UMBC Home About Insights Calendar Announcements Search Email Insights

Faculty Development

Writing and Critical Thinking

By Jack Prostko, Director, Faculty Development Center

In order to assess what students know, most professors require some form of writing -- essays, term papers, lab reports, summaries, responses -- from undergraduates at some point in their courses. Writing helps us see how students are grappling with the ideas and content of a class, usually forcing them to engage in higher levels of thinking about a subject. Rather than simply memorizing information, students are asked to analyze or synthesize facts and ideas to develop their skills at thinking like a biologist or a historian or a social worker.

Writing is central to the intellectual development of undergraduates, and currently at UMBC there is a renewed examination of the writing requirements students must fulfill in order to graduate. A Writing Board, appointed by the Provost at the request of the Undergraduate Council and Faculty Senate, is examining the writing requirement and considering adding a "Writing in the Disciplines" component to the undergraduate curriculum.

Writing in the Disciplines (WID) programs at universities have flourished in the last twenty years, in conjunction with programs designed to engage students as active learners. The success of such programs is based on the notion that what we are attempting to do with students when they write isn't simply to improve their composition skills, but to involve them in the language and thinking of our disciplines. According to John Bean, "a teacher's purpose in adding writing components to a course is not to help English departments teach writing. Rather teachers should see writing assignments and other critical thinking activities as useful tools to help students achieve the instructor's content and process goals for a course" (Bean, p.xiv).

The writing emphasized in WID classes combines the use of writing as a tool for learning as well as a tool for communicating. As a tool for learning, writing involves what Art Young calls "discovery thinking," an attempt to make sense of information for the writer as he or she examines ideas and tests out a discipline's language. Such writing is generally informal--journals or rough drafts--and needs to be shaped in order to communicate clearly to a reader. This means that various forms of writing are involved in many WID classes, from ungraded work that helps writers explore a subject, to more formal and finished products. The process of writing and working out ideas, revising and rethinking issues, plays a more central role in WID instruction than it does in many courses that simply require a long paper at the end of the semester.

For professors interested in exploring ways of experimenting with the use of writing in their courses, several excellent resources exist, including Art Young's Teaching Writing Across the Curriculum (available online) and John Bean's Engaging Ideas (available at the Faculty Development Center). A key concern of some faculty is that assigning more writing means taking more time to grade--and that this additional time can make assigning extra writing difficult if not impossible. It's true that students will benefit most if they receive timely feedback on their written work, but this feedback need not be given on every informal writing assignment. And even with formal writing, specific comments on the structure of the ideas and clarity of the presentation are more significant that detailed attention to grammar or "correctness." Indeed, one of the errors beginning instructors often make is overmarking (or even copyediting) students' papers rather than giving specific comments on ideas and referring them to tutorial help to improve their grammar. (At UMBC, the Learning Resources Center provides excellent tutorial support for student writers.) Both Young and Bean offer a variety of strategies for providing concise, effective comments on papers.

For most students (and probably for most of us) writing is never a simple and straightforward task. Getting students to write more regularly and helping them develop the habit of thinking through their ideas on paper in stages of composition and revision can help them deepen their understanding of an academic discipline and help them begin to adopt the language necessary for successful professional work in that discipline.


Davis, Barbara Gross, "Helping Students Write Better in All Courses," from Tools for Teaching, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1993.

Writing Across the Curriculum Clearinghouse, with links and publications

Young, Art. Teaching Writing Across the Curriculum, Third Edition. 2002.

Bean, John C., Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2001.

Fishman, Stephen M., and McCarthy, Lucille, Whose Goals? Whose Aspirations? Learning to Teaching Underprepared Writers Across the Curriculum, Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 2002.

Sorcinelli, Mary Deane, and Elbow, Peter, Writing to Learn: Strategies for Assigning and Responding to Writing Across the Disciplines, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1997.

For advice on improving professional writing:

Boice, Robert, Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing, Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press, 1990.

Rankin, Elizabeth, The Work of Writing: Insights and Strategies for Academics and Professionals, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2001.