High-Impact Practice

Writing-Intensive Courses: Overview


Writing-intensive courses incorporate writing at all levels of instruction and across the curriculum. This description will focus on writing-intensive courses in the first year. At most universities, first-year students enroll in composition courses or in writing-intensive humanities courses. Then, later in their undergraduate experience, students participate in writing and communication activities within courses related to their majors. This structure recognizes the complex nature of writing and communication. A single writing course would be insufficient for equipping students with the writing and communication skills they will need in their academic and professional careers, but the luxury provided by a first-year writing course is that students have the time, space, and support to engage in the writing process (Carroll, 2002). After acquiring a basic set of writing skills in the first-year (e.g., argumentation, audience analysis, genre analysis), students learn to transfer them to discipline-specific contexts in subsequent years.

Benefits for Students

Multiple longitudinal studies of the development of college students’ writing skills have highlighted the value of writing-intensive courses in the first year (Carroll, 2002; Sommers & Saltz, 2004). When asked to reflect on their first-year writing experience, students see those experiences as a way to deeply examine course content, to apply the ideas they have learned, and as a way to bring their own interests and beliefs to the course (Sommers & Saltz, 2004).

Writing-intensive courses also confer the following benefits to students:

  • Faculty-student contact: first-year writing courses tend to be smaller in size.
  • Engagement: students in first-year writing courses report high levels of engagement (Anderson, Anson, Gonyea, & Paine, 2015; Sommers & Saltz, 2004).
  • Metacognitive awareness of writing skill: the writing process utilized in most first-year writing courses helps students develop metacognitive knowledge about writing approaches and strategies for a variety of audiences and contexts. Also, engaging in cycles of drafting-feedback-revision helps students to reflect on their learning process and the strengths and weaknesses in their writing (National Council of Teachers of English, 2013).

Critical Components

Anderson and colleagues collected data from over 40,000 first-year students at 80 different institutions (research institutions were over-represented in the sample). First-year students who were assigned writing tasks where the expectations for student work were clear and who had received feedback on their writing from an instructor, peer, family member, or writing center member were more likely to perceive greater progress in their learning and development (Anderson et al., 2015).

English education experts have highlighted the need for adequately scaffolded, yet challenging writing tasks in first-year writing courses (Anderson et al., 2015; Carroll, 2002; Sommers & Saltz, 2004). Anderson’s study found that “meaning-making writing tasks” encouraged deep approaches to learning. “Meaning-making” tasks require students to engage in integrative, critical, or original thinking; for example, supporting a claim with evidence and reasoning; analyzing a text; or evaluating a policy (Anderson et al., 2015).

The National Council of Teachers of English recommends that decisions to exempt students from first-year writing courses should be made based on actual writing samples from the student instead of brief, timed essays such as those required on AP exams (Hansen et al., 2006; National Council of Teachers of English, 2013).