Quick Start Guide for W Courses

This guide is designed for teachers who are newly assigned to teaching a course that satisfies Pitt’s Writing requirement or those teachers who want to revise a course that they have taught in the past. 

You know a lot about your field and about the writing that supports your professional life. You may not have had the opportunity to explore ideas about what makes for a successful writing class. The Writing Institute can help you to better understand effective writing pedagogy so that you don’t feel like you have to reinvent the wheel every term.

What is a Writing-Intensive Course?

In w-courses, students are expected to write 23-25 pages (or equivalent) over the course of the term (not just at the end). They should engage with revision, and writing should be a substantial focus of the class’s work. 

We understand that writing and process can be understood differently in different fields, and we are very happy to talk to you about how the requirements for a W-course can be adapted to suit the needs of your students.

Planning Your Course

When you are planning your course, reflect on how writing functions in your discipline and what that suggests for the work your students will be doing:

  • What purposes does writing serve in your discipline?

  • For what audiences should students learn to write? 

  • What are the characteristics of excellent writing in your discipline?

  • What forms are appropriate and desirable for students to learn? Maybe academic essays will work, but maybe they could also benefit from writing public-oriented projects, grant proposals, posters, white papers, and other forms. 

  • What are the problems you have noticed with student writing? 

  • Where do you want your students’ writing projects to end up? 

  • What kinds of information do you want them to use?  

  • Are you teaching majors who should learn a specific style of citation and format?

  • Are there specific kinds of writing or research activities that inform or shape writing in your discipline? Do you work with data in particular ways? If so, can you build these into your writing assignments? 

  • How will you grade this work, and can your assignments make your standards clear to writers?

Answering these questions can allow you to plan and stage students’ writing over the course of the term so that they end up where you want them to be.

Crafting a Sequence

A sequence is the whole arc of assignments that students engage with over the course of the term. A sequence can offer students these strategies:

  • Multiple steps in a process that provide depth in research or thinking
  • Revision to focus on specific kinds of problems/issues
  • Working on separate components that can be revised into a whole project
  • A mix of low-stakes assignments that offer practice and the opportunity for peer review and discussion but do not require your feedback as well as higher stakes assignments that get substantive feedback from you.

Ideally, you will set students up to develop an effective and sustainable writing practice that distinguishes the writing conventions of your discipline or subject area from writing in other situations.

It can take a few iterations with students to come up with an assignment sequence that you feel works really well. The best time to revise an assignment or sequence is immediately after you read the projects students wrote in response to it. 

Writing Assignments

When you are crafting your assignments, there are a few things that you can do to help students with the task:

  • Don’t imagine that students will be able to do good work in response to a vague discussion in the classroom. Create a handout for students that gives them the assignment as well as other information they will need. That way, they can consult it at several points during the writing and revision process.

  • Articulate the main task in a single sentence, but then provide other information that may be helpful as students develop their ideas. Students can be overwhelmed by long assignments, so having that “kernel” sentence that helps them to understand the central task is helpful. 

  • Explain the learning objectives of this assignment. What do you expect students to get out of writing it? (Articulating this can be helpful to you, too, since you will need to respond to their writing.) 

  • Inform students about how their work will be evaluated, either as a statement in the syllabus or as a rubric for each assignment (written yourself or collaboratively with students).

Planning Class Activities

We encourage teachers to discuss examples of student work in class:

  • You can bring in examples from the class, anonymized, for discussions about what works, what needs revision, etc. You could do this regularly throughout the term to help students develop a common language to discuss writing in this context.
  • You can discuss an early draft and a revision from another class, particularly if you are teaching students a specific form of writing. This can be a helpful early-in-the-term discussion that helps students avoid writing a whole first draft that is really not what you are looking for.
  • You can discuss parts of several projects, such as how writers are working with data, how they are using published research and integrating quotations, how they are setting up an argument.

You can discuss published work in your field as examples of craft that students can learn from.

You can invite students to bring to class real-world examples of course projects related to their specific interests, to help students learn which genre conventions are consistent and which elements are more flexible.

Offering Feedback

Aim to provide a few marginal comments and at least one substantive paragraph of feedback at the end of the student project, highlighting moments where the student’s work shows promise, where the work excites you, and where the student should focus their efforts in revision. Make sure that your feedback prioritizes the goals and objectives you set for your students in the assignment. 

Students often feel overwhelmed by substantive line edits and corrections. It’s also time-consuming for you. Try instead to address patterns that the student can learn to identify and resolve through your feedback. For example, if a student tends to write long and complex sentences with too many ideas, mark the first instance and suggest some strategies for how you would like them to be more concise. Mark additional long sentences, but do not “fix” them. At the end of the essay you might include in your global feedback something like: “I marked several long sentences that have too many ideas happening, and for the first, I suggested some ways to break up the ideas into more concise parts. Try those strategies to address the other moments where this happens in your essay.”

Inviting Students to Take Revision Seriously

Have students turn in with their projects (or shortly after) a brief reflection on what they want to address in the next iteration of the project. This project can be written more than once, first as a reflection and then as a more formal revision plan or rationale after in-class workshops.

Have students engage in dramatic remediations of projects for a revision. For example, have students draw from the same research but transform their writing into a different genre or document design. 

Ask students to perform a specific intervention that will require students to reevaluate and transform their project. For example, require that students introduce a new source that will necessitate the student to reevaluate and evolve their point of view.

Use in-class time for playful and experimental revision tactics, such as flipping a conclusion to the introduction, or rearranging the order of ideas in a paragraph. Such activities help students see what they’ve written as material and not fixed, and either help students justify their original organization of elements or reveals new potential arrangements they wouldn’t have otherwise considered.