Which Basic W course should I choose?  A number of courses throughout the College, known as W courses, are designed to help you strengthen your writing. As you’ll see from looking over the following pages, these courses represent various disciplines. Each course introduces you to the subject matter of a particular field (philosophy, literature, or political science, for instance), and tandem courses explore the connections between two fields, such as sociology and literature. Each course also introduces you to the craft of writing.

A few examples:

  • In COMM 103W, or Introduction to Communication Studies W, you complete an Arts for Living/ Creative and Performing Arts.
  • In HIST 201W, or U.S. History to 1865 W, you complete an LO1: Humanities/History.
  • In ICS 201W, or Introduction to Intercultural Studies W, you complete an LO1: Traditions and Worldviews/ Histories. You also complete an LO3:Intercultural Competence A, and an LO3:Intercultural Competence B.
  • In SOC 203W, or Social Problems, you complete a Science for the Citizen/ Social Science II. You also complete an LO3: Global Learning B, LO3: Social Responsibility A.

... and you also have the opportunity to fufill the Basic W.

Many students find it helpful to take a W course in a field they find especially engaging; they find they enjoy writing, and make more progress in their writing, when the topic of the course is one they especially want to explore. All 4-credit W courses give you Sophia LO1 requirement in the subject; some have LO2 or LO3 attributes as well.

How do I fulfill my Basic W Proficiency?  Basically, to fulfill the Basic W requirement, you need to enroll in a W course and produce a portfolio of writing from that course that shows you’ve attained basic competence in college-level writing. It’s strongly recommended that you take your W course in your first year at Saint Mary’s, so that you’ll develop the writing skills you’ll need throughout your college career.

W courses focus on five areas of academic writing: thesis, development, support, style, and mechanics. The W program defines competence in these areas on a sheet that’s known as the yellow sheet, which is available in the English Suite upon request. Students in W courses receive this sheet so that they know the goals they’re working toward, and, at the end of the course, students’ writing is evaluated according to these criteria. In addition, your W course will emphasize not just the product but the process of writing: reading, drafting, getting feedback from faculty and peers, and revising.

Fulfilling the Basic W means that you have skills solid enough that you’ll be able to meet the writing challenges ahead without struggling. However, meeting the W proficiency does not mean is that you’re done working on your writing. After you attain this basic competence, you must continue to develop your writing skills throughout your work at Saint Mary’s — in your courses, in your co-curricular activities, and by working with the Writing Center staff and your faculty. Then, by the time you’re writing your Advanced W, you’ll be a stronger writer than when you earned your Basic W.

A special feature of W courses is the writing portfolio. Throughout your W course, you’ll keep all the writing you submit for the course, including drafts, suggestions from your instructor and peer editors, and revisions of your papers. Near the end of your W course, you’ll gather all this written work into a portfolio, and you’ll choose three pieces that represent your strongest work as a writer. Your instructor will guide you in assembling your portfolios.

If you’re a transfer student and you’ve done well in a composition course at your previous institution, you have the option of either enrolling in a W course or submitting a portfolio of writing from non-W courses that you take during your first year at Saint Mary’s. The Office of Academic Advising can help you find out whether you’re eligible to submit a portfolio and, if you are, can guide you in assembling and submitting your portfolio. Whether you’re in a W class or submit a transfer writing portfolio, the evaluation process (below) is the same as that for other Saint Mary’s students.

How do I assemble my portfolio? An excellent question. Your instructor will help you, of course, but click here for a general "Portfolio Checklist".

How will my portfolio be evaluated? During finals week, outside readers—W faculty and other faculty and administrators who use writing in their daily work and who have training and experience in evaluating portfolios—read students’ portfolios, focusing on the essays each student has chosen as her best. Portfolio evaluators use a rubric, known as the green sheet (also available in the English suite upon request), based on the yellow sheet, to give student writers feedback. Each outside reader then meets with the student’s instructor to decide whether the student has developed the skills required for successful college work, or whether she needs another W course to reach that goal.

There’s no record on your transcript if you take a W course but don’t fulfill the W. Moreover, your grade for your W course is based on the quality of your work in that course; the decision of whether or not you need to take another W course will not affect it. Of course, a student’s grade in any course will usually reflect the quality of her writing. However, a student who has very strong command of the course content can certainly receive an acceptable grade in her W course even if she doesn’t fulfill her W.

If you fulfill your W but still feel you’d like to strengthen your writing skills, you’re welcome to register for another W course if there’s room. You’ll receive credit and a grade for the course; however, you won’t repeat the portfolio process. If you need a Sophia course and it fits your schedule, you need not avoid it just because it's a W!

What if I need to take another W course? No two writers develop their academic voices at the same rate. Some students complete the proficiency in one semester, others may need more time. Once you fulfill the W, the proficiency will is noted on your transcript.  While it’s natural to feel disappointed if you don’t earn the W, taking another W course is all about helping you succeed as fully as possible in college. So, first of all, it’s important to realize why you’re being asked to take another W course. The W program is designed to help you gain the writing skills you need to do succeed in college, and W decisions are based on a student’s ability to write college-level work. While students usually work hard in their W classes, effort alone doesn’t guarantee the W. If you’re still struggling with writing at the end of your W course—if your instructor finds your writing doesn’t effectively communicate your ideas, if your readers see that your skills need to be developed further, or if you’re spending a great deal of time and effort to write effectively—a second W course will help you gain the skills you need for college and beyond. Many students come to Saint Mary’s without the strong preparation needed to succeed at college-level writing. For such students, taking an additional W course is an important way to achieve college success. W courses are all about giving you the skills you need to write well, and without undue stress, in college and beyond.

Furthermore, there’s nothing punitive in not fufilling the Basic W. This just means that you need additional work to attain the level of basic competence that college — and your life beyond college — will require. You’ll still receive a grade in the course, and if your grade is sufficient, you’ll still receive credit and Sophia credit for the course.  If you do not fulfill it in a single Sophia course, this information never appears on your transcript.

So, what happens if you don’t fulfill the Basic W? You simply need to take another W course, in another academic discipline, so that you can strengthen your skills and submit a portfolio that shows W-level work. To continue building on the skills you’ve gained, it’s advisable to take your next W course as soon as possible — ideally, in the next semester. Because W courses are offered in many fields, you’ll have several courses to choose from. You’re encouraged to discuss your interests and course options with your W instructor, the W Program Director (Professor Susan Baxter, Communication Studies), or the Academic Affairs Office.

When you begin your next W course, be sure to speak with your new W instructor about your work. Go through your portfolio together so that you and your instructor can discuss the areas you need to focus on. It’s very helpful to plan to work consistently with the Writing Center staff, and your instructor may require you to meet with the Center staff as part of your W course.


If you understand the discussion above about how the W is awarded, and you believe your portfolio has not been evaluated accurately, set up a meeting with your instructor to discuss your portfolio and ask whatever questions you have about the decision. This must be done no later than 30 days into the next semester, or your appeal will not be considered. After this meeting, you’re also welcome to ask the advice of the Academic Affairs staff or the W Program Director to discuss your case. If these conversations don’t resolve your concerns, you may decide to file a formal appeal. To do so, write a cover letter to Professor Susan Baxter, Director of the Writing Proficiency Program, explaining what leads you to believe the portfolio was evaluated inaccurately. Submit this letter, along with your original portfolio, complete with the green sheets and the original decision letter from your instructor, to Professor Baxter in Moreau 105. E-mailed appeal letters will not be considered, nor will appeals on decisions later than 30 days into the next semester. It’s wise to register for a second W course while you await the decision of your appeal. Appeals usually take at least two or three weeks, more over the summer. By registering ahead of time, you’ll be able to choose the course that most interests you and will be prepared if the appeal is denied.

It is rare that the instructor's decision is overturned on appeal, and the decision of the appellate readers is final.