Introducing the WAC Program’s Online Writing Toolkit

Technology, Writing Across the Curriculum / Tuesday, January 12th, 2021

By Jon Isaac, Assistant Director of Writing Across the Curriculum

Last March, like every other instructor in the country, I shifted my course—a once-weekly graduate course on writing pedagogy—from in-person to entirely online. Along with the inevitable technological glitches, I also had to attend to the constantly-evolving conversations happening in and beyond higher education circles about rethinking expectations, student engagement, community-building, and evaluation. The questions that ran through my head as I imagined how my course would proceed for the final two months of the semester may sound familiar to you: Should I transition to entirely asynchronous instruction and just use online discussions on Canvas? Should I decrease the word limits of assignments and expectations for student engagement? How could our class possibly maintain the sense of community we had in person?

For my course, I settled on a mostly asynchronous discussion board, with a few synchronous sessions towards the end to remind students of the sense of community that we had built in the first few months of the semester. I decided to remove one smaller assignment from my curriculum and instead replace it with a couple of extra discussion board prompts. And, the truth is, we couldn’t entirely recapture the sense of community, though my check-in questions in synchronous sessions saw my students sharing smiles and laughter onscreen as they showed off their cats, hamsters, and other pets.

The questions that ran through my head during that hectic transitional time were about more than just assignments and instruction—they were fundamentally about student writing. How much should I expect my students to be writing online for our course now that we weren’t meeting in-person to discuss readings and ideas about teaching? 

Fortunately, the pandemic hasn’t necessitated entirely reimagining writing pedagogy. Teaching written communication is just as important now as it was pre-pandemic. But teaching writing in a remote classroom, especially during a pandemic when students are isolated from faculty and from one another, poses unique challenges. Data from the University’s Undergraduate Student Experience and Needs Survey indicates that students seek more opportunities to engage with instructors and peers. We in the Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) program suggest that writing offers just such an opportunity. Meaningful and creative writing assignments can keep students engaged in an online educational environment, deepen their understanding of course content knowledge, and help them develop and sustain relationships with their instructor and their classmates.

With this in mind, the WAC program created an Online Writing Toolkit to assist instructors to incorporate online writing pedagogy and practice in meaningful ways into their Spring 2021 courses—and beyond. The Toolkit is broken into three sections—Assigning Low-Stakes Writing, Assigning High-Stakes Writing, and Assessing Student Writing. Each section offers advice advice (drawn from long-held wisdom and emerging insights in writing studies) and innovative examples to help UW instructors integrate writing into their courses.

Here are some features of our Toolkit that can aid you as you plan online writing instruction and assessment:

Principles for Assigning and Responding to Low-Stakes Writing

The move to online instruction has meant that low-stakes, informal writing has taken on added importance in how we foster and deepen student engagement and relationships. Whether to have students engage with others’ ideas in a discussion forum or prepare for a larger assignment, low-stakes writing is a way for you to check in with students. Low-stakes writing gives students the opportunity to experiment, take chances, and develop ideas early on in a writing process and engage more comfortably in high-stakes writing when a paper is due. Building low-stakes writing activities into your course means that students will be better equipped to handle future assignments and tasks. Our Toolkit offers examples of low-stakes writing, such as discussion boards, Padlets, blogs (be sure to check out Professor Annette Vee’s recent post on Another Word about creating community through blogs) and more.

Adapting High-Stakes Writing Assignments to an Online Format

Have you ever thought about using screencasting technology to walk students through your writing assignments? Or offering a variety of multimodal options for students to complete the assignment? These are some ways that you might consider adapting your high-stakes writing assignments to an online format. The shift to online instruction has centered questions of accessibility and inclusivity, and your high-stakes writing assignments can integrate online features and platforms to give students more opportunities to engage with writing in your course. Looking for examples from other instructors using online or technology-enhanced writing assignments? Our Toolkit has examples from instructors in STEM, Social Sciences, and Humanities courses who integrate online offerings in their writing assignments.

Support with Online Writing Assessment

Especially in a remote course, carefully attending to your students’ papers and responding in a constructive, engaged manner offers a unique opportunity to connect with students and to support their learning. Technologies like screencasting and audio feedback can more closely mirror a one-to-one conference and can ensure that there is clear communication in your feedback on student papers. These technologies also give your assessment a personal touch, as they allow students to hear your voice and your inflection as you talk about their papers. We foreground, too, that assessment during the pandemic should emphasize compassion, connection, and student growth. In our current difficult learning and teaching environment, it can be challenging to imagine and implement new assessment practices; however, it may also offer an opportunity to consider more inclusive and accessible grading practices.

Thanks very much for reading this post! We hope you enjoy this new (and ever-evolving) feature from the WAC program. And we’re curious: What questions do you have about online writing instruction and assessment? Is there anything you would like to see addressed in our Online Writing Toolkit? Thanks for sharing your interest and thoughts!

Jon Isaac is in his second year as the Assistant Director of Writing Across the Curriculum. He has worked with faculty, TAs, and lecturers across campus to integrate insights from Writing Studies into their writing instruction and assessment. He has taught introductory and intermediate composition both at UW–Madison and Purdue University and has likewise served as a tutor in the UW Writing Center. He is a PhD candidate who writes about universities, labor unions, and rhetoric.