When Malisa Zhou enrolled at the University of Toronto Mississauga this past fall, it was to study forensic science and anthropology. So she was surprised to learn she would have to take a writing course, too.
“I’ve always received good feedback on my writing assignments,” Zhou said, “so I wondered if I would take away anything useful.”
The new half-credit, small seminar course – ISP100 Writing for University and Beyond – was not only helpful, it was fun. Over 12 weeks of classes, which took places online due to COVID-19 restrictions, she and her 29 classmates learned how to write more clearly and concisely, compose engaging papers that flow smoothly from topic-to-topic, and use proper grammar.
“The course taught me that I’m not a bad writer, but there are areas that could use strengthening… and everything I learned, I actively incorporated into my other courses,” she said.
First-year writing classes or “freshmen composition” are often a part of the core curriculum at U.S. universities. Last fall, U of T Mississauga introduced a course on the fundamentals of writing for students in all major and specialty programs in the visual studies, anthropology, and chemical and physical sciences departments. The course is intended to help any student become a better writer through review of core principles and practice, enabling them to acquire the writing and reading skills they will need in university and beyond.
Sarah Seely, an assistant professor, teaching stream at the Institute for the Study of University Pedagogy, says the course addresses “the notoriously problematic gap that exists between what is expected of high school and university writers,” an issue for both international and domestic students.
Seely, who has taught writing and linguistic anthropology at several U.S. universities, says an important feature of the course is its iterative, portfolio format with “stress-free assignments.” Students can build on the feedback they receive on drafts to polish their work and improve their marks. This helps them home in on their strengths and the weaknesses that they can improve on with an instructor’s guidance.
ISP100 instructors are experts in the craft and have a passion for teaching and writing. “The fact that we are full faculty members—and not sessional instructors or grad students—creates a better course because we are more invested and institutionally supported,” Seely says.
U of T Mississauga began to explore ways in which to improve students’ writing ability in 2017. That year’s academic plan recommended “Developing communication skills from foundational to advanced levels.”
The result? A course designed to benefit all students with interactive, small seminars.
The newly established Institute for the Study of University Pedagogy has oversight over the course, and the institute’s faculty and staff support the Robert Gillespie Academic Skills Centre, the Teaching & Learning Collaboration, utmONE and Foundational Skills courses.
Admission to ISP100 is based on the results of a writing check-in, an online assessment of students’ writing ability. Some may be directed to first take the foundational course ISP010: Basics of Writing in English.
“There has been a lot of demand over the years for more rigorous and prolonged writing support,” says Tyler Evans-Tokaryk, director of the RGSAC and associate director of ISUP. “Students in this course develop skills they can easily transfer to their programs of study, and then later, to their professional lives.