Writing as the test of knowledge?: Towards more inclusive course design

Target Learners

This case study was created primarily for those who are involved in teaching in higher education (e.g., faculty, instructors, TAs) to explore inclusive course design practices. However, it could also be used in other settings with or without modifications, such as in co-curricular learning contexts (e.g., professional development workshops for staff members who are in roles of supporting teaching and learning).

Learning Objectives

Through this case study activity, participants will be able to:

  1. Consider learner-centred course design practices
  2. Articulate inclusive assessment techniques
  3. Develop strategies for better supporting learners who bring varying needs and abilities to the classroom

Instructions for Main Facilitator

Ahead of the Workshop
  1. Review the case study scenario and adapt it to your context if necessary.
  2. Review the talking points, which are suggested points for discussions. You may want to adapt the talking points (e.g., modify the language, make additional points) to your specific context.
  3. Consider how you would like to facilitate the activity by thinking of the following questions:
  • Would you like to identify people to facilitate small group discussions ahead of time so that small group discussions will have a guide to keep them on track? Or will the session participants work on their own in small groups without a facilitator/leader?
  • Will you ask someone to take notes during small group discussions? How can these be recorded and shared with the whole group?
  • Would you like to have participants read the case study and discussion questions ahead of time as “homework,” or do you have enough time to do that during your session?
During the Workshop
  1. Divide participants into groups of 3-5. You may want each group to include a facilitator with knowledge of the issues discussed in the scenario, and who can help guide the conversation.
  2. Give groups 10-15 minutes to discuss the scenario. You may want to give each group a large piece of paper where they can document their response to the discussion questions and other additional thoughts.
  3. Debrief as a large group. Each small group shares what they discussed and the facilitator supports a  debrief as a large group.

Instructions for learners

Read the case study scenario. Take a moment to think about the discussion questions then discuss with your group.


This case study scenario illustrates a common missed step in course design, especially among instructors who were trained in disciplines that traditionally rely on one particular form of assessing student learning (in this case, writing). One of the key guiding principles of learner-centred course design is to align three features of a course - 1) learning goals, 2) feedback and assessment processes, 3) teaching and learning activities - with situational factors of the students and the course (e.g., characteristics of students, the specific context in which the course is taught) informing your decisions on how these three features are integrated (Fink, 2003).

Read the scenario below to consider what Patrick could do to change the situation with his students who bring different abilities and needs to the course.  

Case Scenario

Patrick teaches a 300-level undergraduate course in Philosophy. The midterm and final exam of the course are primarily short written answers and longer essay formats. In addition, between these exams, he assigns two smaller mini-papers for students to complete in order to assess their learning in the course. He assesses their ability to critically engage with the texts from the course, expecting them to use the texts to support and craft convincing arguments. Patrick has taught this course every year for the past three years and is consistently disappointed with students’ writing. He finds it grueling to mark their papers, especially (but not limited to) the work by students who do not use English as their first language. He is bothered by all the grammatical errors and unclear sentences, leading to incoherent paragraphs which lack a strong argument. Their papers make him feel unsure whether they understand the concepts so the class average is quite low. Over the years he’s heard from many students who confess that writing fills them with anxiety, yet he’s not sure how to help them—they don’t seem to be improving from paper to paper. He just feels that their writing is not where it needs to be for a 300-level university course, and he is always on the fence whether or not to let these students pass the course.

  1. What are the issues highlighted in this scenario?  
  2. What could Patrick do differently to support the students in his class?
  3. What supports exist for students at your university that you could draw on as an instructor or introduce to your students?

These talking points are meant to help the facilitator generate meaningful conversation with the group. These are not final or comprehensive answers.

Course Design

This case study scenario illustrates some of the misalignment in Patrick’s course design. It is not clear if and how he has taken the situational factors of the course and the learners into consideration in his course design. Reflecting on his past experiences teaching the course can help him analyze the students, their assets and their needs by asking himself: “Who are the students? What are their academic and personal backgrounds?”; “What kinds of training and support for academic writing have the students had before coming into this course?” Reflecting on his students would help identify situational factors that he can build into his course plan.

Based on these situational factors, he could have formulated learning goals, selected teaching and learning activities, and developed feedback and assessment methods that fit for these learners. One of his learning goals for the students was to critically engage with the texts from the course, using them to support and craft convincing arguments. However, it is not clear if and to what extent he has thought through the kinds of teaching and learning activities necessary to build students’ capacity towards achieving this goal. Perhaps additional activities/resources are needed in order to help students learn to craft convincing arguments.

For example, if writing is explicitly one of the course goals, the instructor could work to scaffold the students learning (rather than expect them to arrive with the skill of academic writing in that discipline and/or at that level). In the case scenario with Patrick, this might mean starting with shorter, lower-stakes assignments and building in-class support for writing and feedback. This might also mean being intentional and explicit in writing assignment instructions so that students can identify and work to meet disciplinary and course-specific expectations.

Inclusive assessment strategies  

Patrick’s goal is for students to critically engage with the texts from the course by using them to support and help craft convincing arguments. He primarily relies upon written work (which is embedded within a particular disciplinary convention) for evidence of student’s learning. Yet, is written work the only, and the most effective, way for him to assess student learning?

Let’s consider how the written assessments are impacting students and Patrick:

  • Some students are not coming into the course with the writing skills Patrick is expecting
  • The written assignments are causing anxiety for those students who struggle with academic writing
  • Patrick is also not satisfied with the outcome of the written work, nor is he able to assess students’ abilities to critically engage with the texts because they are unable to craft convincing arguments

It is apparent that Patrick’s assignment methods are serving neither the students nor Patrick.

To support varying needs and abilities of students, you may consider implementing different forms of assignments throughout the course or give students choice in their assignments. By varying assignments and the ways in which you assess learning, you can assess a broader range of competencies and give diverse students different ways to demonstrate their mastery of the course content and learning outcomes. For example, to assess students’ ability to apply a concept to a real-life situation, you may allow students to choose either to write a paper, make an oral or poster presentation, or create a video. Another benefit of flexible assessment methods is that they allow students to align their learning with their personal interests, which results in further increasing student motivation and engagement in learning.

Supporting student success: Making the implicit explicit

Beyond issues in course design, students may in fact not understand the implicit expectations of what makes strong arguments. Students come from different social-cultural-economic backgrounds: Not all students have grown up with opportunities to be introduced and trained into the norms and practices of academia. These norms and practices are not easily visible but rather implicit. Not all students are aware of those implicit rules. To make learning opportunities and experiences equitable, Patrick might want to make the implicit explicit by investing time in walking students through the process of crafting strong arguments. For example, he might review  examples of text with well-crafted arguments, and discuss what makes them exemplary. This is a great opportunity for students to learn about the implicit writing skills that are expected in academia.

Support and advocacy for writing services

Patrick could ask the students what support they need in order for them to be successful in their writing. There may be simple solutions they can identify where he can play a role in helping them succeed.

The instructor could also familiarize themselves with the resources and services their university offers for students to improve their communication (such as writing) skills. You can list available resources on the course syllabus and remind students of those resources as you discuss a writing assignment. You might also arrange for an outreach from your university’s writing service centre or library.  

If your university does not offer enough support for student writing, is there anything you could do to advocate for the improvement of the university’s and your department’s services? For example, you might advocate for writing services that will support diverse students in the communication requirements they must meet across the different disciplines (including yours)

Thank you to Laila Ferreira (Arts Studies in Research and Writing), Afsaneh Sharif (Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology), and Natasha Fox (Equity & Inclusion Office/Department of Geography) at the University of British Columbia for reviewing an early draft of the case study material.

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When re-using this resource, please attribute as follows: developed by Sue Hampton (Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology) and Hanae Tsukada (Equity & Inclusion Office) at the University of British Columbia.

source: https://wiki.ubc.ca/Documentation:Writing_as_the_test_of_knowledge?:_Towards_more_inclusive_course_design

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