Elaboration of the W-Criteria

The W-Criteria

  1. Students have opportunities to use writing as a way of learning the content of the course and are taught to write in the forms and for the purposes that are typical of disciplines and/or professions.
  2. Examples of writing within the disciplines are used as a means of instruction about typical structures, modes of reasoning, styles of address, and the use of technical language and of evidence.
  3. Students receive appropriate feedback and response to their writing that is based on explicit criteria and is directed at improving the quality of their writing.
  4. Revision is built into the process of writing for formal assignments, usually in terms of revisions of the same paper, or alternatively, in revisions accomplished through successive similar assignments.
  5. At least half the course grade is based on written work for which students receive feedback (see Criterion 3).

Please click on each link above to read an explanation and sample assignments illustrative of the W-Criteria.

Criterion 1

Students have opportunities to use writing as a way of learning the content of the course and are taught to write in the forms and for the purposes that are typical of disciplines and/or professions.

Writing is not used simply as a medium through which students can be evaluated on whether they have understood course material. Rather, students are given opportunities to use the process of writing as a way of exploring and critiquing complex concepts and coming to understand them. They are also given instruction and practice in writing in such disciplinary forms as lab reports, literary analyses, or policy briefs.


Writing to Explore and Critique a Concept

Early in the semester students do short writing assignments during tutorials to help them determine whether they can explain concepts introduced in the lectures.

  • Take 7-10 minutes to explain the significance and implications of identifying a country's human development index and also explain what is meant by "relative deprivation". Write quickly with the purpose of explaining as fully as you can but without trying to construct an essay or formal paper – you just want to set out some ideas to show what you understand at this point. Your writing will not be graded and no one will criticize your grammar, etc., but you will be exchanging assignments with a neighbour to determine the ideas about which you agree and disagree. Because you will not have time to write down everything, this exchange also provides an opportunity to get some more ideas.  Together you might arrive at most of what needs to be said!

Writing in the Forms Typical of the Discipline

  • Assignment: Policy Brief -- AirCare for British Columbia?
  • Your task is to prepare a policy brief of approximately 3 pages (approximately 1250 words), using the AirCare benefit-cost study. A policy brief is the means by which economists make recommendations to government on what action to take in particular situations. The policy brief should be for the Minister of the Environment for British Columbia and indicate whether or not the AirCare program should be continued for Greater Vancouver.
  • You will need to complete the study by computing the present value of the net benefits of AirCare from the data provided in the study. You might also want to compare your result to the present value of net benefits from no policy, or operating AirCare differently (e.g., less frequent testing). If there is no AirCare, it is still possible to have improvements in air quality from the normal turnover of vehicles (people replacing their old vehicles with new ones that produce less pollution per kilometre traveled).
  • Your policy brief should be clear and concise, following the guidelines covered in tutorials. Data and analysis should be incorporated where appropriate.

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Criterion 2

Examples of writing within the disciplines are used as a means of instruction about typical structures, modes of reasoning, styles of address, and the use of technical language and of evidence.

As part of the engagement with and instruction in writing, students read samples of typical forms of the writing in their discipline, not only for what they say but how they say it and what that means for them as writers who need to produce such texts themselves. To this end, they may analyze various kinds of texts in the discipline, focusing on matters of structure, logic, style, and evidential support and learning to recognize how successful writers use strategies that will meet the expectations of their readers.


Analysis of Features and Goals to Develop Strategies for Writing in a Discipline

1. Critiques of Scholarly Papers

  • In the final assignment, you will need to read original research and write a critique of that research.  The following process illustrates a way in which you might approach this task:
  • Using guidelines, you have read (a) a scholarly research report on orangutans: Xu and Arnason, The Mitochondrial DNA Molecule of Sumatran Orangutan and a Molecular Proposal for Two (Bornean and Sumatran) Species of Orangutan and (b) a critique of that research, posted in a professional journal: Muir et al., Is There Sufficient Evidence to Elevate the Orangutan of Borneo and Sumatra to Separate Species?
  • In class, we will review the critique through the questions below to examine the structures and modes of reasoning.  You will then apply these strategies in writing a similar paper on a topic of your choice.

  • Reading with a view to critique:
    1. What do Muir et al. select to critique from the Xu and Arnason paper?
    2. What were they paying attention to as they read the Xu and Arnason paper? What questions could we say they seemed to have in mind as they read?
      • the sample – what sample was used?
      • the method of analysis – what method was used and how appropriate was it? 
      • key concepts - how did Xu and Arnason define key concepts and why?  
      • do X & A support their claims and evidence with their own or other’s data?
      • how thorough are X & A?  – have they asked enough questions and considered all aspects of the context they are examining?
      • are the data valid and reliable?
      • do the data support the conclusion?
    3. What did Muir et al. have to know to critique at this level?

2. Essay Openings

Good openings in English essays include:

  • essential information about the text;
  • a narrow focus on a general topic;
  • evidence: quotation and paraphrase from primary source texts;
  • indication of the writer’s view/position/critical stance toward the topic;
  • method--indication of how the paper/argument/topic will be developed.

Here are two samples from first-year English essays:

Sample 1:

  • Topic: In some works of literature, a character who is a significant presence appears briefly or does not appear at all. Write an essay in which you show how such a character functions in the work. You may wish to discuss how the character affects action, theme, or the development of other characters.
  • Opening of student’s essay:
  • In her passionate novel Obasan, author Joy Kogawa introduces a silent character who has enormous influence on other characters in the story and on the story itself. [essential information]  The author presents a saga of two Japanese-Canadian families through the eyes of a main protagonist, Naomi. [narrow focus] Her mother’s character appears briefly in the novel, yet has tremendous influence on the Naomi’s development. [textual evidence] The mother’s character becomes a prism throughout which one is able to understand Naomi’s journey in her life. [writer’s position] Mother, the ideal, the loss, the mystery, the silence about her fate, and her rediscovery is a preoccupation of this novel. Moreover, her request to keep her children unaware of her fate affects Naomi’s life as well as the theme and atmosphere of the novel. [method of development]

Sample 2:

  • Topic: Develop a topic on relations between the individual and society in Thomas Hardy’s novel, Under the Greenwood Tree (1872).
  • Opening of student’s essay:
  • The need for collective approval from family members, peers, and people within a community is as apparent today as it was in the middle of the nineteenth century. Thomas Hardy’s novel, Under the Greenwood Tree, [essential information] displays this necessity, and through his character, Miss Fancy Day, we can see this desire for social acceptance. [narrow focus] The desire for approval from her father for her actions, and from the community for her actions and appearance, is apparent throughout the novel. [textual evidence] Hardy also shows that even though public acceptance is so important to Fancy, there is also a desire within her to maintain individuality. [writer’s position] Through her courtship with Dick, we can see Fancy’s need to conform to the standards of society while still maintaining a tinge of distinctiveness. [method of development]

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Criterion 3

Students receive appropriate feedback and response to their writing that is based on explicit criteria and is directed at improving the quality of their writing.

One of the fundamental means by which all writers improve their writing is through response intended to assist in improvement. Such response, however, is more likely to be understood and acted upon when students know what is expected of them. They need to be well informed about what will receive comment, how and by whom comment will be given, and what qualities and characteristics in their writing will be reflected in the grades received. The criteria on which writing an assignment is evaluated should be clearly expressed in writing when the assignment is given and should coincide with the analyses of the features and goals of academic and disciplinary discourse (as discussed in Criterion 2).

Responding to Writing:Peer Review and Grading Criteria

Working with another student’s draft

As you read your partner’s paper,look for the following and describe what you see to the writer, usingthe example we did in class. When you have finished reading each other’s papers, take 5-7 minutes to write on your draft and pass it into your TA:

  • What part of the draft is the strongest?
  • What 3 things might you do to change this text?  Why would you make these changes? (You might think here in terms of details to include, examples, rearrangement of ideas, use of sources, sentence structures, terminology etc.)

What to look at and comment on as you read:


  • sets out a context for the argument – lets us know why theargument is important and relevant to the study of archaeology, whatyou have realized about the study of archaeology and why that realization is useful or important; or
  • introduces the source of information on which you draw and says why it is useful and relevant;
  • establishes a thesis;
  • cues the reader to the development of the paper.


  • regularly reminds the reader of the thesis and follows the development indicated in the opening;
  • provides accurate details as evidence to convince the reader of the thesis;
  • uses references and language to explicitly draw attention to how different interpretations reflected different world views and led to different treatments of the mounds;
  • draws on information from class, textbook and film.


  • closes with some observations of the larger significance and importance of the thesis;
  • raises questions to think about this significance;
  • reflects on what has been presented – acknowledging limitations perhaps or suggesting what else should follow by way of research or practice.

Grading Criteria

You will be writing a brief based on your own research study. You will need to refer to the study and voice your recommendations in the appropriate ways. In class, we will practice these ways of wording and use the example brief on Thailand’s coral reefs.

An “A” range brief will do the following:

  1. The title identifies the issue to be addressed and names the site of the research.

  2. The introductory paragraph explains the issue named in the title in a little more detail and makes claims that show the writer’s belief that this is a problem and lets us know the writer’s view. Opening statements may do some of the following:
    • restate the problem or issue;
    • offer a solution that the brief will support;
    • provide evidence for the credibility of the solution – refer to authorities, like researchers;
    • summarize the recommendations made as a result of the study.

  3. The body of the brief will elaborate on the relevant and key aspects noted in the opening statement.  It may include some of the following:
    • tables, graphs or graphics, which are explained;
    • headings and graphics, which tell us what is important and what to notice;
    • both descriptive and informative language.

  4. The conclusion or final paragraphs will answer the question "So what"? It will do some of the following:
    • summarize findings and draw conclusions;
    • critically assess the data presented, the research method and its limitations, or the sample used;
    • make a policy recommendation that is consistent with the perspective the writer has taken in presenting the argument in the brief.

The brief is written so that it:

  • defines/explains key terms and concepts in the beginning;
  • uses economic and environmental language but in ways that are helpful to non-specialists;
  • uses tables and graphs that will support the text and the argument or position of the paper;
  • explains and points out what is significant in the data from thetables and graphs so the reader can understand without referring to them;
  • uses headings that identify the key topics and ideas –often they come from the opening statement;
  • is typed and proofread with few errors and is written in standard English.

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Criterion 4

Revision is built into the process of writing for formal assignments, usually in terms of revisions of the same paper, or alternatively, in revisions accomplished through successive similar assignments.

W courses acknowledge that writing is a process. Writing instruction will typically include instruction, assistance, and practice in all stages of the process, from initial brainstorming or other idea-generating strategies through organization, drafting, revising, and submitting a completed paper. These techniques not only assist in making a final paper worth reading, they also mean that students rethink what they are saying about a topic and are more likely to get it straight in their minds and on the paper. If successive similar assignments are employed, the characteristics being marked in each assignment should be explicitly identified and and show that there is a planned cumulative effect on students' development as writers over the course of the semester. Through revision, students have opportunities to make use of the responses described in Criterion 3, thereby enhancing their evolving knowledge and skills. This criterion assumes a process that includes responding to but not necessarily grading drafts nor, in the interests of not increasing workloads, giving further extensive feedback on revised work. It also assumes that response and marking will not be left entirely to TAs but that some will be done by, and/or carefully guided by, instructors.


Rubric, Feedback Criteria, and Cycle for Revision

Assignment 3 – Argument Essay: A Meteorite Did/Did Not Cause the Extinction of the Dinosaurs

Purpose: In this assignment you will research and locate journal articles or books (not the Internet) dealing with the Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinction. You will need to demonstrate anawareness of the scientific terminology/vocabulary used in these articles and books, and show that you can summarize other people’s ideas without plagiarizing. After reading the information you have found, you will argue for or against a meteorite causing the extinction of the dinosaurs. There is no right answer to this question. I want to see you choose a side of the argument and back up your choice with evidence from the scientific literature. The library web page that will help you start your search is:http://www.lib.sfu.ca/researchhelp/subjectguides/easc/easc.htm.

Assignment Topic: Find information about the events that happened at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary. Read the articles and books, summarize their information, and decide whether you think a meteorite did or did not cause the extinction of the dinosaurs. Write your essay explaining your stance on this issue and support your ideas with evidence from the scientific literature. Cite your references correctly.

Genre (form of thewriting): Literature search presented in the form of an argument essay.

Intended Audience: Your instructor or your scientific peers (use scientific language; no flowery, creative writing).

Assignment Format: The assignment should adhere to the followingr equirements:

  • Title Page: include course name and number, assignment title, student name and number and date.
  • Body Text Length: 5 pages maximum.
  • Spacing: double-spaced.
  • Font: Times Roman, 12 point.
  • Margins: 1 inch left, right, top and bottom.  
  • Pagination: upper right corner on all pages, first page is not numbered.
  • References: use more than 3 scientific articles or books and list them on a separate page from Body Text, double-spaced, cited using the style of the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences. Please don’t use the Internet for this assignment.

Grading Sheet for Dinosaur Assignment 3 – Argument Essay

Writer’s Name:                                                                                 Date:

Understanding of scientific terms/vocabulary
Scientific ideas or concepts are clearly expressed

There is a thesis
Supporting evidence is adequately developed
Each paragraph contains relevant details

Spelling and punctuation
Grammar and usage
Handed in all writing
References and citations

Final Mark –   /80
How You Can Improve Future Assignments:
Quality Control in Large Classes with Many Markers

Training sessions and explicit grading criteria are essential for consistent feedback among teaching assistants, but consistency in comments and grading may remain an issue, especially for a large class with first-time TAs. In response to this potential problem, teaching assistants are required to identify the best and worst papers for each of their tutorials. The instructor reviews the identified papers for appropriateness of comments and for grading anomalies. Where necessary, further training is provided to teaching assistants, comments are revised, and grades are adjusted.

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Criterion 5

At least half the course grade is based on written work for which students receive feedback (see Criterion 3).

The feedback received may be either before revising an assignment or on a succession of similar assignments (see Criterion 4). Writing on which no feedback is received by the student (including such things as essays in final exams) is not included the calculation of this 50 percent. The grade for written work encompasses all aspects of theassignment; it does not distinguish effective expression from knowledge of content as evident in the written work.

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For more information on writing-intensive learning, including a searchable database on relevant articles, please click on the following link from SFU's Centre for Writing Intensive Learning: http://www.sfu.ca/cwil/library_db/library_db.html