Enduring questions regarding writing intensive classes are answered in excerpts from an interview with Thomas Hilgers, Professor Emeritus and Director of the Mānoa Writing Program from 1987 to 2010.


1. Just what are writing-intensive classes?

They are classes which use writing as frequently as possible to help students to learn the content of the course. In a conventional class, students are often asked to read, think, discuss, and then write or take an exam, pretty much in that order. In a writing-intensive class, professors ask students to write, read, write as they read, write as they think, write before they discuss, write after they discuss, and then read and discuss even more in order to write again.

2. Give me some examples of how a writing-intensive class might be different.

In a writing-intensive math class, for example, students may be asked to write out proofs in conventional English. (Professors who have had their students do this, by the way, tell me that written proofs are far better indicators of students' understanding of concepts than are the same proofs in mathematical notation.) Students in a music class will write reviews of a performance along with analyses, sometimes in technical language, of their responses. Or students in a botany lab meet with their professor to go over drafts of their lab reports before they revise them. Students in a clinical nursing class keep a "problem-solving log" in which they note the rationales behind the decisions implicit in their clinical write-ups.

In the writing-intensive classroom, students may write on a topic for five minutes before full-class or small-group discussion. A professor may have students write answers to three questions and then discuss their answers in small groups rather than give a lecture on the topics. Almost inevitably, professors in WI classes will use essay rather than multiple-choice exams.

3. Why the shift? Why should I bother to change my class to the writing-intensive mode?

Two basic reasons. The first is that we learn by doing, particularly by doing what we're trying to learn in the appropriate context. Students in astronomy learn astronomy best by doing astronomy. You don't learn to swim by watching tapes of Greg Louganis. To learn to write, students have to write, and write often. To learn to write as a philosopher or an agronomist writes, students have to write with guidance from a philosopher or an agronomist.

 The other reason for the shift is that students will learn better what they learn through writing. Psychologists have shown that we learn best that which we do in many modes. Students in lecture-based classes learn by reading, by listening, and by memorizing. When we add writing, we increase the likelihood that they will learn better. And in virtually every field, writing is one of the ways of "doing" the specialist's work. So writing is a way of learning by doing.

4. Shouldn't writing be handled by the English department?

The English department teaches writing, and does a particularly fine job in using writing to promote understanding of literature. And the English faculty does a good job with English 100, the University's introduction to academic writing. But an English professor can no better teach a physics student how to write a research proposal than a physics professor could teach an English major how to exegete "The Miller's Tale." Responsibility for student writing rests with every faculty member, across the University. The responsibility for the writing done by sociology majors has to be exercised by the faculty in sociology.

5. What do students get out of taking a writing-intensive class?

As I've already said, I am pretty sure that by writing their way "through" the course content, students will come to better understand that content and be better able to put it to use. This is especially true when writing assignments encourage students to discover new relationships, to restructure the frames which shape their ways of understanding the course content. And, in trying to write, say, philosophy, students are also going to learn something about improving their writing.

 At the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, taking a writing-intensive class also helps a student to progress toward graduation. The Mānoa core has been significantly changed to require that students take five writing-intensive classes, at least two from upper-division offerings, before they graduate. This core requirement signals the Mānoa faculty's commitment to work with students' writing.

6. How does a class get listed as writing-intensive?

About the time the next semester's schedule of classes is being put together, we send request-for-WI-designation forms to all department chairs and ask them to make them available to faculty. The forms also allow a department's curriculum committee to request "ongoing designation" of a class as WI. After a form is completed by a class's instructor and approved by the department chair, it is reviewed by the Mānoa Writing Program Faculty Board, a group of seven professors from different departments. Professors are notified of the Board's decision in March and in October, and writing-intensive classes are identified in the official Schedule of Classes by a "WI" before the course title.

7. What criteria are used by the Faculty Board to determine whether a class is writing-intensive or not?

We refer to the "hallmarks of a WI class." First and foremost, the class has to use writing to promote the learning of the course material. Just as important, the professor has to provide interaction with his or her students on their writing. The writing-intensive class also has to contribute significantly to the course grade. And students have to do a substantial amount of writing. We say roughly a minimum of 4,000 words, although this need not all be formal writing. And we require that the classes be limited to 20 students.

8. Just what do you mean by interaction

Some professors make written responses to student drafts. Others schedule one-on-one conferences while students are working on an assignment which involves writing. Many professors use "peer groups" in which students give structured feedback on one another's drafts, after which the professor reviews the drafts. We recommend "different strokes for different folks," because what helps one student to improve writing may not work as well with another student.

 What interaction comes down to is professors acting as concerned "masters" with their student "apprentices." It's a very old model of teaching. The master has to work with the apprentices as they are learning to do the kinds of writing which master zoologists or economists or engineers use. It is a labor- intensive model, I know. It's also a tried and true model.

 9. What do you mean by "Writing contributes significantly to the course grade"?

We depend here on the good judgment of individual professors. We all know that the student's most common question is, "Will this be on the test?" Clearly, students see what contributes to their grade as important and anything else as less than important. We signify the importance of writing by making it contribute to the course grade in real ways.

10. What's magic about 4,000 words?

Nothing. But two things are important here. One, unless there is a significant amount of writing, students will see writing to learn as peripheral, and, indeed, writing will not be a primary way for mastering the course content. And two, improvement in writing requires a lot of writing. Without quantity there will be no improvement in quality. 4,000 words seems a reasonable minimum.

11. Why are the writing-intensive classes limited to 20 students?

The very practical reason is that we want professors to be able to succeed at teaching with writing. Designing assignments and class activities which use writing effectively, meeting with students in conferences, and giving written comments on drafts all take time. After professors have done one WI class, they frequently ask if WI classes can't be limited to 15 students.

 The 20-student limit applies in writing-intensive classes across the UH system; President Simone approved this provision in 1988 as part of the larger articulation effort. I have to report UHM violations of this limit and violations of other guidelines to an Articulation Committee in April of every year in order to renew our agreement with the other colleges in the system.

12. Does a department have to offer all sections of a course as WI?

No. Many departments offer some sections of a course as WI, and other, sometimes larger, sections as conventional lecture-based classes.

13. Are writing-intensive classes working?

The student surveys we receive suggest that on a scale of 0 - 10, student satisfaction with learning in a writing-intensive class rates on the average about 8. Professors report that WI classes give them a better understanding of what their students know and don't know. They also note that their students seem to be learning course content better.

 I suppose the ultimate proof of the program's effectiveness will come when the companies which hire our graduates tell us that our graduates are performing more effectively than graduates from the past.

14. Are there any problems with writing-intensive classes?

Of course. Administrators in some colleges have problems offering small classes. This can cause grave inconvenience
for students whose majors are in those colleges. But in general I think those things are being worked out.

 To some extent, my office cannot provide training for teaching with writing to the extent that some professors wish. The fact is, I don't have examples or very specific advice for a professor in, say, zoology or finance. The best advice for those professors will come from a colleague who has already taught in the writing-intensive mode. But until somebody in a department takes that leap, we have no one to point to when some professors ask for help.

 Perhaps our greatest shortcoming has been in explaining what "writing-intensive" means to our students. Our students want to learn. But they also want to learn with the least effort. What that frequently means is that they will avoid new uses of writing, and try to turn unusual and provocative assignments into something they've already "got down." Until we can get our students to take risks, we'll probably limit what new learning we can foster through new uses of writing. This is a big problem. A university in general does not reward risk-taking among its students.

15. How can I get help in converting a class to the writing-intensive mode?

Undoubtedly the best help will come from a colleague in your own area who has already taught in the writing-intensive mode.

 In addition, the Mānoa Writing Program offers workshops for instructors of writing-intensive classes at the beginning of every semester. At these workshops I give as much generic advice on teaching with writing as I can. But the real benefit of the workshop is when people whose disciplines are in the same area get together to talk about writing and to design assignments.

 The Mānoa Writing Program Faculty Board includes professors from several departments. At least one of our board members is probably sufficiently familiar with the writing done in your discipline to give you some help.

16. Would I have to teach grammar and punctuation?

Working to achieve "standard edited English" becomes worthwhile only when writing is already so far along that a draft is almost ready to "go to press." If you can help your students to see grammar and punctuation errors during that editing phase, you will undoubtedly be helping them to "correct" their texts.

 Your students probably come to you with a 12-year history with grammar and punctuation drills. But research consistently shows that the typical grammar and punctuation drill only helps students with other grammar and punctuation exercises.

 We're on the verge of having software grammar checkers which may prove as useful as software spell checkers. Perhaps these will be effective because they won't be "exercises," but rather checks on students' own texts.

17. What can I do with students who have writing problems that I don't have the time or knowledge to deal with?

Some students get help from the Writing Workshop, a service of the English and ESL departments. While the Writing Workshop is not an editing service, it does offer students professional advice on organization, evidence, and conventional usage.

 Our campus libraries offer mini-courses on getting information, which today involves far more than searching the library database.

I'm hoping that some day each College will offer a Writing Workshop for students in its classes. After all, there is only so much an English professor can do to help a student with a microbiology lab report.

18. It all sounds wonderful, but it also sounds like a lot of work. Any tricks to making the professor's workload manageable

Not all writing done in a writing-intensive class need be read by the professor all of the time. Certainly much of the informal, in-class writing which students do is not intended for others' eyes.

 Many professors manage to use students as co-teachers of writing; they make extensive use of peer feedback groups. I've also sometimes had students co-author single texts--a good device, by the way, to raise students' awareness of how others go about solving writers' problems.

 I give varying degrees of feedback. I sometimes give extended comments on only every third draft I read. Or I comment only on the first third, or middle third, of an essay. And when I've provided comments on early drafts, I don't comment much on the final product. I just grade it. 

19. How do you grade writing?

There's no single "right" way. The only rule, I suppose, is to lay out the criteria and the process for grading at the beginning.

 You know, getting students themselves to articulate criteria can be an effective teaching device. It usually works best at about the mid-point of a course. You can set criteria yourself at the beginning, and then renegotiate the criteria after students have been writing for awhile. Even the Supreme Court sanctions "community standards." 

20. If I teach writing-intensive classes, what do I get out of it?

We all got into higher education because we believed that we could be instrumental in students' learning. All I can promise you is that by teaching with writing you will have the pleasure of seeing your apprentices become more knowledgeable in your subject as they move just a little closer to becoming masters with language.