Rhetoric and Composition
Department Chair:
Laurie McMillin

Phone: (440) 775-6601
Fax: (440) 775-8619

Rice 116
10 N. Professor St.
Oberlin, OH, 44074

Best Practices for Teaching Writing at Oberlin College

Best Practices for Teaching Writing at Oberlin College


  • Professors encourage the notion that writing can be used to learn, and not just to demonstrate learning.
  • Instructors incorporate writing as a tool for learning and inquiry as well as a performance to be evaluated.  They emphasize the different uses and expectations that guide particular assignments.  
  • Students write often - every week, if possible.  Their writing can include informal writing, responses (on Blackboard, etc), in-class writing, drafts, formal papers, revisions.
  • Instructors distribute and discuss Oberlin's Criteria for Writing Proficiency. Professors discuss what the criteria mean for their particular course and discipline. Students understand that WP is determined at the end of the course, and is separate from their grade for the course.  
  • Instructors make clear the criteria by which a paper will be evaluated. If they use the Seven-Point Rubric for Assessing WP and Detailed Rubric for Assessing WP to determine writing proficiency (and this is encouraged), these are available to students throughout the course.
  • Faculty help students understand how to create theses within their particular field.  Research at Oberlin suggests that many students are uncertain about how to create, support, and develop a thesis.  (This may be due to the emphasis of much high school writing instruction.)  For help on developing a thesis, see Developing Your Thesis, Developing a Thesis, and Gerald Graff and Linda Birkenstein's They Say, I Say: Moves the Matter in Academic Writing.

About assignments: 

See also "The Basics of Writing Assignments in the FYSP."  (Although this was created for FYSP, it is generally applicable.)

  • Students engage in some informal writing exercises, such as journal entries on weekly readings and in-class written responses to discussion questions. In most cases these aren't graded, and in some cases you not even read by the professor.  See "about Response"
  • Assignments are clear, specific, and detailed. They demystify academic terms, such as "critique," "review," or "analysis" and make clear what these mean within the specific discipline and the particular course.  Instructors clarify general terms, such as "discuss," "elaborate," or "compare," by explaining in more detail what they mean by them in the context of the specific assignment.
  • Formal paper assignments take into consideration the nature and function of writing in your discipline. As writers within this discipline, professors share tricks of the trade with students.  For more on writing in different disciplines, see the website from Dartmouth's Writing Program.
  • Professors assign sequences of short drafts and revisions throughout the semester rather than the more traditional 20 page term paper due at the end of the course.
  • Expectations for assignments are clear to students. Instructors devote class time to helping students develop the skills to determine what a particular assignment asks of them.   

About response:

see also "Ways to Respond More Effectively to Student Writing" and "Handling the Paper Load."

  • Professors discuss the ways in which their expectations for particular writing assignments are shaped by disciplinary conventions and values.  When possible, they offer students models.
  • Students get written feedback on their writing within the first couple weeks.
  • When possible, professors encourage students to read and respond to each other's writing.  Blackboard can be useful for this.   
  • Students get the chance to revise written work, taking account of the professor's and/or the writing tutor's and/or their peers' responses. For more on response, see the links, "Ways to Respond More Effectively to Student Writing" and "Handling the Paper Load."
  • Comments on early drafts focus more on ideas than correctness or grammar.  
  • Instructors point out the strengths (and not just problems) in students' drafts, so as to encourage them in their work and to help them identify a solid basis upon which they can build.
  • If there are errors in usage or grammar, instructors try to identify patterns and point these out to the students.  Instructors recognize that trying to correct all errors and issues at once can be counterproductive.  
  • At times, instructors think of themselves as more like a coach than an evaluator or judge. They use the process of revision to help students identify their interests and ideas and shape them in light of the assignment.  
  • Students learn about the ethical and practical aspects of citation and understand both the specifics of the Honor Code and the larger context in which it works.
  • Students are informed about and encouraged to make use of the Writing Center.
  • If the class has a writing associate/course tutor, the tutor is integrated into the class, and both students and the tutor understand his/her role: he/she can help with brainstorming sessions, drafting, editing, and other writing issues.  (For more on this, see the link, "Making the Most of a Course Writing Tutor" and "Some (More) Suggestions for Faculty Members Working with a Writing Tutor"
  • If the course includes information literacy, it is integrated into the course.  Research skills are taught not as something extra, but as part of pursuing questions and concepts central to the course.   See the related link: "Incorporating Information Literacy into the First Year Seminars."