University of Minnesota
teaching with writing
center for writing

Teaching With Writing.Center for Writing's home page.

writing across the curriculum & writing in the disciplines: basic principles

writing across the curriculum (wac)

As one response to students’ lack of writing practice throughout the university curriculum, Writing across the Curriculum (WAC) programs emerged in the 1980s.  The philosophies underlying these programs generally agree on these basic principles:

  • Writing is a tool for learning as well as communication; writing can help students synthesize, analyze, and apply course content.
  • Only by practicing the conventions of an academic discipline will students begin to communicate effectively within that discipline.
  • Writing is the responsibility of the entire academic community, and writing instruction must be continuous during all four years of undergraduate education.

discouraging beliefs: instructors

Although WAC initiatives have been in place in most universities for decades, resistance often resurfaces when post-secondary instructors discuss the inclusion of writing in disciplinary curricula:

  • Students should be proficient writers upon matriculating to the university level.
    In the past, academic writing was widely regarded as an isolated skill that could be mastered and called into service when needed.  Educators now regard advancement in writing as a life-long proposition, recognizing that different writing situations impose different demands. High school students may become familiar and able in some genres and subject areas, but will be challenged when they are confronted with new assignments and unfamiliar discourse conventions.
  • Writing-intensive course require instructors to sacrifice valuable content instruction for writing instruction.
    Increasing emphasis on writing in a course can increase the degree to which students learn subject matter, which results in an increase rather than reduction in coverage.  Feeling that they must “deliver” all content directly to students, instructors may discount the learning students do “on their own” when they write. 
  • Instructors who teach with writing must have expertise in the specifics of grammar and usage.
    As experts in their fields, discipline-specific instructors are well-situated to respond to student writing.  They are also well situated to pose specific questions that will inspire more precise or persuasive prose, or to note they can’t make sense of a phrase or sentence that they suspect may contain errors.  These “reader-based” comments may be all students need to self-correct problems, or studetns may be referred to other sources, such as writing handbooks (general or discipline-specific).

writing in the disciplines (wid)

(from the WAC Clearinghouse)

Writing in the Disciplines (WID) is based on the idea that each discipline has its own conventions of language use and style, and the conviction that these conventions must be taught if students are going to participate in successful academic discourse.  Courses and assignments that emphasize Writing in the Disciplines introduce or give students practice with the language conventions and formats typical to a given discipline.  For example, the engineering lab report includes much different information in a quite different format from the annual business report.

"WID assignments are typically, but not exclusively, formal papers prepared over a few weeks or even months. The final papers adhere to format and style guidelines typical of the professional papers they are helping students learn about. Teachers comment primarily on the substance of these assignments, but teachers also expect students to meet professional standards of layout and proofreading (format and mechanical correctness)." (

"Without doubt, the single most important reason for assigning writing tasks in disciplinary courses is to introduce students to the thinking and writing of that discipline. Even though students read disciplinary texts and learn course material, until they practice the language use of the discipline through writing, they are less likely to learn that language thoroughly. In addition, teachers cite other specific advantages of WID tasks, large and small. Such writing helps students to

  • integrate and analyze course content,
  • provide a field-wide context to course material,
  • practice thinking skills relevant to analyses in the discipline,
  • practice professional communication,
  • prepare for a range of careers in the field." (

Instructors of disciplinary writing courses will "decide which goals are most important for them and for the students they typically teach. For instance, if you ordinarily teach a freshman-level survey course that introduces students to the field, giving students practice in the conventions of writing for that field is generally inappropriate. Rather, you would probably want to give students opportunities to write about the new, foundational concepts they're being introduced to so that you can be sure they are learning the fundamental ideas they will need to take other courses in your discipline."

Instructors "thinking about assigning writing in their courses will also consider just how much time they'll have to review or respond to student writing. Assigning a 20-page term paper in a course with 200 students is unrealistic because teachers just don't have time to read and respond to such lengthy student writing." (

adjusting wid tasks to your teaching context

"As teachers determine goals for writing and their time commitment, they discover an entire spectrum of writing they might assign in their classes. Your decisions will be based on complex factors, but the simplified grid below can point you toward additional materials that might be most useful to you as you plan your writing component for each class.

Use this grid to suggest which kinds of writing might be most appropriate in your classes:


to help students learn foundational concepts

to check students' understanding of material

to practice critical thinking, reading and writing

to practice writing conventions of the discipline

Level of students

mostly freshmen and sophomores

mostly majors

mostly senior majors

Typical enrollment

over 75


fewer than 35

Possible assignments

  • writing-to-learn prompts
  • reading journals
  • lab or field notebooks
  • response papers>
  • real writing tasks for audiences students will write to as professionals in field
  • academic papers based on journals in the field
  • library or other source-based writing

Of course, teachers often assign a combination of write-to-learn activities as well as formal research papers." (