Building your FWS Syllabus

FWS Requirements

Teaching a First-Year Writing Seminar means that you have agreed to assume responsibility for a seminar that through introductory work in a particular field of study helps students learn to write effective expository prose—prose that, at its best, is characterized by clarity, coherence, intellectual force, and stylistic control. First-Year Seminars pursue this common aim through small classes and adherence to a program-wide set of guidelines. Offering a course for the Knight Institute constitutes an agreement to comply with the following guidelines:

  1. Seminars should require at least FIVE—and at most eight—formal essays on new topics, totaling about 25 or more pages of polished prose. Assignments should form a coherent sequence. Instructors should receive the first essay no later than the beginning of week two, and the second in the subsequent two or three weeks. These early essays provide instructors with an opportunity to introduce their students to the kinds of writing and thinking required in the course and to get a sense of them as writers. At least THREE of the remaining essays should go through several stages of development. Within the great diversity of FWS topics, this guideline provides an important commonality. Students, Cornell faculty of other courses, and graduate schools the students may later attend—all should be assured that this amount of writing is standard in every seminar.

  2. A minimum of THREE of the 5–8 required essays (see above) are developed through several stages of revised drafts under the instructor’s guidance. Guidance may include, in addition to written commentary on drafts, individual conferences, in-class group work, peer commentary, reading responses, journals, and so on. This approach to the teaching of writing ensures an important continuity in methodology among FWSs. Instructors should encourage the understanding of writing as a process and as a means of learning by requiring suitable kinds of preparatory and informal writing. Instructors should provide ample opportunities for students to develop their writing through preliminary written work; students learn how to assess their own (and others’) writing, determining what is good, and why, and what needs to be rewritten. Instructors should comment efficiently on completed written work, and each completed essay should be returned with “transferable” comments before the next one is due. Responses should be planned not to justify a grade but to help students learn how to improve their writing.
  3. All seminars spend ample classroom time (about half) on work directly related to writing. For suggestions on how to use such time, see The Elements of Teaching Writing by Keith Hjortshoj and Katy Gottschalk. There is no point at which students are “too good” or already “too competent” to benefit from discussions of language and of writing. Instructors help students understand the relevance of all discussions to their learning to write.
  4. Reading assignments in the course subject are kept under 75 pages per week to permit regular, concentrated work on writingCommon sense must dictate how to apply this rule of thumb: some readings are difficult and a very few pages a week suffice; some novels, in big print, can be assigned in larger chunks. In every case, readings should serve the writing. To this end, readings, while intellectually demanding, stimulating, and providing the basis for coherent inquiry, should be far fewer than in a normal introductory course in the discipline. Readings may provide models for students of good writing or of various kinds of writing in your discipline.
  5. All students meet in at least two individual conferences with the instructor. Such conferences provide a necessary supplement to in-class work on writing. They also help students learn how to engage in Cornell’s intellectual community.

FWS Learning Outcomes

Every FWS instructor should incorporate a statement in his or her syllabus about specific learning goals or “outcomes” for students in the class—a “mission statement” for the seminar, if you will. These statements should be short and include only the learning outcomes most central to the seminar, although others may also be important. Instructors should be able to observe easily whether students are, or are not, achieving the goals, so that if need be they can adjust their teaching accordingly.

Some appropriate achievements for students to demonstrate in FWSs are as follows:

  • Writing that is suitable for the fieldoccasion, or genre in its use of thesesargumentevidencestructure, and diction. (An individual course statement could be more specific about each area.)
  • Writing that is based on competent, careful reading and analysis of texts. (Such reading skills might need to be taught!)
  • Appropriate, responsible handling of primary and secondary sources, using a style such as MLA or APA.
  • Effective use of preparatory writing strategies such as drafting, revising, taking notes, and collaborating (the latter might be demonstrated in peer review, conferences with the instructor, consultations in the Knight Writing Centers).
  • Final drafts of essays that have been effectively proofread for correctness of grammar, punctuation, and mechanics.
  • Other: Individual instructors may wish to include statements about achievements in regard to the subject content of the course, presentations, and/or participation in discussion. (For examples, see below)

The above achievements can be demonstrated by students and concretely observed by the instructor. Other desirable outcomes are also important but are less easily measured or observed. Instructors should nevertheless aim for these through their pedagogical methods. Namely:

  • Students emerge with confidence in their writing ability and in their ability to continue to learn to write; they emerge convinced of the importance of writing well. (This outcome is measurable only indirectly, through students’ self-reporting on end- of-semester evaluations.)
  • Students understand that writing can help them to learn; they have experienced that process through various kinds of preparatory writing work in and out of the classroom, in work that helps them to explore a subject and that prepares them for their essays. (Students might demonstrate through preparatory or other informal writing the learning that writing has helped them achieve.)
  • Students realize how what they have learned about writing applies (or does not apply) to other writing situations. Their knowledge should be transferable. In a best case scenario, after taking two seminars, students learn through experience and discussion that the demands of a particular subject, purpose, audience, or voice, can cause necessary variations in such matters as style, structure, content, and argument, and that therefore one type of writing cannot be suitable to all purposes or all occasions. (In a seminar, students might demonstrate ability to adjust style or structure according to the demands of a particular genre or audience.)
  • Students perceive that they must continue to investigate “how to write” in new disciplines and situations after their First-Year Writing Seminars in order to write clearly and well. (One demonstration of transferable knowledge might be that students can describe, with appropriate terminology, what they have learned about writing, perhaps in a final reflective essay or in “author’s notes” on essays.)
  • Students develop what some researchers have called a "growth mindset" in relation to writing.

Sample Student Learning Outcome Statements

Take note of the succinct wording of the statements below. Also note that outcomes should be worded to make clear that achieving them is the student’s task. Avoid statements such as “By the end of this course you will know how to...,” which may seem to give all responsibility for learning to the instructor.

Sample 1: Statement for a FWS in English

This First-Year Writing Seminar requires that in essays and other required writing you develop and demonstrate competency in the following areas:

  • theses, argument, evidence, organization, diction, mechanics (proofreading).
  • use of primary and secondary sources.
  • preparatory writing strategies such as drafting, revising, and peer review.
  • analysis of the literary qualities of memoir: e.g., themes, motifs, narrative structure, style. Such analysis will form the basis for essay topics.

Sample 2: Statement for a FWS in Philosophy

Course objectives

By the time you leave this course, your papers should indicate that you can:

  1. find the argument of a text and restate it clearly in your own words.
  2. explain viewpoints clearly that are not your own. (iii) think critically about philosophical ideas.
  3. demonstrate an analytical grasp of the three main currents in contemporary ethics (consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics).
  4. substantively and analytically approach the central question in ethics—“how should one live?”
  5. write papers using theses, organization, arguments, evidence, and language suitable to the discipline of philosophy.

Sample 3: Statement for a FWS in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Learning Objectives

Become a better writer as demonstrated in your:

  • analysis of texts.
  • development of thesis statements and organization. – use of appropriate style, organization, arguments, and evidence for varying genres such as speeches or editorials.
  • appropriate citation of sources.
  • revision of your work and the work of others.

Become a better-informed environmental citizen. In papers and discussion demonstrate excellence in:

  • analysis of the complexity and significance of environmental issues.
  • analysis of scientific and public policy dimensions.
  • critical analysis of information about environmental issues.
  • analysis of the role of personal choice in sustainable solutions.

Note that each of the examples above implies attention to formulating good questions or problems in a given field (questions concerning literary texts, or ethics, or environmental policy, for example).

You should consider it a central learning goal of your First-Year Writing Seminar to help students understand, in your discipline, what constitutes a good question, how to think critically about one, and what habits of writing they should cultivate in the pursuit of good answers. What is the raw "stuff" that your discipline turns into evidence to support the characteristic kinds of arguments made in your field? What uses of language define your discipline? The more ex plicit you can be with students about such goals, the better they will learn.

FWS Syllabus: Info to Include

  • Your name. You may want to hint at what students are to call you—Dr., Ms., first name, Professor?
  • Department abbreviation, course number, section number, and seminar title.
  • Office hours; location of office.
  • Email address and hours during which you can or can’t be contacted.
  • Seminar description (the official one); and perhaps include a personal rationale for the course that explains your particular interests and the integration of writing with the study of the subject matter.
  • A learning outcomes statement. Follow this link for guidance.
  • Texts required (or optional). Course packet— available where? Handbook—a specific required one, or any approved handbook the student already owns?
  • Description of required writing. Kinds and quantities (drafts; revisions; journals), perhaps some opening insights and observations (the kind of writing done in your discipline?).
  • Guidelines for submission of written work. You might set up guidelines such as the following:
    • Word-process all written work.
    • Use standard font, in 12 point.
    • Double-space, using 1-inch margins.
    • Number your pages.
    • Staple or paper-clip your pages together. • At the top of the first page include your name, date, and essay number/title.
    • Proofread and spellcheck before bringing an drafts to class.
  • Requirement for conferences. Students taking First-Year Writing Seminars should meet at least twice in individual conferences with their instructors. Students need to be encouraged/required to meet with you and to take advantage of your office hours.
  • Policy on absences and lateness. Some instructors make clear to students that they are responsible for finding out from other students (not you) what happened in their absence—getting copies of materials and assignments, discussing work covered in class, and so on.
  • Grading policy. What elements enter into the final grade; what work is graded? Be very clear about how you are going to determine the final grade—and don’t change your system half way through the semester, or depend on verbal announcements about your policy as the course progresses. Some teachers find it convenient to work with percentages: e.g., 10% for participation (if you wish to factor in credit for this area, include written participation such as peer editing), 90% for the essays. If you intend to lower the final grade because of lateness to class, work submitted late, more than three unexcused absences, and so on, this is the place to make those penalties very clear.
  • The public domain. A statement indicating that all student writing for the course may be read and shared by all members of the class. (To avoid privacy conflicts and concerns.)
  • Calendar. An indication of the general pace and organization of the course. Many instructors hand out a 15-week overview of when papers and readings will probably be due. Intermittent, detailed 3–4 week day-by-day schedules may be distributed throughout the semester. Always hand out schedules at least a week in advance of when reading and writing assignments will be due. To find dates (and policy) for religious holidays, go to determine the final “exam” date for your class go to
  • A statement on university policies and regulations. Example: "This instructor respects and upholds University policies and regulations pertaining to matters such as: the observation of religious holidays; accommodations available to remedy inequities both visible and invisible; sexual harassment; racial or ethnic discrimination; plagiarism and other violations of community values regarding academic conduct. All students are advised to become familiar with the respective University regulations and are encouraged to bring any questions or concerns to the attention of the instructor."
  • A statement on academic integrity. Suggested example: "All the work you submit in this course must have been written for this course and not another and must originate with you in form and content with all contributory sources fully and specifically acknowledged. Carefully read Cornell’s Code of Academic Integrity. The Code is contained in The Essential Guide to Academic Integrity at Cornell, which is distributed to all new students during orientation. In addition to the Code, the Guide includes Acknowledging the Work of Others, Dealing with Online Sources, Working Collaboratively, a list of online resources, and tips to avoid cheating. You can view the Guide online at this course, the normal penalty for a violation of the code is an 'F' for the term."
  • A statement of your policy on electronic devices in class. Instructors should use their own judgment here.
  • You may also want to add a statement like the following: "Collaborative work of the following kinds is authorized in this course: peer review and critique of students’ essays by one another and, when approved by the instructor in particular cases, collaborative projects by groups of students."

Guidelines for First Assignments

Why the first paper matters

The first paper you assign in a First-Year Writing Seminar provides a unique opportunity to capture student attention and interest; to set a tone for the class; and to help students experiment with the writing and thinking practices you hope will characterize student work throughout the semester (and beyond). The first paper can provide insights into what your students can and cannot do as writers; these insights may help you adjust your learning goals, lesson plans, and assignments. Finally, the first paper serves the larger diagnostic needs of the FWS program as we work to identify students who may need help securing tutoring or mentoring support or finding a FWS that is a more comfortable fit. The FWS Instructor Referral process described in The Indispensable Reference for Teachers of First-Year Writing Seminars works best when FWS instructors participate actively during the first 10 days of the semester.

Since writing should be the focus of every FWS, this first paper should begin when the semester begins. Preparation for this first paper can begin with in-class activities as early as the first class meeting. An integrated sequence of classwork and homework can move students through a quick cycle of drafting—and possibly revision—within the first few classes. A full-length draft should be complete no later than the end of the second week of classes—even if a further round of revisions is planned.

Logistics of a first paper

First Papers should be…

  • Assigned during the first week of classes;
  • Read and assessed quickly, no later than the fourth class meeting;
  • Low-stakes;
  • Challenging, pushing students to practice analytical thinking and writing;
  • Engaged with texts and/or concepts characteristic of your course;
  • Between one and three pages long;
  • Small in scope;
  • Intellectually engaging and also fun.

Functions of a first paper

A first paper assignment can do the following:

  • Introduce students to the intellectual work of the course.
  • Give students a sense of course expectations.
  • Provide insights into how students will manage the substance of your course.
  • Provide students with opportunities to experiment with writing practices you hope students will use in your course (and beyond). These might include textual analysis, revision, peer review, and scaffolding.
  • Capture student attention in the period before exams and other high-stakes assessments begin to dominate academic life.
  • Help you get to know your students. 
  • Help your students get to know you. 
  • Identify students who might benefit from additional support. If they struggle with the first assignment they might struggle with other aspects of the course.

Examples of Useful First Assignments 

There are many options for what a successful first paper assignment might ask students to write. Below are a few ideas that are both small in scope and challenging. If you come up with an alternative option, please share it with us, so we can highlight it in our training materials. 

  • Pull a particularly interesting longer quote on your course topic, perhaps from a reading you will assign. Ask writers to first explain what the quote means and then apply it to their own experiences with the subject. 
  • Pick two quotes that represent competing views that relate to your course theme. Ask writers to explain each perspective and evaluate the perspectives, being sure to provide evidence from their own experiences in their analysis. 
  • Pick a photograph, a piece of art, or some other artifact that relates to your course theme. Pose a question that encourages students to analyze the image in relation to some of the key questions you hope to explore in the class. Encourage students to use the image as evidence in their answers. 
  • Ask students to complete a short reading that relates to your course theme. Ask them to first explain what they think the reading means. Then you could: 1. Ask a specific question they should use the reading to help answer; 2. Use the reading the analyze their own experiences with the issue; or, 3. Pose questions or evidence that complicates specific points in the reading.

Additional Support for Student Writers: 

The Knight Institute offers support to writers through the Cornell Writing Centers and the KNIGHT WRITERS Mentor Program, and accepts a small number of students each semester into Writing 1370/1380: Elements of Academic Writing—a lower enrollment FWS that includes weekly individual teacher/student conferences. All sections of Writing 1370 and 1380 are taught by Knight Institute writing specialists. 

A first FWS assignment should help instructors identify students who might benefit from additional support: in most cases this will not include having students transfer from their current FWS into Writing 1370/80. (Enrollment capacity in Elements of Academic Writing is limited. Cornell offers more than 220 FWSs during the fall semester. Only ten of these are sections of Writing 1370).

FWS Instructor Referral Guidelines

Frequently Asked Questions about Revised Guidelines for First Assignments

The last time I taught an FWS, we were supposed to assign “diagnostic essays.” Does the paper described in these guidelines replace the “diagnostic”?

The first paper described in these guidelines should take the place of the diagnostic essay in your course plan. While the first paper retains diagnostic functions, these revised guidelines highlight some of the other teaching goals for first assignments in a writing seminar, as well as the fact that the first paper assignment should be considered an essential part of the course’s curriculum, not a task that stands apart.

Does this paper count as one of my course’s five “formal” papers?

Your first assignment can count as one of your five “formal” papers. You can also treat it as a draft that will lead to a more formal assignment. Or you can treat it is an informal assignment. Consider what will work best with plans for subsequent classes and assignments as well as your learning goals.

Are personal narratives acceptable?

If you wish to build a first assignment around a personal narrative, be sure to include some elements that push students to do the kind of thinking and writing that will be characteristic of the course. For example, you could ask students to engage with a concept articulated in an early reading assignment.

Personal narratives can help students bring an individual point of view to the subject matter. Personal narratives can also help students identify their own stake in some aspect of the course material. However, an assignment that asks students to work exclusively from personal history or personal experience will not necessarily test students’ ability to read, analyze, or interpret texts, concepts, data, or images. Thinking and writing skills like close reading, analysis, and interpretation are likely to be central to the writing you ask students to do. Your first assignment should introduce students to some aspect of the writing skills and practices you will be teaching. If you can integrate aspects of these skills and practices into a personal narrative there is no reason not to design such an assignment at this point in the semester (or later on).

Should this paper be graded?

Try to keep the stakes low for this first assignment: this may mean not assigning a letter grade. How you keep the stakes low should depend, in part, on your larger grading strategies for the course. 

You are most likely to get the course off to a good start if conversations with students about their first assignment focus on content and style rather than a grade. Students also grow as writers when they feel comfortable experimenting and taking risks. Taking risks can be hard when the grade stress gets in the way. 

Even if the paper is not graded, it should still count. You want students to take the assignment seriously. One of the challenges inherent in teaching writing is figuring out how to help students discover their own investments in the subject matter, even as teachers evaluate their work and assign letter grades for their semester’s work. A particular challenge of the first assignment is finding a way to lower the stakes enough so students feel comfortable experimenting, while still keeping the stakes high enough so students take it seriously.

Should my assignment include revision?

Teaching revision is central to the FWS curriculum. Writers get better at revising if they have multiple opportunities to practice. Some of the most productive conversations instructors and students have about writing emerge from assignments built around guided revision. If it makes sense to incorporate revision, even on a small scale, into the first paper assignment, do so. If you would rather wait until a later assignment, that is also acceptable.

Should my assignment include footnotes or other citations?

Using sources responsibly should be integrated into the learning goals for FWS teachers. If it makes sense to begin working on responsible use of sources as part of your first assignment, do so. If it makes sense to introduce it later, that is also acceptable. (The repetition creeping into the last few responses indicates that we’ve entered the realm of instructor choice).

Should we do peer review as part of this assignment?

If it makes sense to help students work in peer groups—or read one another’s work—as part of your first assignment, do so. If it makes sense to introduce these practices later, that is also acceptable.

Should I schedule a conference after this paper?

Some instructors like to schedule a round of conferences within the first two weeks to get to know their students. Others like to wait until students have produced a larger body of work to discuss. Either approach is acceptable.

The last time I taught an FWS, I had students adding and dropping during the first few classes. How can I assign a paper starting in the first class or the first week when I have students switching in and out?

We always recommend thinking of a paper assignment as a sequence of several activities. Even for a short paper, a sequence could include: in-class work; informal writing completed in or out of class; a group activity; and the “formal” final draft of a paper. (These are possibilities, not requirements).

If you design a sequence with several elements that structures the first few classes of the semester, think about entry points for students who might add the class before the second meeting, or the third, or the fourth. As students add, you can communicate which things they can do to complete the assignment alongside their classmates. For instance, if the sequence begins with an in-class, informal writing assignment, a student who joins after the first class meeting could complete this informal assignment at home. If students watch a short video during the first class and respond to a discussion question, make the video and the questions available to students who add later so they can watch it on their own and respond to questions as an informal writing assignment. (For more information on dealing with unstable enrollments in the opening weeks, see KNIGHTLYnews post: “Expecting, and Accepting, Fluctuating FWS Enrollment.” 

Sample Schedule for Drafts and Dates

Official Cornell Academic Calendar

Sample schedule for drafts

Week 1, August 21-25

Essay 1 draft or preparatory writing

Week 2, August 28-September 1

Essay 1 “trial” essay due

Essay 2 preparatory writing

Guidelines for First Paper Assignment

Week 3, September 5-8 (No Classes September 4, Labor Day)

Essay 2 drafting

FWS Instructor Referral

Deadline for Instructor Referral: TBA

CU Add Deadline for Regular Classes: Tuesday, September 5

Week 4, September 11-15

Essay 2 final

Week 5, September 18-22

Essay 3 preparatory writing

Week 6, September 25-29

Essay 3 drafting

Week 7, October 2-6

Fall Break October 7-10, No Classes

Essay 3 revision work

Week 8, October 11-13

Essay 3 final due

Week 9, October 16-20

Essay 4 preparatory writing

CU Drop Deadline for Regular Classes: Monday, October 16

Week 10, October 23-27

Essay 4 drafting work; Essay 5 proposal/preparatory writing

Week 11, October 30-November 3

Essay 4 revision work / Essay 5 preparatory work

Week 12, November 6-10

Writing conferences / Essay 5 drafting work

Week 13, November 13-17

Writing conferences / Revision work

Week 14, November 20-21

Revision work and reflection


Thanksgiving Break November 22-26, No Classes

Week 15, November 27-December 1

Presentations; Essay 5 final due

Course-Teacher Evaluations (online)

Last day of classes December 4

December 5-7, Study Days

December 8-16, Final Exams

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