Writing Across the Curriculum

Writing STEAM Conference

Friday, April 17, 2015 | 9:15 a.m. - 4 p.m. | Edmonton Clinic Health Academy (ECHA) Lower Level L1-430

This one-day conference will bring together researchers from across Canada who have examined thousands of writing assignments and interviewed dozens of faculty members in an effort to understand the role of writing in the sciences, engineering, mathematics, education, and the arts.

Three audiences will benefit from hearing these talks:

  1. Instructors in the disciplines named above will gain a broader understanding of how writing is used in a similar department at another university. This may provide ideas for how they might use writing in their courses at the University of Alberta, or it may confirm that the genres of writing they use are similar across institutions. 
  2. Writing studies researchers and instructors will gain insight into what kinds of writing students do in their disciplinary courses, and then will also gain insight into why instructors in those fields assign that writing. 
  3. Secondary school teachers and administrators will gain a broader understanding of the writing demands their graduates will face across a wide variety of disciplines at universities, knowledge that may help them reflect on how to best prepare their students for these demands. 

The work reported here is supported by a SSHRC-funded standard research grant (SRG 4102011-1845).

Schedule of Events

Time   Session  
9:15 - 9:30
  Welcome / Introduction / Overview
Writing Assignments Across the University Curriculum
Roger Graves, University of Alberta
9:30 - 10:30   SCIENCE 1

Concise or Cryptic? Writing Assignments in a Department of Biology and a Department of Earth Sciences
- Writing in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
- Faculty Interview Questions
Andrea Williams, University of Toronto

Writing Assignments in the Faculty of Science: Program profiles of seven departments
Boba Samuels, Wilfrid Laurier University
10:30 - 11:00   Break
11:00 - 12:00   SCIENCE 2

Writing for Math Students? Easy to say - but do?
Judi Jewinski, University of Waterloo

Establishing a Research Niche in Mathematics Articles
Heather Graves, Shahin Moghaddasi Sarabi, University of Alberta
12:00 - 1:00
1:00 - 2:00

Undergraduate Writing Assignments in Mechanical Engineering: Targeting Attribute 7, Communication Skills
Anne Parker, University of Manitoba

Writing in the Repair Cafe: Writing in the First-year Engineering Course
Judi Jewinski, University of Waterloo
2:00 - 2:30
2:30 - 3:30
Teacher talk about assignment guidelines for students: How much direction is too much?
Gloria Borrows and Graham Shaw, University of the Fraser Valley

Inspiring Teacher Education: From Assignment analysis to program redesign
David Slomp, University of Lethbridge
3:30 - 4:00

Selected Abstracts 

Inspiring Teacher Education: From Assignment analysis to program redesign
D. Slomp, Assistant Professor, University of Lethbridge.

The data generated from this study were presented to our program advisory committee in the summer. Based on this presentation, Robin Bright and I have proposed that we develop a more fully integrated curriculum/assessment package for one cohort of next year's Professional Semester 1 students. Essentially, we will be leading a group of 6 instructors (who each teach a different course in the PS1 semester) through a process of designing integrated assignments across all 6 courses. The idea is that this will address the assignment overkill (up to 54 assignments in 10 week semester) while at the same time enabling us to better model the project-oriented, integrated curriculum design envisioned by AB ED. 


Writing for Math Students? Easy to say - but do?
Judi Jewinski, Special Advisor to the Provost on English Language Competency, Provost’s Office, University of Waterloo

Increasingly, programs at Waterloo are responding to the 2012 report of the Task Force on English Language Competency by replacing a midterm or multiple-choice test with a writing assignment. To be taken seriously by the students, the assignment needs weight. To stimulate improved writing skills, it needs a clear rubric and formative feedback. This presentation focuses on what such an experience meant for students, TA markers, and faculty members in an Actuarial Science elective course offered Fall 2013. OND participants will thus discover the practicality and benefits of introducing a writing assignment in non-traditional settings. 

In response to employers’ demand for stronger writing skills in co-op students, the Actuarial Science department revised MTHEL 131 to replace one of two midterms with an extensive 3-part business writing assignment. The value of the assignment was hefty—worth 25% of the course grade (10% for Draft 1 and 15% for Draft 2). To help ensure student success, the course instructor teamed up with a writing instructor to frame the assignment, create a rubric, oversee TA training and marking, offer extracurricular support to students, and evaluate results. 

TAs took part in norming workshops to help them learn to apply what Bean (2011) calls a “revision-oriented commenting strategy,” after which they provided formative feedback on content, organization, and style. Students had two weeks to submit a revised version that not only took their marker’s original comments into account but also met requirements spelled out on a 32-item checklist. Attention to this feedback would count for 50% of the grade of the final draft. Not surprisingly, most students worked hard to improve their first drafts. That they were ultimately successful (with the class average improving by 10 percentage points from first to second draft) confirms the value of such an exercise, despite its being resource-intensive. 


Establish a Niche for Research in Mathematics Articles
Heather Graves, Associate Professor of English and Film Studies, University of Alberta
Shahin Moghaddasi Sarabi, Ph.D. Student, University of Alberta

‘Establishing a niche’ has been shown to be an important component of structuring the argument for the need for new work in grant proposals and journal articles in numerous academic disciplines. Less research has focused on this aspect of the rhetorical structure in research article introductions (RAIs) in mathematics. This genre-based study investigates the extent to which published writers in mathematics establish a niche for their research and the range of strategies they use when they do so. We identify five steps that mathematicians choose from among or combine to establish both a niche for and the significance of their work. In examining the implications of our findings for novice writers in the field, we propose modifications to the CARS model to accommodate the practices of writers in mathematics and to assist newcomers in understanding the crucial features of structuring RAIs in this field. 


Writing in the Repair Cafe: Writing in the First-year Engineering Course
Judi Jewinski, Special Advisor to the Provost on English Language Competency, Provost’s Office, University of Waterloo

This presentation discusses the extensive re-design of ME100, the first-year mechanical engineering course, to integrate communication through practice and professionalization. Through online forums and assignments that were linked to students’ hands-on experience,” writing in the course facilitated peer engagement, professional team-based communication, and the deep learning of key mechanical concepts. Our discussion draws on George Kuh’s work on high-impact practices and David Russell’s review of writing in the disciplines to discuss the course design and its impact on students’ perceptions and performance. Topics include collaboration with writing specialists and the creation, layering and assessment of assignments and rubrics.

ME100 emphasized teamwork and regular written communication. Typically in such courses, the major assignment requires students to develop designs in response to an authentic “Request for Proposal.” In ME100, students developed concepts in 5-person teams with regular feedback from Teaching Assistants. Weekly discussion and debate encouraged them to improve ideas in a collaborative, professional environment. Designs which began as unrealistic, because of lack of experience or practice, gradually gained sophistication as students learned to defend their ideas in discussions with their peers.

Students were also learning to understand the nuts and bolts of hardware through the paradigm of a “Repair Café,” where they regularly dismantled, checked, and rebuilt a variety of mechanical devices. Each activity required students to report their observations to team members in writing, explaining what these might contribute to their evolving design concepts. By linking the course to professional practices, students’ motives for writing were aligned with course and faculty objectives (Russell 272). As a result, student writing improved significantly over the term and final reports were polished professional pieces demonstrating a strong grasp of theoretical concepts. Interestingly, although writing represented 60% of the final grade, students did not view ME100 as a writing-intensive course. 


Undergraduate Writing Assignments in Mechanical Engineering: Targeting Attribute 7, Communication Skills
Anne Parker, Associate Professor, Engineering, University of Manitoba

This paper will focus on Attribute 7, “Communication Skills” – and, specifically, on written assignments. This paper has grown out of two initiatives, one at my institution and one undertaken independently as part of a national study. For the faculty-wide initiative, we are preparing rubrics that can be used throughout the faculty as guidelines for attribute assessment in undergraduate Engineering courses. However, we have little information on Attribute 7; which courses, for example, target Attribute 7 and how is it assessed? What kinds of assignments are students being asked to complete? More broadly, what should we be teaching and assessing if we choose to target Attribute 7 in our outlines? 

Interestingly, it is the independent national study that may help us in this endeavor. After collecting course outlines from all the Engineering departments, we can first determine which courses target Attribute 7 and then analyze the written course assignments according to 20 identifiable variables, such as length, genre and grading criteria. The challenge will be in calibrating Attribute 7 and our undergraduate program, including the undergraduate communication courses in our school that instantiate Attribute 7. In this paper, we will report on our progress thus far, both in the process of identifying the written assignments our students are being asked to do and in the development of faculty-wide rubrics. 

Finally, although linking attributes to learning objectives and determining the levels of communicative competence can be very challenging, we hope to show that these two initiatives may help to make the tasks less daunting and more manageable for all the stakeholders in the education of our Engineering students. 


Writing Assignments Across the University Curriculum
Roger Graves, Director, Director–Writing Across the Curriculum, University of Alberta

This presentation will describe the genres of academic writing assignments identified in studies of writing assignments collected at 10 universities and 14 different programs of study (departments, colleges, and interdisciplinary programs). These descriptions will be built using our research team’s coding of over 2000 writing assignments given in a wide variety of programs of study: geography, history, biology, engineering (5 departments), pharmacy, nursing, political science, community service learning, physical education and recreation, and English. Each assignment was coded for over 20 different features including genre, length, feedback, and topic choice. The coding sheets were entered into Excel spreadsheets, combined into one large database, and then queried to identify the main characteristics of each genre. We will present profiles of the most commonly occurring genres we found in our study: essays, papers, reports, presentations, proposals, reflections, lab reports, and posters. Each description of the genre will be placed in the context of its performance or the disciplines in occurs in.