Proposing New Writing-Intensive Courses

The University of Pittsburgh was one of the first in the nation to recognize and promote the value of writing in the disciplines. Since 1981, the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of School of Arts and Sciences has offered writing-intensive (W courses) courses in every academic major. Dietrich School students must complete two W courses, one in their major field of study, in order to fulfill the General Education Requirements. 

W courses at Pitt treat writing as a powerful mode of inquiry. Students who write frequently—in any discipline—not only develop strong writing skills but also extend their thinking and propel their learning. In a good W course, both students and teacher can see that writing instruction advances content learning rather than competing with it. 

Across the Dietrich School, faculty members design and teach W courses that integrate writing thoroughly into the semester’s learning experiences. Interested faculty may propose a new W course, or seek the W designation for an existing course, by submitting a proposal to the Dietrich School Undergraduate Council.  

What is a W Course?

A writing-intensive course is a course in which students engage with writing substantively throughout the term; they write and revise throughout the term (not just at the end); they write a total of 23-25 pages (or equivalent); they get feedback from their teacher and their peers. The craft of writing is a significant focus of class time and instruction.

Dietrich School Undergraduate Council has set a minimum three-credit requirement for General Education Requirements, which may be met by combining courses with lower credit loads, though we think in most cases a three-credit W course is the most efficient way of meeting this requirement. In addition, writing-intensive courses must always be offered as writing-intensive for all sections. 

W courses should be capped at 22 students or fewer in order to allow teachers adequate time for responding to writing in substantive ways.

Proposal Process

The Writing Institute can be a resource to you as you are developing your ideas for your W course. Here is the typical process:

1. Review the proposal requirements below and start drafting your course. If you want to have a conversation with us early in the process, email us, come to office hours, or come to an information session.

2. When you have a fairly complete first draft, please contact the Writing Institute to review it and give you feedback. Keep in mind the Dietrich School submission deadlines (November 1 or March 15) and be sure to allow us at least a week to respond and allow yourself some time in case you need to further tweak your proposal.

3. After you have made revisions, submit your finished course proposal via Curriculog as usual.

4. The Writing Institute, in its role as College Writing Board, will review your completed proposal in Curriculog and give you feedback. If you are seeking additional GERs for your course (you can only have three associated with one course), you will hear separately about the Dietrich School Undergraduate Council decisions on those.

We are eager to see departments develop engaging and useful W courses for their students, and we want to help you with that work, so please do not hesitate to contact us if you want support, have questions, or feel that the proposal requirements or W-course requirements don't serve the writing needs of your students. We are willing to explore alternative requirements if they make sense for your discipline and still offer students excellent practice and preparation in writing.

Requirements for Writing-Course Proposals 

Deadline. Course proposals must be submitted to the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences Undergraduate Council via Curriculog by November 1 for the subsequent summer and fall terms, and by March 15 for the subsequent spring term. The Writing Institute will review proposals after their submission.

Documentation. In addition to the materials required by Dietrich School Undergraduate Council, W-course proposals must include the following documents: 

  1. schedule of writing assignments
  2. Two complete assignment handouts
  3. A brief explanation of the scheduled revision
  4. An outline of projected in-class writing instruction

We are starting a collection of successful W-course proposals that you can browse for inspiration.

Below, you will find more detail about each of the components of the W-course proposal.

1. Schedule of Writing Assignments 

One traditional model of college teaching has students turning in a long term paper at the end of the semester. In this model, students write the paper “on the side,” without any assistance from the class or the instructor. Often they do very little writing earlier in the term, except perhaps on exams. 

The writing-intensive course offers a productive alternative to this model. In a W course, writing occurs throughout the semester, not just at the end of the term, and serves as a mode of learning as well as a way of reporting what one has learned. When students do complete a complex final project, their work emerges from a sequence of earlier writing assignments. 

Brief, informal assignments may ask students to practice certain kinds of thinking and writing particular to the discipline; students may then apply this kind of thinking or writing to a longer, more formal project. Alternatively, students may write sections of a complex culminating project over the course of the semester, to be reviewed by the instructor and revised before being integrated into the final paper. 

Faculty proposing a W course must provide a schedule of assignments.

The course calendar should make it clear that students:

  • will begin writing early in the term; 
  • will write regularly throughout the term; 
  • will discuss writing in substantive ways in class throughout the course;
  • will receive instructive responses between assignments; 
  • will revise some of their work significantly; and 
  • will write between 23 and 25 pages in all. 

2. Assignment Handouts 

Students who are writing throughout the semester benefit from completing a variety of related assignments. Instructors should provide a thorough written explanation of each assignment, either in the syllabus or in a separate handout, to help students understand how to complete it successfully. 

Faculty proposing a W course must provide two sample writing assignments. These documents should: 

  • explain the purpose of the assignment, in relation to the trajectory of the course or the work of the discipline; 
  • describe briefly a process for successfully completing the assignment; 
  • make explicit the instructor’s expectations regarding form, style, and content; and 
  • identify the criteria by which the writing will be evaluated. 
  • Ideally, sample assignments will also illustrate the relationship between a substantial end-of-term project and the work of earlier assignments. 

3. Explanation of Scheduled Revision 

Revision is an essential element of a writing-intensive course. While careful editing is certainly an important part of this process, a W-course revision should involve much more than correcting mistakes. Substantial revision assignments can encourage students to reconsider their earlier assertions, to formulate and pursue further questions, to develop more complex answers, or to grapple with new ideas. 

Students need support if they are to revise their work in this way. Instructors can coach them through the process by planning in-class writing workshops, guided peer consultations, and discussions of disciplinary models, as well as by providing written comments that focus on substantive issues. The course calendar should allow sufficient time for these activities between the draft and a scheduled revision. Thus, it is important to begin work on the revisions well before the last week of classes. 

Faculty proposing a W course must provide a document explaining the role of revision in the course. This document should indicate: 

  • what piece or pieces students will revise; 
  • when in the semester the revision will occur; and 
  • how the instructor will help the students move from draft to revision. 

4. Projected In-Class Writing Instruction 

When writing plays a critical role in student learning, in-class writing instruction assumes a greater significance. Thus, once a W-course instructor has designed a series of assignments, the next step is to plan classroom activities that will support students as they attempt the intellectual tasks those assignments demand. 

Instructors may fruitfully use class time—before and after the assignment—to: 

  • introduce disciplinary writing conventions that apply to the assignment; 
  • examine texts that exemplify the kinds of writing and thinking required in the assignment; 
  • initiate brainstorming sessions or informal writing to generate ideas for the assignment; 
  • help students practice the kinds of thinking and writing required in the assignment; 
  • guide peer consultation groups in discussing student drafts; 
  • lead workshops that suggest possibilities for revision; and 
  • address common problems with usage, grammar, and style. 

Faculty proposing a W course must submit a document in which they discuss the writing instruction they will provide. This document should indicate: 

  • when class periods will be set aside for writing activities; 
  • what activities the instructor will lead; and 
  • how these activities will help students progress in their writing. 

You can read some examples of successful W-course proposals.