How can I fulfill “writing across the curriculum” requirements in a physics class?

posted July 11, 2019 and revised May 13, 2020
by Leslie Atkins Elliott

Writing across the curriculum

At many universities, majors are required to have a “writing across the curriculum” or “writing intensive” course, where students receive focused instruction on writing in their discipline. Some universities have explicit requirements while others refer to a set of guidelines that departments should follow. In general, however, there are these common features of a WAC course:

  • The class should require a lot of writing. Some programs require 7500 words (~15 single spaced pages), others suggest that ~50% of the assessment of the course should stem from written assignments, while others leave the requirement more open to interpretation.
  • Students should have experience with multiple genres of disciplinary writing, both formal and informal, that are characteristic of writing that is done in the discipline.
  • Writing should be integrated with course content: there is not a final “writing” unit tacked onto the end of a unit, but writing is woven into the ongoing activities and the construction of content in class.
  • Students should have opportunities for feedback and revision, including peer feedback and instructor feedback.
  • And there should be instruction on writing: writing is not just required of students but explicitly taught.

Genres of writing in physics

So what is characteristic of writing in physics? For most, the first genre that comes to mind is the scientific journal article. However, multiple forms of writing, both formal and informal, are employed in the development of those articles. Physicists scribble on chalkboards, draw diagrams and models, annotate graphs and photos, jot down ideas in notebooks, send emails, scrawl notes in the margins of papers, write grant proposals, review proposals and papers, draft conference proceedings, put together presentations, and, ultimately, tidy up all of this work into a publishable journal article. When we consider the range of ways in which physicists write, the informal ones are more representative of “writing like a physicist” than more formal genres.

These more informal types of writing are so ubiquitous and automatic that sometimes we don’t even consider them to be “writing,” but just part of doing physics. However, these are a critical part of the writing that physicists do, and they should be taken seriously as “counting” towards writing across the curriculum. Many research-based teaching methods in physics incorporate these types of informal writing, so you may already be doing more than you think in incorporating writing into your class. By explicitly attending to the informal writing in these methods, you can address many WAC goals. And because informal writing is so integral to how physicists do physics, explicitly attending to it - just as you would offer instruction on how to use an oscilloscope - can support the effective use of these research-based methods. Here are examples of many common practices in physics and physics classrooms that can be used for writing across the curriculum:

1. Lab notebooks

A lab-based course is a natural place to meet WAC requirements because of the way in which these courses engage students in a range of scientific practices. The lab notebook ensures ongoing informal writing, and this writing contributes to later, more formal assignments.

In our course, students model their notebooks on scientists’ notebooks, develop rubrics for their notebooks, and receive feedback and grading on those notebooks.

2. Whiteboards

While we rarely think of informal interactions at lab meetings or at conferences as rich in writing practices, it is, for most physicists, impossible to imagine these conversations taking place without a whiteboard, chalkboard, or the proverbial back-of-the-envelope where plans, models, and data can be shared, discussed, and transformed. Moreover, it is hard to imagine formal scientific writing being produced without these more informal interactions around writing. They provide an opportunity to receive rapid feedback as colleagues collaboratively think through ideas.

Many reform curricula recommend the use of whiteboards. By positioning these as a form of science writing and the interactions around whiteboards as a form of ongoing feedback, with support in using them effectively, students are meeting WAC writing requirements as a regular part of instruction.

3. Diagrams

“Scientific writing” is not just written words, but the range of inscriptions that are produced to share scientific knowledge. For a physicist, diagrams and graphs are central to our writing, succinctly presenting both data and argument. Experienced generators of these master the art of transforming inscriptions (Kozma, 2003; Pozzer-Ardenghi & Roth, 2010)—changing from inscription to inscription (as from a list to a table to a line graph or from a photograph to an illustration to a conceptual diagram) and making representational decisions to best convey information and analysis. Despite their importance, students often have little dedicated instruction on how to generate, transform and interpret these inscriptions.

In a WAC course in physics, students should have the opportunity to determine how to represent data in support of their arguments, to receive feedback on those choices and opportunities for revision. Because of the ubiquity of diagrams in physics, integrating this instruction into a physics course is straightforward and strongly supports other learning outcomes. In addition to feedback that happens on whiteboards and in homework, we have a lesson plan, here, that allows students to see their classmates’ representations and provide feedback on those.

4. Peer review

Anyone who has received a thoughtful peer review understands that useful feedback can be incredibly powerful. It makes us not just better writers, but better scientists. And anyone who has served as a reviewer recognizes that by writing a careful review -- one that articulates for the author what he or she is doing well, how we understand the contribution the paper makes, and where it may fall short -- we learn a great deal and become better writers ourselves.

Good peer review is not about editing grammar, but about peers attending to and giving feedback on each other’s ideas. Supporting students in this feedback can happen informally, as they respond to one another’s whiteboards and share ideas in class, and through more formal structures you can provide. Simple guidelines, like those articulated in this lesson plan, can be particularly helpful.

5. Homework

By the time a scientist has an article accepted, the ideas in that article have been jotted down in lab notes, shared informally on chalkboards, shared more formally in lab meetings and conferences, subjected to rounds of peer review, and, finally, published. For students to be able to write a more formal paper in class, in ways that are related to scientific writing, ideas should have time to develop and be shared.

Homework is a particularly useful way to develop and share ideas as you build towards more formal papers. To best address the WAC requirements, homework should involve extensive writing that is connected to content and part of a cycle of feedback and revision. It should draw on ideas generated in class, and then be used again in class as ideas become more refined. Suggestions for generating and using homework in class can be found here.

6. Reading

One way we learn to write in science is by reading and reflecting on well-written scientific writing. Helping students to “closely read” scientific texts -- with attention to both understanding the argument and understanding how the argument is constructed -- is part of how students can receive explicit writing instruction. It is not that they are having their grammar corrected, but that they have opportunities to examine how scientific texts are constructed and use that in developing their own skills as writers.

Choosing brief, well-written scientific texts, and supporting students in closely reading those can support scientific writing while also addressing the disciplinary content knowledge of your course. One approach to close reading is described here; there are many additional resources for close reading available through campus writing centers and online.

7. Grant proposals

Grant proposals serve a function beyond getting research funded. They are where we first articulate the rationale for our work, discuss the methods we expect to employ, and anticipate possible evidence and implications of those. We anticipate an audience and what kinds of arguments they will find convincing. By doing so, we have framed future papers that will come from this work. And so, by engaging students in a “grant proposal” stage of writing, they are not only more intentional about their lab work, but also have done the early stages of writing up findings.

Some faculty do formal assignments that are modeled on grant proposals, familiarizing students with these scientific genres and their structures and using the assignments as a critical step in approving students’ projects. Others have homework assignments that have students describe projects and anticipate findings, which replicates some roles of the grant proposal but without all of the more formal structures.


The WAC clearinghouse (Colorado State University)

Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing (Council of Writing Program Administrators)

Composing Science - A Facilitator’s Guide to Writing in the Science Classroom (Leslie Atkins, Elliott Kim Jaxon, Irene Salter)