Backward By Design Notes

Backward By Design Notes

Writing Instruction Workshop-Retreat,
12-13 September 2006     

Here are the notes highlighting key ideas that emerged from our collective discussions.

Jump to a section: Decoding the Disciplines | Expectations at WWU Evaluating Writing | Responding to Writing | Assigning Writing | Writing Instruction Practices

Decoding the Disciplines of Writing

Bottlenecks to learning identified in your disciplines/courses included cognitive, meta-cognitve, affective, and technical challenges for students:

  • Unable to distinguish big ideas from details
  • Not able to summarize the main idea or purpose
  • Valuing requirements to earn a certain grade rather than valuing the learning process
  • Difficulty contextualizing material/literature within the discipline
  • Difficulty understanding why writing and critical thinking are important to the discipline
  • Viewing writing as finding “the right answer” rather than a process of creating/exploring an interesting idea
  • Not knowing how to write for different tasks or audiences
  • Struggling to develop an individual philosophy rather than simply repeating experts’ ideas or relying on preconceived notions
  • Not understanding how to research in a disciplinary field

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Expectations for Student Writing at WWU

Note: These responses reference the document by the same name that was authored by WAG, the Writing Accountability/Assessment Group.

Some ways these expectations jibe with the steps an expert would take to learn in your class:

  • Concerned with audience and purpose according to the needs within the discipline first, and conventions later (Rhetorical Knowledge)
  • Can contextualize ideas within the discipline (Critical Reasoning)
  • Articulates a significant perspective based on multiple sources – develops an idea that is part of a “tapestry of truth” (Critical Reasoning)
  • Able to learn in community – benefits from shared learning/writing experiences, cohort settings (Composing Process)

Anything missing?

  • Concern with disciplinary rules; expert follows them automatically (Conventions).
  • Affective thinking – valuing empathy and passion as well as cognitive thinking (not on Expectations sheet).

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Evaluating Writing



Subjectivity of grading

  • Model a range of work/alternative models.
  • Provide a model you have already responded to – with your gloss
  • Incorporate meta-commenting into assessment process – give reasoning for criteria & demonstrate your process of reading.

Fraught place of grades in students’ lives

  • Include some informally graded or ungraded assignments.
  • Separate feedback from the grade and deliver separately.
  • Encourage students to value something besides the grade – choice of topic, awareness of how assignment is important to the discipline.
  • Create authentic writing assignments that represent writing within the discipline (outside of academia).

Equation between

grade & self-worth

  • Provide clear rubrics and feedback.
  • Focus feedback on the writing product, not the writer.

Separating growth from true writing proficiency

  • Use portfolios that document progress over time.
  • Ask students to explain what they aimed for, what they ended up with, and what they will do next time.

Not knowing all criteria for success

  • Admit the challenge to students.
  • Provide clear rubrics including specific criteria.
  • Develop a collective rubric/grading criteria as a class.
  • Model successful & unsuccessful writing to accompany rubric.
  • Ask for student feedback on evaluation criteria.

Lack of models, or fear that models will constrain students

  • Provide multiple models that show a range of performance.
  • Talk about why models are successful/unsuccessful.

Not knowing how to teach what students need to know

  • Participate in writing instruction support activities!

Inability of students to *hear* what evaluation says

  • Separate grades from written comments/feedback.
  • Incorporate drafts into the curriculum – teach/instruct before judging writing.
  • Provide methods for students’ self-assessment of strengths, goals, and needs.
  • Discuss evaluation process and rationale in face-to-face meetings with students.
  • Ask students to “mirror” feedback/verify their perceptions.

Time constraints for revising

  • Limit the number of assignments.
  • Limit the length or scope of assignments.

Time constraints for reading and grading

  • Prioritize what should be graded.
  • Limit the number or length of assignments.

Evaluating group/collaborative writing

  • Invite collaborative work during process, but evaluate only the individual efforts.
  • If doing collective products, ask individuals to identify and compose certain sections.

Addressing preconceived notions about students’ abilities

  • Use blind/anonymous reading.
  • Use low-stakes, ungraded writing without names and respond to the ideas presented.

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Responding to Student Writing 

Some Promising Response Practices:

  • Ask for students to name one or two issues they want response to.
  • Survey students to determine what kind of feedback is most effective for them.
  • Explain your process of reading & model effective responding in class.
  • Link feedback to the writing task (purpose), the criteria, and the writing process.
  • Use feedback as a tool to help students become aware of their “hot spots” and develop resources to deal with them.
  • Avoid over-responding – responding to everything, writing too much, spending too much time, etc.
  • Resist judgment responses during the drafting process.
  • Consider multiple forms of response (e.g. written, oral, audio-taped, self-assessment).

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Assigning Writing

Emergent Principles for assigning writing:

  • Build in process guidelines when creating assignments and allow for multiple/alternative processes.
  • Give students chance to understand our composing processes and theirs.
  • Create writing assignments that lead to authentic products.
  • Stage or sequence writing assignments in connected pieces that build on one another.
  • Incorporate listening, response, and research skills into curriculum.
  • Clarify what it means to write (epistemology of writing); namely that writing is a process of discovering a perspective based on evidence and continually testing it against evidence (“tapestry of truth) – NOT a process of proving a ready-made perspective..
  • Provide a clear purpose for each writing assignment.
  • Articulate how to form an argument or perspective that accounts for contrary evidence.
  • Assign products that you are willing/eager to read.

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 Writing Instruction Practices

Favorite practices that link with “Expectations for Student Writing at Western:

Rhetorical Knowledge

  • Provide data and ask writers to interpret it for varying audiences and purposes.
  • Invite writing in a completely different genre from final product – to highlight genre differences.
  • Invite writing in many different genres for varying real world audiences.
  • Discuss the ethical/moral consequences of addressing writing to different audiences.
  • Write in the wrong or inappropriate style to highlight the right/appropriate style.

Critical Reasoning

  • Provide data and ask writers to explain conclusions about it, providing a line of reasoning.
  • Invite frequent short, critical thinking responses to course concepts.
  • Invite reflective assignments articulating an argument, asking questions, and responding to questions
  • Ask for “text-free” genres (visual/oral/kinesthetic) that demonstrate concepts before/along with writing about them.

Composing Process

  • Invite visual/oral/kinesthetic (text-free) products as part of composing written texts.
  • Use “fun” materials: markers, crayons, colored papers, toys, music, etc.
  • Share/exchange writing rituals/commitment strategies, emphasizing the importance of knowing own processes.
  • Model ways to think about approaching the writing assignment (as an expert).
  • Invite writing early in a course – from the get-go – to suggest how writing is thinking.


  • Demonstrate conventions visual/kinesthetic strategies.
  • Tell your students what your “prejudicial errors”/pet peeves are and explain how to avoid them.
  • Use humor to instruct about conventions to relieve tensions.
  • Acknowledge your own conventional “hot spots”/concerns.
  • Discuss the politics of academic discourse and ethics of “correctness” and acknowledge the benefits and costs of conforming to/breaking away from conventions in different situations, code-shifting, etc.
  • Talk about conventional differences and challenges between different languages/nationalities/etc.
  • Discuss the relationship between conventions and audience – why conventions are important to real world (disciplinary) audiences.
  • Discuss the rationales behind genre conventions.
  • Assign exercises that display the difference between conventions in different genres.
  • Acknowledge that everyone has to learn standard edited English (“nobody’s mother tongue” –Elbow)

General Practices

  • Limit the number of writing assignments, or limit the length and/or scope of the writing.
  • Clarify the importance of writing within the discipline for students.
  • Foster interdisciplinary communication between faculty members about writing and teaching writing.  Share what you know, which is a lot~

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