Writing Resources

Communicating Disciplinary Differences to Students

WHY Do These Differences Exist?

When entering a new discipline, there is a tendency for students to think that they need to start over and learn a new style of writing. Instead, our goal should be to help students learn what is important in their new discipline while preserving their previous writing lessons. It will be more effective and efficient to adapt (not replace) prior lessons to fit the new writing expectations.

Faculty can ease this transition and set students up for success by:

  • Understanding WHAT students have already learned about writing
  • Helping students grasp HOW and WHY writing in a new discipline is different / similar

For more details on WHAT students learn in UWS, and how UWS discusses writing across the disciplines, see the section on Understanding UWS: What Do Students Already Know?

To help students understand similarities and differences in writing, keep in mind that while students may expect that writing in a discipline will be different, they often don’t naturally pick up on these differences. Faculty should be explicit about what differences exist.

This process will also be easier if students understand WHY a difference exists. For example, when introducing a new citation style, students may feel frustrated by seemingly random differences:

  • Literature/Humanities: MLA.
  • Biology/Psychology: APA.
  • Engineering: IEEE.


However, if we take a moment to tell students WHY these differences exist, students will be less frustrated, but will also better understand and execute the new element of writing.

  • Citation Style: MLA.
  • Why: The close reading method of analysis requires attention to specific detail; the page number is thus useful to the reader.
  • Citation Style: APA.
  • Why: Science and Social Science emphasize when something was published rather than where in the text it appears; a citation often refers to multiple pages or even an entire study, rather than a single page or sentence.
  • Citation Style: IEEE.
  • Why: Numerical citations de-emphasize the author(s) and put the focus on the findings; space is conserved in a shorter publication.

As another example, various disciplines handle evidence in different ways: the humanities commonly use quotations as evidence, while the sciences and some social sciences use quotations very sparingly. Beyond identifying this pattern, have your students consider WHY this difference exists.

  • Quotations are frequent
  • Why: The language used in the source is important, thus it makes sense to quote the exact language (e.g., a line of a poem or novel).
Science / Some Social Sciences
  • Quotations are rare
  • Why: The specific language matters less than what is being communicated, thus quotes are rarely needed (exceptions: definitions, provocative language, or anything where the wording is critical to the meaning)

Note that this differences in how evidence is handled is related to patterns in how scholars cite (Humanities: close reading approach, use of quotes, and use of page numbers in citations vs. Science: analysis is more about synthesis than close reading, infrequent quotes, no page numbers in citations except when quoting). Beyond explaining how and why writing varies, it can help to show students how writing choices are interconnected.


Elissa Jacobs and Paige Eggebrecht