The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) has identified effective communication as a critical competency; however, STEM instructors are often not well prepared to assist students in developing as writers or to respond to student writing effectively. Recognizing this challenge, STEM and Writing Studies faculty and graduate students created a long-term collaboration, Writing Across Engineering (WAE), in the college of engineering at a large R1 university. By participation in WAE, the instructional staff of a writing-intensive physics course engaged in a year-long effort to explore and apply evidence-based best practices for writing instruction. The course (Nuclear Weapons and Arms Control) involves the nontechnical study of the physics of nuclear weapons as well as of related current issues. Taught by a physics professor and five teaching assistants (two undergraduate and three graduate), the course enrolls students from many majors, including physics, engineering, political science, and global studies. In this paper, we focus on how changes in the rubrics for responding to/grading student writing became central to redesigning instruction.
Through participation in WAE, the goals and practices of the course staff shifted in many ways, but central to all of these developments was a tighter alignment of genre instruction with response to student writing. We will first outline best practices for effective disciplinary writing instruction and response, noting how a number of practices absent in the initial course design were added through the WAE intervention. The course already had assignments modeled on professional genres like popular science writing and congressional research reports; however, assignments, writing processes, and particularly response/grading rubrics were heavily focused on strict adherence to specific text conventions (e.g., through point deductions for deviations from assignment guidelines). We identified this as a key disconnect between core disciplinary goals and the details of instructional practice. That disconnect was addressed through changes in assignments, writing processes, and response/grading rubrics. For example, writer’s memos were introduced to encourage student reflection on the choices they were making as writers and to guide their incorporation of peer and instructor feedback. Also prioritized, selective feedback was used in responding to student writing. Critically, these changes were driven by two learning objectives consistent with best practices from Writing Studies: building genre awareness and genre flexibility. We will illustrate this redesign of writing instruction through analysis of the revised rubrics, created collaboratively by the instructional staff, and the new goals that shaped them. We conclude with a discussion of lessons learned and the potential for transfer to other courses and institutions.
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