argument that displays critical thinking about a text or event, begin with an assignment that encourages close reading, such as a one-page essay that summarizes an argument or interprets an event. Move into a longer essay that asks the writer to analyze an argument and, perhaps, respond to it. To further encourage critical thinking, build in a peer critique that requires the writer to share views and incorporate the views of others into his/her writing.

Three Strategies for Sequencing Assignments

Strategy One: Reinforcing Learning. Use assignments of the same basic type and give multiple opportunities for practice, perhaps increasing the difficulty of the course content, but not of the writing or speaking task, as the course progresses. For example, if you wish students to write excellent lab reports by the end of a course, have them write four or more reports.

Strategy Two: Increasing Cognitive Skills. Using a cognitive schema such as Bloom’s taxonomy, design assignments in a sequence that move from easier to more difficult tasks. Be careful to keep the work challenging. For example, start with observation and reporting of events, then move to analysis, problem-solving, and evaluation. This can be a good opportunity to mix oral and written assignments–a report or essay can be presented to the class in poster form with a brief oral presentation.

Strategy Three: Building up to Complex Documents. Divide a complex document into a series of sub-tasks. Have these portions of a complex document turned in as shorter documents, then let students edit them into a longer paper that adds another element. For example, if you have assigned a formal report which proposes a solution to a problem, begin by assigning a two-page state-of-the-art review for a lay reader. Follow with a brief statement of the problem addressed to another expert, then a longer analysis of the problem in a third paper. In the final report, have them include a solution, and then ask for an oral presentation.

Syllabus Notes

Your syllabus should include information on the following:

  • late work policies;
  • plagiarism policies;
  • grading policies;
  • information on picking up papers when you won’t return them in class;
  • information on useful resources such as the University Writing Center, Evans library, the Aggie Honors Office,  handbooks, or helpful web sites.

See the Minimum Syllabus Requirements from the Faculty Senate for details on what to include, especially the statement on academic integrity.

Be aware that you should never leave papers outside your office for students to pick up. According to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 this practice violates student privacy; in addition, it encourages plagiarism.

Additional Resources

If you’d like comments on how your syllabus accords with the aims of either W or C courses, send it to Valerie Balester, Executive Director, University Writing Center, 5000 TAMU (uwc@tamu.edu).

Universal Design for Teaching with Ann Gundy