Writing Math: Integrating Universal Design with “Social Turn” Writing Pedagogy

decorative image

Teaching college writing involves teaching a broad range of applied skills to students from a broad range of backgrounds and intended future disciplines. This statement points to three ways in which the learning and teaching of college writing is an inherently problematized endeavor. The first is the sheer range of discrete skills involved. These applied skill sets may include reading and basic composition (from the fields of reading and writing studies), edited standard English grammar (from linguistics), metacognition and engagement (from the social and learning sciences), technological applications (from multimedia studies), source location and evaluation (from the information and information technology sciences), and interpreting and presenting quantitative arguments (from mathematics). While most of these skill areas are addressed in student writing texts and on typical college syllabi, the last skill set listed—the handling of statistical claims when composing an argumentative or informational written or visual product—is often not. In my own teaching of first-year research writing classes, “quantitative literacy” pops up on my syllabus most semesters and has been integrated into instruction, feedback, and individualized projects with various levels of success.

It is the lower range of this spectrum of success that this post addresses. I’d like to improve how I design and deliver quantitative literacy instruction for writing. I also think that as the age of “big data” progresses, teaching quantitative literacy across the curriculum will become an area of focus for writing studies. But for now, the lack of emphasis on this topic in student and teaching resources creates an opportunity for innovation.

The second challenge present in the nature of first-year college writing is that the host of interdisciplinary skills involved are applied skills. This means that students must engage with these skills in both the realm of theory—understanding, interrogating, and relating each skill to the others—and of practice and application in the context of students’ own projects. Finding sufficient time for students to practice and apply these many skills is a considerable challenge for course design. This challenge of time is amplified for nontraditional students, English language learners, and others who may both need extra time and not be acculturated to the way mainland U.S. college culture constructs time in terms of, for example, deadlines, planning, and time management.

A third challenge for teaching college writing is that of integration. The disparate elements of writing need a unifying concept greater than a vague sense that the parts constitute a whole and a unifying goal greater than that of producing a college level paper.

This is where rhetoric steps in as the discipline that, in the western intellectual tradition, has for 2500 years organized how students who plan to enter into public life learn to engage in discourse to accomplish social and societal goals. Despite its long provenance, rhetoric has only relatively recently, in the past half century, reinvigorated the teaching of writing in the post-industrial U.S. as a social and participative literacy.

This timeframe connects with the advent of social constructivist learning theory and with the growing pains of an educational system evolving from one geared toward producing workers in an industrial-managerial society to one aiming to produce the citizen-entrepreneurs of a digital age. The rhetorical conception of writing as an inherently situated way of engaging with particular discourse communities leads naturally to the use of social constructivist pedagogies toward the end of teaching writing as an innovation age skill set. In particular, the “social turn” in writing studies sketched below provides a perspective for approaching writing that resonates with students’ desire to write at school in ways that are practical and relevant for how they write in life and in their emerging careers.

This post posits that the emerging importance of learning and teaching quantitative literacy in college writing and for 21st century student populations can be addressed by putting social turn writing pedagogies into conversation with Universal Design principles. In doing so, I aim to balance the goals of establishing a learning culture that promotes ownership of independent learning with critical examination of online resources (ISTE Standards for Educators 3 and 6) and critical reflection on producing quantitative arguments that are valid, not “fake.”


How rhetoric addresses digital age writing

Particularly at two-year colleges, the sort of institution attended by half of today’s undergraduates (Bailey, Smith Jaggars, & Jenkins, 2015) and the sort at which I teach, students need to learn to write in the authentic genres of their disciplines and of public discourse. At the conclusion of this section, I’ll pick up the matter of why this raises the ante for the importance of teaching quantitative literacy as a writing skill.

In the late 1980s, writing studies took a “social turn” that emphasized language and literacy as social practices rather than as a series of universal skills to be learned. The social turn parallels a shift in emphasis from cognitivist to constructivist learning theory. In her seminal article “Genre as Social Action” (1984), Carolyn R. Miller-Cochran defined genre as an essentially rhetorical and social practice that accomplishes a writing motive which is itself defined within a specific rhetorical context. Among her goals was to develop pedagogies for teaching writing based on how discourse actually works. Her work was influential in the advent of Rhetorical Genre Studies (RGS) and other “social turn” writing pedagogies such as English for Specific Purposes (ESP), Writing in the Disciplines (WID), and Writing about Writing (WaW), which have provided breakthrough pedagogies addressing how novice writers, second language writers, and others can gain access to the shared assumptions, goals, vocabulary, mechanisms of communication and participation, and conventions typical of the forms of writing within specific discourse communities. The New Literacy Studies (NLS) is another social turn school that focuses not only on how literate practices are shaped by cultural patterns of knowing and doing but by the advent of new technologies, media, and genres (Kew, Given, & Brass, 2011). Thus students in courses like mine write in real genres for real-world intended audiences and in authentic and not necessarily print-based genres.

The designs for teaching digital information literacy in my first-year college research writing course combine RGS pedagogies with a spiraling series of exercise modules embedded in the context of students’ own research projects. These modules occur at about the time students are likely to need to take a significant step in their thinking, such as to engage in an initial round of source gathering in order to survey a topic, to develop a focus of inquiry through database and online searching, to critically evaluate the materials they are finding, or to refine a research topic through advanced search techniques. As might be expected from the assumption of RGS that a writer in a new discipline needs mentoring from within that discourse community in order to pick up the insider knowledge involved in researching, writing, and constructing knowledge in a new genre, these exercises tend to work best when done one-on-one or two-on-one with a librarian or instructor, though students appreciate the flexibility of being allowed to complete some training modules on their own.

Source evaluation skills overlap with source locating skills, and I address these in another series of activities, often in a whole group or small group setting where students can begin to develop some of the related knowledge-constructing practices in a replicated (classroom) “community of practice.” For example, I’ll use a series of social, web-based investigations to ask students to apply source evaluation checklists and heuristics to a set of websites relevant to students’ topics, ask students to test their own “fake news” radar for social media posts and “sponsored content” ads against the student performance reported on in a recent study, then provide clear guidelines and instructor- and peer-coaching as students apply their source evaluation skills in explicit statements in their annotated bibliographies and project proposals.

A third skill set for working with source content, and the focus of this post, is the area of quantitative literacy. Although I generally teach composition using OERs rather than a textbook, I still find writing-oriented readings on the use of quantitative argument hard to find, somewhat in keeping with Wolfe’s (2010) observation that argument-writing textbooks often lead students astray by incorrectly “lumping statistical argument with facts, expert testimony, and other kinds of extrinsic proof” (p. 449). My own sin of “lumping” has involved lumping my quantitative literacy instruction into a single class period, scheduled about the time that some students will be choosing to include quantitative claims in their writing projects, with a series of collaborative activities aimed at involving students in deconstructing and making quantitative arguments.

In this class session, I define quantitative literacy for students as the basic level of math needed by citizens to distinguish a good quantitative argument from a bad one, and I define a quantitative argument as the use of statistics or numbers to make an argument. When I ask students to define the term statistic, some will say that a statistic is a number with a percent sign; others may have taken a stats class and will be able to define a statistic as a characteristic of a sample that is used to estimate a corresponding characteristic of a population. I then engage my students in a series of collaborative thought exercises based on Wolfe (2010) that involve re-writing a statistical claim to make various rhetorical arguments; noticing the critical importance of defining the terms that statistical claims are meant to interpret; and decoding how graphs and visuals add levels of argument to statistical claims. Picking up our course theme of writing for a rhetorical situation, we consider today’s society’s preferences for (and abuses of) statistical reasoning and the importance of understanding what counts as valid use of statistics in the genres students have chosen to employ.

The takeaway for my students is that in their reading and in their written use of numbers, they should define terms; consider context when seeking to apply a statistical claim from one context to another; consider mathematical, visual, and language choices; and above all, consider statistics as claims rather than as evidence.

For some students, this class session is a revelation that empowers them not only to avoid logical fallacies in their use of quantitative claims, but to read more critically and devise better arguments. These students are using basic math skills to accomplish the critical thinking necessary for digital citizenship (Fingal, 2017).


Addressing persistent barriers to quantitative literacy

But what about the student who doesn’t attend that class session, doesn’t seek or engage opportunity to make up the missed content, doesn’t turn in low stakes practice assignments or multiple drafts that would allow me and peers to provide feedback, resists engaging in the early stages of locating and evaluating sources, and then, not altogether surprisingly, turns in a very last-minute final draft in which patchwriting and qualitative fallacies are so interwoven that it’s hard to decide where to begin with constructive feedback? While these issues may merit consideration of a student’s “freedom to fail” and the actual learning that can take place when failure is a result not of innovative risk but of choice, another side to considering such a series of choices has to do with considering what types of students are likely to make those choices. One such student avatar is the nontraditional student who has many responsibilities besides school, may be a first generation and/or multilingual college student, and may lack the preparation or acculturation that an open admission college still assumes in its program offerings.

When I set up a learning experience or coach a peer teacher to develop an instructional goal, the basic steps I follow involve:

  • Identify the concepts to be learned
  • Identify barriers to learning
  • Identifying research-tested “best” pedagogical and disciplinary practices to be used
  • Decide how the unit fits into the overall scope of the course
  • Develop the tools and instruction

To revise my approach to quantitative literacy instruction for first-semester college research-writing, I’ll spend the remainder of this post following this protocol and investigating how Universal Design principles might complement RGS principles in providing instruction in the quantitative writing concepts identified above while addressing the specific barriers faced because of the behavioral choices, and possible reasons for them, typical of the nontraditional student avatar sketched above.


Universal Design for Instruction / Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design originated in the mid-twentieth century as an architectural design principle that sought to create usability for the greatest number of users. UD coincided with ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which mandated that public architectural facilities “remove barriers” that prevent access by all individuals. UD has been applied to various design venues beyond architecture, such as information and communication technology.

In education, UD was first articulated in the 1990s as the Universal Design in Learning (UDL) framework by David Rose of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Center for the Applied Special Technology (CAST). Universal Instructional Design (UID) or Universal Design for Instruction (UDI) is a similar framework that has been developed by the University of Washington’s Center for Universal Design in Education (CUDE) and DO-IT Center (Disabilities Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) and by the Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability at the University of Connecticut to develop strategies and principles for UD-based education. UD-based educational principles seek to minimize barriers and maximize genuine learning opportunities for all students, with their various backgrounds, strengths, needs, and interests, through inherently flexible design.

UDL curriculum design meets diversity through flexibility by focusing on what brain research (a basis for cognitivist learning theory) reveals about three core learning processes: engagement, knowledge construction, and knowledge expression (Meyer, Rose, & Gordon, 2014). These processes and the corresponding neural networks that learners’ brains build and engage are represented in the following graphic by CAST and relate to motivation and prioritizing (the “why” of learning), representation and comprehension (the “what” of learning), and skills and strategies (the “how” of learning).

The Universal Design for Learning Guidelines. CAST. About universal design for learning. Retrieved from http://www.cast.org/our-work/about-udl.html#.WwBuDS-ZO8V
The Universal Design for Learning Guidelines. CAST. About universal design for learning. Retrieved from http://www.cast.org/our-work/about-udl.html#.WwBuDS-ZO8V


In its goal of providing both support and challenge to all learners, UDL addresses accessibility, but to do so leans toward choice (multiple routes to the same goal) as opposed to modification by designing learning environments and experiences with systematic variability. UDL principles call for multiple means for students to gain and represent knowledge (for example, through use of graphics and animations, vocabulary support, and highlighting critical features), to express knowledge (for example through choice in learning tasks and products, as well as in support for multiple levels of learning proficiency), and in engagement, as, for example, through choice of topic (Meyer, Rose, & Gordon, 2014). In addition to intentional planning for learner variability through flexibility in student choices of materials, processes, and products, the elements of UDL include the basic pedagogical principles of clearly communicated expectations and timely progress monitoring.

Meyer, Rose, & Gordon (2014) highlight the ways that digital environments with their versatile and networkable characteristics are conducive to the application of UD principles. However, UDL does not require technology. One criticism of UDI principles is that they may ignore issues like policies and infrastructure which are critical for both the designer and the learner (Moore, 2007). (For more on how design can include these considerations, see the Persistence Model for Online Student Retention.)

Similarly, Rao (2013), in an article published through the DO-IT Center, notes common challenges for nontraditional learners (typical of my nontraditional avatar sketch) and extends UD considerations to providing supports for these types of needs in course design, supports which in turn could benefit all students.

Though many of the supports articulated by Rao (2013) and outlined as “checkpoints” on the Universal Design for Learning Guidelines (Meyer, Rose, & Gordon, 2014) have already been built in to my course design (including clear expectations; short, frequent lower-stakes assignments; mechanisms for peer assistance; and timely feedback), these could be re-thought, and other checkpoints could be included.

In particular, the UDL/UDI principle of providing multimodal sources of information and multiple ways for students to customize their access to and use of that information is where I’d like to begin. Although the assumption in the design of a face to face course is that students will come to class and turn in smaller stakes assignments, the reality may be otherwise for some students. While investigating those behavioral choices and how an institutional culture engages with those students remains an important prong of addressing what learning should look like for those students, using principles of UDL/UDI in ways typically applied in online course design may provide better learning support for not only that type of student profile but for all students in face to face classes. Enter the playlist.

My graduate cohort peer Lauren Borrero has explored the use of playlists in secondary English language arts instruction. A learning playlist can be defined as a hyperlinked assignment chart that can achieve a curricular outcome/product through self-pacing; student choice from among multiple modes and options for instructional materials; differentiation through development of leveled charts; and support and feedback through instructor feedback and assignment of follow-up instructional materials.


Designing a macro-heuristic 

In a college class, quantitative literacy instructional materials (and for that matter, for all of the writing skill sets) can be provided through the course learning management system, an approach I’ve already partially realized but have de-emphasized for two reasons, reasons that it is time to re-examine. The first is that while I create organized lists of links to topics relevant to specific learning objectives in my LMS course shells, I find that students tend not to use these. The second is that I’ve assumed the time investment involved in redesigning the presentation of learning resources is more appropriate to developing an online course than to developing a face to face course. While this may be true, the UD principle that a flexible and choice-rich design for access to instructional materials may ultimately provide better learning options for all students suggests considering how a UD approach combining the affordances of multimedia and hyperlinks with the assumptions of social turn teaching that unite my course might just create a macro-tool that could result in better face to face classes as well as better support for students who skip classes and assignments.

At the college level, a support for a quantitative argument-rich paper might take the form of a hyperlinked heuristic. Such a heuristic would organize presentation of instructional materials through the lens of a rhetorically organized overview of the conventional parts of a specific type of paper.

When students in my research-writing class design their final projects, they work through what Lawrence (2014) defines as the concepts of problem posing (using previous studies to articulate a knowledge or practical problem), problem addressing (through their current exploration), and back to problem posing (formulating the implications of their studies for further inquiry). They then adapt conventions specific to the disciplines they are writing within (conventions such as citation style, literature reviews, genre-specific overall formatting, and use of quantitative argument) to their own purposes as writers and to the rhetorical needs of their intended audiences. I’ve tended to avoid giving students templates for paper outlines for fear of stifling problem-solving and creativity. While this overall approach to the course capstone project may have been faithful to UD principle of choice of expression, it may not have included the supports that occupy the space between student skill building and skill application.

Lawrence (2014), who, like me, works with one disciplinary foot in the field of education and the other in that of English studies (although her context of teaching graduate students how to write qualitative research articles is more specific than mine), answers this dilemma in her presentation of genre-specific heuristics as guides that serve as “invitations to creative and critical experimentation” (p. 99). She argues that some RGS-based approaches to conceptualizing genres, such as John Swales’ 2004 IMRAD (introduction, methods, results, and discussion) format for scientific articles, an approach that I use, do not provide sufficient “practical approaches for writing and revising all of the major sections of qualitative research articles” (p. 110). She offers three more-developed heuristics that could be adapted for use either at the paragraph or at the paper level.

In addition to the three heuristic approaches that Lawrence proposes, she organizes in table form an overview presentation of each major section of a qualitative research article. This table includes presentation of the rhetorical function of each section of a qualitative research article, a guiding question for writing and revising that section, a possible paragraph structure, and a possible paragraph template.

Abbreviation of Table 4 from Lawrence, A. (2014, Fall). Three heuristics for writing and revising qualitative research articles in English education. Teaching/writing: The journal of writing teacher education, 3(2), 96-122. Retrieved from http://jolle.coe.uga.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Three-Heuristics-MLA-format.pdf
Abbreviation of Table 4 from Lawrence, A. (2014, Fall). Three heuristics for writing and revising qualitative research articles in English education. Teaching/writing: The journal of writing teacher education, 3(2), 96-122. Retrieved from http://jolle.coe.uga.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Three-Heuristics-MLA-format.pdf


To create a “playlist”-style macro-heuristic for use by my students who elect to write a paper in a similar format that includes a need for quantitative argument, I could work from Lawrence’s table to include a column that re-presents the four objectives for quantitative argument that are important for my course (definition of terms; context; mathematical, visual, and language choices; and presenting statistics as claims rather than evidence), and links each competency to visual- and audio-rich learning resources. OER resources addressing these objectives (such as Carleton College’s general and specific disciplinary teaching resources) could serve as a starting point for selecting effective learning materials. Further columns could be added to address other course skills, such as source evaluation.

While the macro-heuristic might constrain student choice of organization into more of a cookie-cutter approach than I might prefer for an introductory course in which students are writing in a variety of genres,  students like the nontraditional student avatar I sketched above might experience both more support in developing engagement with an independent research project and more access to instructional materials than in the situation where she is given greater autonomy in designing her project but skips so many small assignments and class periods that she is unable to make effective choices. Students wouldn’t be required to use macro-heuristics, but all students could have access to both these (for more guided approaches to project design) as well as to my current lists of links (for more autonomous approaches).

A further use for such a macro-heuristic could be in class sessions focused on peer review and revision, where quick, searchable, linked access to specific course skills in the context of a big-picture presentation of a project design template might be more effective than simply consulting project rubrics. Macro-heuristics would provide flexibility, consistency, clear expectations, ease of navigation, and easily accessible support, as well as a way to link discrete skills like qualitative argument with a genre- and rhetoric-based approach to communicating with a specific audience. UD, meet RGS.



Bailey, T.R., Smith Jaggars, S. & Jenkins, D. (2015). Redesigning America’s community colleges: A clearer path to student success. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

CAST. (n.d.). About universal design for learning. Retrieved from http://www.cast.org/our-work/about-udl.html#.WwBuDS-ZO8V

CAST. (2018). The universal design for learning guidelines version 2.2 [graphic organizer]. Retrieved from http://udlguidelines.cast.org/binaries/content/assets/udlguidelines/udlg-v2-2/udlg_graphicorganizer_v2-2_numbers-yes.pdf

Fingal, D. (2017, December 14). Citizenship in the digital age. Retrieved from https://www.iste.org/explore/articleDetail?articleid=192

Kew, B., Given, K., & Brass, J. (2011). Teachers as researchers of new literacies: Reflections on a qualitative self-study. Journal of language and literacy education, 7(2), 67-84. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1097057.pdf

Lawrence, A. (2014, Fall). Three heuristics for writing and revising qualitative research articles in English education. Teaching/writing: The journal of writing teacher education, 3(2), 96-122. Retrieved from https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/wte/vol3/iss2/7/

Meyer, A., Rose, D.H., Gordon, D. (2014). Universal design for learning: Theory and practice. Wakefield, MA: CAST. Retrieved from http://udltheorypractice.cast.org/login

Miller-Cochran, C.R. (1984). Genre as social action. Quarterly journal of speech, 70(2), 151-167. doi:10.1080/00335638409383686

Moore, S. (2007, October). [Review of the book Teaching every student in the digital age: Universal design for learning, by D. H. Rose & A. Meyer]. Educational technology research & development, 55(5), 521-525. doi: 10.1007/s11423-007-9056-3

Rao, K. (2013). Universal instructional design of online courses: Strategies to support non-traditional learners in postsecondary environments. In S. Burgstahler (Ed.), Universal design in higher education: Promising practices. Seattle: DO-IT, University of Washington. Retrieved from www.uw.edu/doit/UDHE-promising-practices/uid_online.html

Swales, J.M. (2004). Research genres: Explorations and applications. New York, NY: Cambridge.

UDI Online Project. (2009). Examples of UDI in online and blended courses. Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability, University of Connecticut, Storrs. Retrieved from http://www.udi.uconn.edu/index.php?q=content/examples-udi-online-and-blended-courses

Wolfe, J. (2010). Rhetorical numbers: A case for quantitative writing in the composition classroom. College composition and communication, 61(3), 452-475. Retrieved from http://www.ncte.org/cccc/ccc/issues/v61-3

2 Replies to “Writing Math: Integrating Universal Design with “Social Turn” Writing Pedagogy”

  1. Stephanie, great work with this post. This was so interesting for me to read as the work you do is at the other end of the spectrum from mine. I have always taught primary grades and my job is to teach kids what it means to write. How do letters make words? How do words make sentences? How do sentences help us communicate? I really like how in the first few paragraphs you summarized what the three main challenges are with teaching college level writing. I clearly remember my freshman year writing-intensive college course and working with writing center on campus. Adjusting to college-level writing is a huge task!

  2. Stephanie, as I read through your post I must say I am impressed by the challenge that English professors in CC’s take on. I also became curious about how/if there has been a shift over time. I’m not sure how long you’ve taught at the college level, but I’m curious if you’ve seen a shift in preparedness in freshman over the last few years as the Common Core has been implemented? When I started my BA, I felt that the cognitive demand was so much greater than anything I’d experienced in high school. At the time, state K-12 standards were so weak. The Common Core has been controversial, but I LOVE the ELA standards because I feel like (if executed by a competent teacher) they actually scaffold up to what is expected in college. ELA competency is so important going into college because it is vital for success across content areas.

    On a different note, I really appreciated the graphics you chose to include. The UDL framework gave me much food for thought and challenged me about the ways I can lower the entry barrier for all students. I also love the way Lawrence lays out the form and function with guiding questions and even a paragraph template. I would like to adapt this for younger learners. Thanks for sharing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *