college classroom, instructor writes on whiteboard

General Education Writing Courses

Lower Division Writing

The Lower Division Writing Program consists primarily of two courses: RWS 100: The Rhetoric of Written Argument and  RWS 200: The Rhetoric of Written Arguments in Context. These writing courses satisfy two of the three parts of the “Communication and Critical Thinking” component of the General Education program:  “Composition” and “Intermediate Composition and Critical Thinking.” (The third component is “Oral Communication,” which most students satisfy with Communication 103.)  

RWS 100 and RWS 200 emphasize the four “Communication and Critical Thinking” General Education Area Goals that are designed to help students:

  1. craft well-reasoned arguments for specific audiences
  2. analyze a variety of texts commonly encountered in the academic setting
  3. situate discourse within social, generic, cultural, and historic contexts
  4. assess the relative strengths of arguments and supporting evidence.

Students in RWS 100 and RWS 200 learn rhetorically informed ways of interpreting, synthesizing, analyzing, evaluating, researching, and producing arguments. The courses focus primarily on rhetorical analysis of non-fiction argument since argument-based writing is a widely shared component of most disciplinary work. Universities have been described as “houses of argument,” and as Gerald Graff notes, “argument literacy” is essential to academic work of all kinds (Clueless 3) (footnote 1). The centrality of argument literacy is also reflected in professional gateway tests such as the SAT, LSAT and GMAT, in the recently published Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing (footnote 2), and in the Common Core State Standards for K–12 education.

Both RWS 100 and RWS 200 assume that writers improve by working iteratively, composing multiple drafts with time for revision, reflection, guided development, and reader response.  Both are thus highly writing-intensive courses, requiring multiple drafts and many long and short writing assignments produced inside and outside the classroom.

In RWS 100 students analyze claims, evidence and reasons; they locate argumentative moves and rhetorical strategies; they pose critical questions, interrogate assumptions; they evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of texts, conduct research, and produce arguments of their own. Students practice close-reading strategies designed to identify and critique the sophisticated compositional decisions that comprise powerful and effective writing. They read for clues about the context, community, and culture in which these texts were written and to recognize strategies for appealing to audiences.

RWS 200 reinforces and extends work done in RWS 100. The course focuses on the contexts of arguments and discovering what arguments are responding to, both in the sense of what has come before them and in the sense that they are written for an audience in a particular place and time. RWS 200 also emphasizes more sophisticated ways of evaluating arguments, analyzing their strengths, weaknesses, effectiveness, and ethical concerns. Students construct their own arguments—not merely to defend an already-formed opinion but to investigate a question and discover ways to analyze, use, and respond to texts that address it.

Writing courses are supported by:

  • Classes for international students and ESL students
  • A University Writing Center available to all SDSU students and faculty
  • Outreach initiatives and articulation projects with local area high schools and community colleges that help coordinate and integrate curricula and placement.
Research shows that carefully designed writing programs play an important role in student engagement, retention, and persistence, and contribute to the development of transferable skills vital to college and career success.  

This position has been articulated by a number of researchers, including Andrews; Wolfe.

Published in 2011, the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing was created by two- and four-year college and high school writing faculty nationwide, and is endorsed by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project.

A) Rhetorical Knowledge

Rhetorical knowledge is the basis of good writing. It entails situating texts, attending to the choices writers make, and examining the effects texts have on audiences. Study of and practice with basic rhetorical concepts such as purpose, audience, context, genre, and persuasion are an important part of first-year writing classes. Such work helps students understand the most important questions to ask when entering a new rhetorical situation, and equips them with a range of flexible strategies for responding to that situation. Rhetorical knowledge also promotes “reflexivity,” or as rhetorician Richard Lanham puts it, the ability to look “at” as well as “through” the language of a text. This means focusing on what texts “do” as well as what they “say,” and on the moves, strategies, and choices authors make in particular rhetorical situations. This dimension of rhetorical knowledge is important, for when students are able to recognize the moves and choices writers make, they are better able to analyze texts and participate in communities of discourse. When applied to students’ own work, this helps students become more self-aware, mindful writers, and to develop metacognitive skills. In RWS 100 and RWS 200, students are encouraged to apply rhetorical understanding to their own writing in order to advance metacognition. Metacognition is crucial in helping students take control of their writing, become more critical readers, and transfer skills across domains (footnote). Thus much emphasis is given to close reading of student work and to students examining and reflecting on their own writing.

B) Critical Thinking: Interpretation, Analysis, and Evaluation

Our approach to teaching critical thinking is informed by the “Writing Program Administrators Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition,” which establishes guidelines for composition courses across the country. This statement describes critical thinking as

the ability to analyze, synthesize, interpret, and evaluate ideas, information, situations, and texts. When writers think critically about the materials they use—whether print texts, photographs, data sets, videos, or other materials—they separate assertion from evidence, evaluate sources and evidence, recognize and evaluate underlying assumptions, read across texts for connections and patterns, identify and evaluate chains of reasoning, and compose appropriately qualified and developed claims and generalizations. These practices are foundational for advanced academic writing.

Such practices are an important part of our writing program. Our first-year writing classes are also distinguished by their emphasis on the rhetorical analysis of arguments in context. These courses investigate a text’s rhetorical situation (context, audience, genre, and purpose), introduce close reading strategies, present ways of identifying and analyzing elements of an argument, and model critical questions to pose to texts. Students explore how claims, evidence, methods of development, and rhetorical strategies are used to build arguments and persuade audiences. We teach students how to summarize, synthesize and evaluate arguments, examine the way source materials are used, and consider the relative strengths and weaknesses of texts. Students learn to investigate the way authors make assumptions, define concepts, frame issues, and advance values. Analysis and evaluation are taught as practices that can a) help students build their own argument and “join the conversation,” and b) be used as a lens to examine their own writing. 

C) Writing Processes and Knowledge of Conventions

Writing classes at SDSU take a “process approach” to composition. Writing is understood as a non-linear, recursive practice that involves activities such as reading, planning, invention, pre-writing, drafting, research, revision, feedback, and reflection.  Students learn to move back and forth through different phases of composing, adapting to the situation and task. Teachers break complex writing tasks into smaller sub-skills, providing time to practice these skills through low-stakes writing assignments, and giving feedback and guidance early in the process. Students receive regular written and oral feedback prompting them to see their writing through the eyes of their readers, and are required to reflect regularly on the strengths and weaknesses of their own writing. They are taught that multiple drafts and substantial revision are usually required to produce strong writing.  Writing is presented as a set of practices that develop over long periods of time, rather than an innate talent, or the accomplishment of a single course.

Writing classes at SDSU also teach conventions of grammar, usage, format, spelling, and citation. Students learn common citation systems and conventions of usage, and are taught some of the reasons behind these conventions. In addition, they are taught that conventions vary by genre, field and occasion, and that these variations point to different disciplinary cultures and different ways of representing evidence and knowledge.

See Negretti; Rounsaville, Goldberg, and Bawarshi; Nelson Graff.

RWS 100 New Student Learning Outcomes

By the end of RWS 100 students should be able to:

  • Analyze a variety of texts to demonstrate rhetorical knowledge of an argument’s project, claim, audience, genre, rhetorical appeals, rhetorical strategies (including evidence), and assumptions.
  • Analyze rhetorics of global and structurally marginalize communities, with particular attention to ways rhetoric creates, enforces, and disrupts power relationships.
  • Evaluate arguments and their evidence through a process of critical inquiry.
  • Locate, evaluate, and incorporate material from sources into their writing projects.
  • Compose a variety of texts, employing flexible composing strategies and processes for invention, structure, drafting, reflection, collaboration, feedback, revision, and editing.
  • Apply conventions of academic writing, including genre choices, grammar, spelling, mechanics, and citation practices.

RWS 100 Assignment Types

The following assignment types describe the three main writing projects for the course:

  1. Identify an author’s argument, claim, project, assumptions, and rhetorical strategies (including evidence.)  Analyze and evaluate the extent to which the strategies, including evidence and reasoning, support the argument.

  2. Construct an account of an author’s project and argument, focusing on its use of a significant source. Examine the original source material, and analyze how that argument makes use of it. Consider what was included and what was excluded and why. 

  3. Identify and analyze the rhetorical strategies supporting two texts that feature a significant public argument from the perspective of global and structurally marginalized communities, with particular attention to the ways rhetoric creates, enforces, and disrupts power relationships. Evaluate the relative effectiveness of the arguments with respect to their intended audiences by explaining how individual strategies contribute to the authors’ appeals to ethos, pathos, and logos and how those strategies are based on key assumptions the authors make about their audiences.  How does your assessment of the individual strategies lead you to consider the role of rhetoric in today’s world? 

RWS 200 New Student Learning Outcomes

By the end of RWS 200, students should be able to:

  • Analyze a variety of print and digital texts to articulate relationships between an argument’s elements and the contexts within which the argument was created.
  • Analyze rhetorics of global and structurally marginalized communities, with particular attention to the ways rhetoric creates, enforces, and disrupts power relationships historically and contemporarily.
  • Evaluate both print and digital arguments through a process of critical inquiry, examining the arguments in their original contexts and in the context of other arguments in order to discover relationships between texts.
  • Locate, evaluate, and synthesize material from sources related to a public discussion in order to generate and support arguments.
  • Contribute an informed argument to an ongoing public discussion by identifying and assessing the rhetorical context for an issue.
  • Compose a variety of texts, including elements of digital and/or non-print texts, through a multi-stage recursive process.
  • Employ conventions of academic writing in rhetorically purposeful ways.

RWS 200 Assignment Types
  1. Analyze the ways in which two or more texts form a context—historical, social, intellectual, generic, political, technological, etc.—for an author’s argument. How does this context shape the author’s choices of rhetorical strategies, and how do those strategies contribute to the author’s appeals to ethos, pathos, and logos? Evaluate the extent to which you anticipate the author’s argument would be persuasive in this particular context.

  2. Use concepts and arguments from one text as a context for understanding, evaluating, and writing about another. How does one text work as a lens to affirm, challenge, complicate, and/or extend the argument made in the other text?

  3. Analyze a group of historical and contemporary texts in which rhetoric is used by members of global and/or strategically marginalized communities for creating, enforcing, and/or disrupting power relationships. Considering your own contemporary context, position yourself and join the conversation. What argument would you make in response to these arguments, and why? What evidence from your research supports your argument, and how does your lived experience help make your case?


Good writing is commonly presumed to be the accurate transcription of thought or proper adherence to rules. Such assumptions suggest that good writing is simply the product of correctly following rules and avoiding errors, while bad writing entails poor “translation” of thought or failure to follow rules. Writing is sometimes also imagined as a basic skill that individuals master early in life and as the primary responsibility of first-year writing classes.

By contrast, scholars in Rhetoric and Writing Studies (as well as in many other fields) understand learning to write well as a lifelong process.  While acknowledging that mastery of conventions and rules is important, they approach writing as a social and rhetorical activity. They understand learning to write well as a lifelong process. As individuals move in and out of different contexts, whether in schools, workplaces, or communities, they communicate in different ways for different purposes—sometimes drawing on traditional ways of writing, but in other cases inventing new approaches such as multimodal texts that combine written text with audio and visual elements.  What is perceived as good writing in one context may be viewed as ineffective writing in another context. In addition to understanding writing as a social and rhetorical activity, we understand writing not only as a one-way conduit through which we communicate, but also as a process through which we can develop ideas, engage in dialog, learn new concepts, and think critically.  Writing helps us to address critical problems in our areas of study as well as in the larger world.

Relatedly, writing is understood not merely as a container for thought but as a means by which we shape our thinking and construct knowledge, both as individuals and as communities. Just as writing shapes thought, it is also a means of conveying identity, and showing oneself to others as the right kind of person in the right time and place. This suggests that judgments about writing are connected to our values and to our perspectives about knowledge, language, and literacy.

Because what constitutes good writing is situational and determined to a great extent by disciplinary norms, we have not presented a universal rubric to be applied across contexts and departments. However, in the section that follows we present a set of activities and approaches to the teaching of writing that can reinforce and extend the writing skills students learn.

The CSU has designated writing instruction as an all-campus responsibility. There are a number of ways faculty from a wide variety of disciplines can contribute to upper division writing instruction and to reinforce the writing practices featured in lower division writing courses. The following is a list of some activities to consider: 

  • Help students learn about the expectations of readers in your field.
  • Help students understand the main features and functions of genres in your field.
  • Help students understand the main purposes of composing in the field.
  • Show students your own reading, note taking, and responding process.
  • Model an expert reading of a text or discuss close reading strategies important in your discipline. Consider providing a “reading guide” to steer students through a difficult text, explaining genre conventions and disciplinary conventions.
  • Include discussion of the way texts make arguments, advance claims, present evidence and persuade audiences.
  • Discuss the kinds of questions, problems, and evidence that define the discipline.
  • Build in exploratory writing or class discussion to help students generate ideas for papers.
  • Have students submit some work early in the writing process so that drafting, feedback, and revision are possible, and problems can be identified early.
  • Where possible, assign papers that include “scaffolding” (clearly written prompts, preliminary assignments, clearly delineated stages or sectioning of writing, and so forth), revision, feedback and reflection.
  • Ask students for a prospectus or abstract to guide student writing and identify students needing help.
  • Discuss examples of good student writing. If possible, provide a student text that has been successfully revised. Promote revision.
  • Include peer review that encourages students to respond as friendly readers who describe where they understand the writer and where they do not (online and out-of-class review can save time).
  • Have students reflect on their writing over the course of the semester.
  • When giving feedback focus first on a few higher-order concerns (ideas, organization, clarity, etc.) rather than grammatical and sentence-level errors (including typographical errors), minor omissions, and so forth. If possible, comment most heavily on drafts rather than finished products, or allow rewrites.
  • Tell your students of the usefulness of the Writing Center (all students, not just weak writers) and consider asking the Writing Center to review your assignments.
  • Discuss conventions of usage, specialized vocabulary, format, and citation in your discipline. Explain their importance and reasons for their use.

This list is informed by the WPA Outcomes Statement for First Year Composition, which establishes guidelines for composition courses across the country, and by John Bean’s Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom.

If you would like to discuss this primer, the writing program at SDSU, or ways of teaching writing in your classes, please contact the following people:

The following texts provide helpful, accessible advice on teaching writing in undergraduate classes.

  • Andrews, Richard.  Argumentation in Higher Education: Improving Practice through Theory and Research. New York: Routledge, 2010.
  • Bean, John. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.
  • Ferris, Dana, and John Hedgcock. Teaching L2 Composition: Purpose, Process, and Practice. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge, 2014.

  • Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing. Council of Writing Program Administrators, National Council of Teachers of English, and National Writing Project.  2011. Web. 2 July 2016.
  • Graff, Gerald. Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind. New Haven: Yale UP, 2003.
  • Graff, Gerald, and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. 3rd ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2014.
  • Graff, Nelson. “Teaching Rhetorical Analysis to Promote Transfer of Learning.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 53.5 (2010): 376–385.
  • Harris, Joseph. Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts. Logan, Utah: Utah State UP, 2006.
  • Lunsford, Andrea, John. J. Rusziewicz, and Keith Walters, eds. Everything’s an Argument. 6th ed.  Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013.
  • Negretti, Raffaella. “Metacognition in Student Academic Writing.” Written Communication 28.2 (2012): 142–179.
  • Phelps, Louise Wetherbee, and John M. Ackerman.  “Making the Case for Disciplinarity in Rhetoric, Composition, and Writing Studies: The Visibility Project.” College Composition and Communication 62.1 (2010): 180–215.
  • Rounsaville, Angela, Rachel Goldberg, and Anis Bawarshi. “From Incomes to Outcomes: FYW Students’ Prior Genre Knowledge, Metacognition, and the Question of Transfer.” Writing Program Administration 32.1 (2008): 97–112.
  • Wardle, Elizabeth, and Douglas Downs. Writing about Writing: A College Reader.  2nd ed. New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 2014.
  • WPA Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition. Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA).  17 July 2014. Web. 5 July 2016.

  • Williams, Joseph M., and Joseph Bizup. Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace. 11th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2016.

  • Wolfe, Christopher. “Argumentation across the Curriculum.” Written Communication 28.2 (2011): 193–219.


Upper Division Writing

RWS 305W is an intermediate writing course designed to facilitate students’ continued success with the kinds of critical reading, writing, and thinking tasks that are required of them while they are here at the university, as well as after graduation.  Although grasping academic reading and writing strategies are important, the course’s focus on reading and writing both in and beyond the university is particularly relevant to RWS 305W students since, as juniors and seniors, many will soon write for a variety of audiences and purposes.  Thus, the course highlights such academic skills as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.  In addition, to help students negotiate new writing situations, it asks students to consider how different audiences and contexts shape the rhetorical situation.