Teaching Students to Write in Your Discipline

It can be frustrating, as an instructor, to craft a writing assignment and then receive papers from some students that fall short of what you hope they will produce. Sometimes it seems some students do not understand the conventions of the assignment, others seem to have misunderstood the assignment, while still others have made what seem to be obvious mistakes of style or grammar. “Why can’t these students write?” some professors lament. “Didn’t they take first-year writing? Didn’t they visit the Writing Center?”

The reality is that the reasons student writing may sometimes be unsatisfactory are more complicated than the experiences students have in writing classes or the University Writing Center. Learning to write is an ongoing process of instruction and practice that takes place throughout a students’ academic career and faculty in the disciplines play an important part of that process. Below are three thoughts about student writing in the disciplines, followed by strategies and links for helping students learn to write in your discipline.

Learning to write is not like receiving an inoculation.

Learning to write is not a linear process and all writing is not the same. Just because a person learns to write for one audience, in one genre and style (what we call “the rhetorical context”) does not mean such approaches to writing will work in the next rhetorical context. The biologist asked to write a sonnet, or the poet asked to write and NIH grant, probably will have to pause and seek out advice and examples before completing the task. In a similar way, the undergraduate writing experiences of students are frequently asking them to write in new rhetorical contexts and they move among different disciplines – and among different instructors.

First-year writing courses are not like inoculations. They cannot possibly teach students how to write in every rhetorical context. Instead, the courses focus on teaching broader conventions of academic writing and how to negotiate unfamiliar rhetorical contexts. Below you will find some quick and simple ways you can help students understand the rhetorical contexts of your discipline.

Genre conventions are key to learning to write in the disciplines.

Learning the conventions of writing in a particular discipline – not just the content but including organization, tone, what counts as evidence, new terms, citation style, and so on – can be a complex process. The students in your classes may still be learning the genre and audience and stylistic conventions of your discipline, or even encountering them for the first time. Writing research has demonstrated that people are faced with writing in a new genre, their initial move is to try to use the genre conventions with which they are familiar (what we call “antecedent genres”). Their use of antecedent genre conventions, however, may not fit in the new context, and instead the student’s initial attempts may result in odd hybrids of different disciplinary conventions. Students understand the concept of genres and conventions – just ask them to categorize their favorite films of music by genre – they just are familiar with the genres in your discipline yet.

Formal errors increase when people write in new genres.

Research in writing studies has demonstrated that, when faced with writing in a new genre, formal errors such as spelling and problems with syntax, increase in early drafts. It is simply a matter of cognitive overload when the writer tries to master a new genre. The same research indicates that, when the writer becomes more comfortable in a genre, the errors decrease.

Strategies for teaching your genre conventions in your disciplines.


Point out to students genre conventions in the readings they do for class.

Although the content of books and articles is the main reason you assign readings in your class, taking a few minutes to point out to students how and why writing in your field is organized and written as it is can help them understand and adopt genre conventions in their own writing. It doesn’t have to take much time in any given class session. For example, just five minutes to point out how the introduction of an article is structured to present an argument, or how a literature review uses sources, can help students identify such features in texts they read in the future.

Make genre conventions explicit in your assignments.

Sometimes, when trying to teach people to write in unfamiliar genres, you have to be more explicit about your expectations than you might expect you have to be. Describing in detail the particular conventions of organization, style, or use of sources you expect students to adopt in a specific writing assignment can help them understand more clearly the expectations of your discipline. Such detail also provides them with useful information if they work with a consultant in the University Writing Center. It also helps to explain to students why writing in your discipline follows certain genre conventions that may not be common in other genres – for example, the importance of a methods section in science articles that do not exist in the same form in articles in the humanities.

Provide students with models of writing that employ the genre conventions you want them to learn.

Most writers, when facing an unfamiliar genre, try to seek out models of that genre – for example, a grant application – that they can use as a guide to follow in their writing. Students benefit from models when writing in new academic genres. There are many ways to provide models, from pointing out texts assigned for class that model a particular kind of writing, to offering links to model articles or chapters. The Yale Writing Center also publishes award-winning student papers from various disciplines.

Encourage students to visit the University Writing Center.

Working with students to understand the conventions of different academic disciplines is one of the central missions of the University Writing Center. We work with students to help them recognize the genre conventions in different rhetorical contexts, and then how to incorporate their ideas into writing in that genre. Encourage them to talk to us when they get an assignment, and when they have completed a draft. When they can’t come to the Writing Center, students may find help online in our Common Writing Situations.

For more ideas about teaching students about disciplinary genre conventions,  see the links below:


Useful resources on the University Writing Center Website including  advice on the following Genres of Writing:

Annotated Bibliographies
Cover Letters
Curriculum Vitae
Literature Reviews
Personal Statements


Other Useful Resources Include:

Links to Guides for Writing For Different Disciplines – Southwestern University Writing Center

“Everyone Should Teach Writing” – Ellen Goldberger, Inside Higher Ed.

“Model Student Papers From the Disciplines” – Yale Writing Center

“Teaching Conventions of Writing in Your Discipline” – University of Wisconsin – Madison Writing Center

“Writing in the STEM Disciplines” – The WAC Clearinghouse

“Books and Articles on Writing in the Disciplines” – University of Toronto