Managing Enrollment in W & C Courses

Words of Wisdom

Everywhere I go I'm asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them.

— Flannery O'Connor

According to the guidelines of the National Council of Teachers of English, the optimal student/teacher ratio in a course which includes substantial writing is 15-to-1. The Faculty Senate at Texas A&M has recommended a 20-to-1 ratio for W and C courses. Realistically, this ideal isn't reached at Texas A&M even in most humanities classes. English Department writing classes such as English 104 (Rhetoric and Composition) typically have a 25-to-1  ratio. However, a ratio which exceeds 25-to-1 is demanding and most probably the quality of instruction will suffer.

Good writing and oral communication instruction requires that the students (1) get ample practice; and (2) receive feedback on their efforts. Creating assignments and providing feedback are labor-intensive activities. Careful course design and the availability of trained and supervised assistance will make the task more manageable. Departments in charge of large-enrollment writing- or communication-intensive classes need to take into account the time they will spend not only designing a course but also mentoring and monitoring any teaching assistants or aides.

Availability of Assistance

The Faculty Senate has set the following requirement:

As a general rule, undergraduate students will not be allowed to grade writing for a W course. However, if special circumstances demand their use, an exception is allowed if said students are trained and supervised by a faculty member. Further, undergraduate students may determine no more than ten percent of the writing portion of the final course grade.

Departments will have to make their own choices about the best assistance. Obviously, undergraduate students and graduate students could be used, or the department might hire professional staff(i.e., faculty). Further, the Faculty Senate strongly recommends that:

The instructor of record for a W course should be a faculty member who is in control of the curriculum and who is available to students as well as to any assistants (such as peer tutors or teaching assistants). Faculty should have approval over grades given by any teaching assistant and should have set up a workable method to ensure consistent and fair grading. Keep in mind that although a substantial part of the final course grade should take into account writing quality, there are many ways to provide ungraded or low-stakes practice to writers that will help them improve.

Suggestions for the Instructor in Charge of a Large-enrollment W or C Course

The University Writing Center can train your assistants and help you design and sequence assignments. Request a consultation by contacting

  • Use shorter assignments. Sometimes a series of shorter assignments are as effective as one or two longer ones, and smaller, shorter assignments may be advantageous in training graders.

  • Include small group discussion sections or other means to achieve the 25-to-1 ratio. Encourage students to get to know their group leader (for example, the GAT or peer tutor who works with them.) If possible, have this assistant hold office hours. Discussion sections should be devoted as much as possible to working on the writing or speaking assignment.

  • Do not allow discussion sections to become lecture sessions. Students learn to write or speak through active engagement, and there are many activities that discussion sections leaders can undertake to achieve this.

  • Consider how computers can aid you in teaching writing. Instructional Technology Services can show you how to use peer review, rubrics, and discussion lists, for example.

  • Design a  rubric for evaluating student work, and use it to create consistency in grading with assistants. For each paper they grade, hold a norming or calibration meeting where you all grade the same work and then discuss your differences to reduce them.

Reduce Time Spent Grading

  1. One way to reduce grading time is to assign less writing, but since students need writing practice, a better option would be to assign less graded writing. See Low-Stakes Assignments and Developing Content for suggestions on responding to ungraded writing. 

  2. Carefully craft assignments to be specific and clear, and review them in class to be sure they are understood.

  3. Assign shorter writing. A series of short assignments can be as effective as one long paper. And an assignment you have designed carefully can be more effective in teaching writing than a open-ended but long "term paper" assignment.

  4. Sequence assignments so that ungraded assignments lead to a major graded assignment or a portfolio of "best" work.

  5. Build grading into assignments as you design them. Include grading criteria or a rubric with the assignment prompt (See Assignments and Grading and Commenting). Predetermine how points or grades will be assigned so you can grade more quickly and fairly.

  6. Include on your assignment prompt any grading notation or symbols you commonly use and explain them.

  7. Include on your assignment prompt any policies that affect your grading, and review them with the class. For example, you may warn students that you will not physically mark every error in grammar, spelling, or punctuation, even though you may take off for them.

  8. In designing a rubric, weight the comments so that not everything must be commented upon; in other words, comment upon those aspects of the assignment that you deem most crucial to success. It is especially useful not to mark every error or infelicity.

  9. Train graders to use a rubric; have them "norm" in one or two sessions by asking them to use the rubric to grade a few identical papers. They should discuss their differences and adjust the rubric or their grading until they reach an acceptable level of agreement (which you determine).

  10. Provide as many opportunities as possible for students to consult with you, with peers, or with the University Writing Center as they write (see Help for Students).

  11. Students contesting grades can eat up your time, so develop a fair policy and be consistent in applying it. Many writing instructors require a 24-hour cooling off period: students must wait for 24 hours before contacting the instructor with questions about grades. Others request that all inquiries about grades be made in writing.

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