What Your Students Learned in Expos

Help your students transfer what they learned in Expos to what they need to do when writing in your discipline.

The required freshman Expository Writing 20 course, called “Expos,” aims to transition freshmen from high school to college modes of writing, introducing students to the basic features of well-written academic argument and to some key strategies for writing it.

Since no single one-semester freshman writing course can teach students how to write proficiently in all the disciplines they may encounter in their four years at Harvard, your students will need your help transferring what they have learned in Expos to what is expected of them as writers in the field in which your course is anchored. You will play a crucial role in continuing their development of writers by building on the foundation they received in Expos, demystifying the writing conventions in your discipline, and drawing your students’ attention to the many common characteristics of good analytical writing in any field.





What You Should Know About Expos

What Is the Harvard College Writing Program?

The Harvard College Writing Program comprises several divisions that support undergraduate academic writing:

  • The Expository Writing 20 (Expos 20) requirement. Since 1872, a course in expository writing has been the one academic experience required of every Harvard student. Our approximately 40 preceptors (the faculty rank of our instructors) teach more than 120 sections of Expos 20 each year. Roughly half of the freshman class take Expos in the fall, and half take it in the spring, primarily through random term assignments.


  • The elective Expository Writing 10 (Expos 10) course, which is offered each fall to students who can benefit from an additional semester of academic writing. Students who elect to take Expos 10 have generally been recommended for the course by faculty in the Harvard College Writing Program on the basis of the Writing Test taken over the summer before fall semester. Expos 10 has 10 students per section.


  • The Harvard College Writing Center, the place for Harvard undergraduates to get help with any aspect of their writing, from specific assignments to general writing skills. The Writing Center is staffed by trained undergraduate tutors who provide free individual conferences to students.


  • The Harvard Writing Project (HWP), which works to foster excellence in writing instruction throughout Harvard College. HWP consultants work with faculty and teaching fellows to develop effective ways of assigning and responding to student writing. The HWP also collaborates with faculty and teaching fellows to develop writing guides tailored to specific courses or disciplines.


  • Resources to help students in Expos and outside of the course as they write at Harvard:

Exposé Magazine, the Writing Program’s journal of excellent writing across the Harvard community.–

HarvardWrites, our online learning platform featuring Harvard professors talking about writing in their courses and in their fields, with interactive learning exercises meant to help students see how scholars work with the elements of academic argument.

Harvard Guide to Using Sources, a concise and useful introduction to the basics of using sources effectively and responsibly.

Writing workshops on various topics such as writing research papers, writing the American essay style, or the basics of writing papers in science courses.


  • Opportunities for undergraduates to explore writing beyond the classroom:

Harvard Writers at Work Lecture Series, featuring great Harvard writers discussing their craft of writing.

The Writing and Public Service Initiative, which connects Harvard students with with schools and non-profits that have expressed a need for volunteer writing tutors, writing coaches, writers, and editors.

The Expos Curriculum

Expos teaches students how to

  • pose an analytical question or problem that will make a paper’s argument necessary


  • craft a thesis that is arguable, not self-evident or descriptive


  • substantiate the thesis with thoughtfully analyzed evidence


  • anticipate and respond to objections to an argument


  • structure an argument logically


  • develop coherent paragraphs


  • summarize and paraphrase a source accurately


  • locate and evaluate sources in the physical and online collections of Harvard’s libraries


  • create an annotated bibliography in order to help students understand the roles that their sources will play in their papers


  • use primary and secondary sources responsibly, including how to avoid plagiarizing


  • craft clear and concise prose


  • look for opportunities to transfer what they have learned about academic writing in Expos to writing assignments in other courses


  • be alert to the fact that different disciplines may have different styles of argument, standards of evidence, modes of analysis, citation conventions, and prose styles.


Expos Teaching Methods

 The Writing Program’s pedagogy has been carefully designed and is aligned with a number of principles from the cognitive and learning sciences. Expos is taught from the research-supported premise that learning to write is and should be an iterative process that is revisited during all four years of college. The following is an overview of the key features of the Expos pedagogy.

  • Expos 20 is taught as an intensive seminar for 15 students.


  • In order to create a vivid intellectual occasion for students to learn analytical writing of the sort expected at Harvard, each Expos section introduces its students to some of the animating questions, vocabulary, and methods of the field in which it is rooted, and most importantly, to what it means to think and read and write and speak in a community that values truth, reason, and thoughtful debate. The topic of each section is based on the area of interest and disciplinary expertise of the preceptor teaching the course.


  • Students in all sections write three papers. For each paper, students are asked to write preliminary writing assignments to help them develop a draft. Then students write and submit a draft. After receiving feedback, they write and submit a revision. Only the revision is graded. Drafts are ungraded in order to encourage students to explore ideas at a stage when they are largely writing “writer-based prose,” that is, to themselves. When they revise, they transition to writing “reader-based prose,” in other words, for an audience.


  • Each paper is between five and ten pages long and of increasing length and complexity as the semester proceeds.


    • Each paper requires students to make an analytical argument.


  • The papers are of different types, reflecting

– different approaches to the particular subject being considered


– some of the fundamental analytical operations found in assignment types at Harvard.


  •  In each of our three units, preceptors spend the first several classes


– discussing the readings with students and helping students generate their ideas in response to the sources they are reading


– modeling the analytical and rhetorical moves needed for the type of essay by using the works of excellent student writers and published authors.


    •  Students receive extensive feedback from their preceptors on drafts and revisions. Feedback takes the form of written margin and end comments and one-on-one conferences in which the preceptor and the student discuss the draft and the preceptor’s comments.


  • At least three or four class discussions during the semester are devoted to peer review activities to help students develop their “internal editor.”


  • Throughout the course,

– we use a stable vocabulary about writing that makes explicit the features of clear, convincing analytical argument. This vocabulary is found in the document “Elements of Academic Argument,” which every Expos student receives and works with.


– we attempt to inculcate the virtues of deep, not cosmetic, revising to help students see that their ideas develop as they rethink them


– we make the concept of audience for each piece of writing as vivid as possible


– we ask students to think about how they will transfer what they have learned in Expos to contexts outside of Expos


– we help students become alert to the fact that different disciplines can have different styles of argument, standards of evidence, modes of analysis , citation conventions, and styles of prose.


Expos Writing Assignments

The Writing Program works extensively with other departments and programs to understand what they are asking students to do, and in response has developed its curriculum so that students are introduced to the basic kinds of assignments and analytical operations that students will encounter in classes outside of Expos. Since a one-semester introductory course in academic writing cannot teach students how to write every kind of paper they will be assigned in four years at Harvard, Expos focuses on the following key assignment types in the course’s three units:


    • a close reading of a text (for humanities-based Expos sections) or careful analysis of data (for natural and social sciences-based Expos sections)


    • a paper that assesses the validity of a source’s extended argument, or a comparative analysis of two or three sources


  • a “live” research paper in which students either intervene in a scholarly debate, or contextualize a source or phenomenon, using at least three but probably no more than ten sources (primary and secondary) mostly from the physical and online collections of the Harvard Libraries.


Depending on preceptors’ lesson plans, students in Expos may discuss at some point in the semester a taxonomy of writing assignments typically found in Harvard College classes. This handout, “Common Assignment Types,” is the result of a survey of assignment types conducted by the Writing Program and is discussed with all incoming preceptors as they plan their courses so that they can design exercises to help students connect the writing they are doing in Expos to the assignments they may encounter outside of Expos. The handout may be useful in your own teaching to show your students how your own course assignments build on what students began to learn in Expos.

Download a Microsoft Word document of the “Common Assignment Types”

The Elements of Academic Argument

The Harvard College Writing Program teaches the shared elements of academic argument. These elements are meant to introduce students to a stable yet flexible vocabulary for learning about writing across the disciplines.

Within individual classes of Expos, preceptors usually focus on just the terms from this list that are most relevant to their class and discipline. They also help students translate these elements into discipline-specific practices of building an argument.

In your classes and sections, you can help students connect what they are learning in Expos to the values and practices of your field. You might want to start by identifying which of these terms are most important to your field, your class, and to your assignments.

Download a Microsoft Word document of the elements

1) Thesis
or, What the essay is about

The main insight or idea about a text or topic, and the main proposition that the essay demonstrates. It should be true but arguable; be limited enough in scope to be argued with available evidence; and get to the heart of the text or topic being analyzed (not be peripheral). It should be stated early and it should govern the whole essay.

2) Question, Problem, or What’s at Stake
or, Why it matters

The context or situation that a paper establishes for its argument at the start of the essay, making clear why someone might want to read an essay on this topic or need to hear a particular thesis argued (why a thesis isn’t just obvious to all, why other theses might be less persuasive). In the introduction, it’s the moment where the paper establishes “what’s at stake” in the essay, setting up a genuine problem, question, difficulty, over-simplification, misapprehension, dilemma, or violated expectation that an intelligent reader would really have.


3) Evidence
or, What the thesis is based on:

The data – facts, examples, or details – that a paper refers to, quotes, or summarizes to support a thesis. There needs to be enough evidence to be persuasive; the right kind of evidence to support the thesis; a thorough consideration of evidence (with no obvious pieces of evidence overlooked); and sufficiently concrete evidence for the reader to trust.


4) Analysis
or, What a paper does with evidence

The work of interpretation, of saying what the evidence means. Analysis is what a paper does with data when it goes beyond observing or summarizing it: taking it apart, grappling with its details, drawing out the significance or implication not apparent to a superficial view. Analysis is what makes the writer feel present, as a thinking individual, in the essay.


5) Argument
or, How evidence and analysis connect to the thesis

The series of ideas that the essay lays out which, taken together, support the essay’s thesis. A successful argument will do more than reiterate the thesis, but rather make clear how each idea develops from the one before it (see “Structure,” #7 below). The argument should show that the paper not only analyzes the evidence, but also reflects on the ideas in other important ways: defining key terms (see #8 below) or assumptions; considering counter-argument – possible alternative arguments, or objections or problems, that a skeptical or resistant reader might raise; offering a qualification or limitation to the case a paper makes; incorporating any complications that arise, a way in which the case isn’t quite so simple as the paper makes it seem; or drawing out an implication, often in the conclusion.

6) Sources
or, Where the evidence comes from

Texts (or persons), referred to, summarized, or quoted, that help a writer demonstrate the truth of his or her argument. In some arguments, there will be one central primary source. In others, sources can offer (a) factual information or data, (b) opinions or interpretation on your topic, (c) comparable versions of the things you are discussing, or (d) applicable general concepts.

7) Structure
or, How to organize the argument

The sequence of an argument’s main sections or sub-topics, and the turning points between them. The sections should follow a logical order which is apparent to the reader. But it should also be a progressive order — they should have a direction of development or complication, not be simply a list of examples or series of restatements of the thesis (“Macbeth is ambitious: he’s ambitious here; and he’s ambitious here; and he’s ambitious here, too; thus, Macbeth is ambitious”). In some arguments, especially longer ones, structure may be briefly announced or hinted at after the thesis, in a road-map or plan sentence.


8) Key Terms
or, How an argument is articulated

The recurring terms or basic oppositions that an argument rests upon. An essay’s key terms should be clear in their meaning and appear throughout; they should be appropriate for the subject (not unfair or too simple — a false or constraining opposition); and they should not be clichés or abstractions (e.g. “the evils of society”). These terms can imply certain assumptions — unstated beliefs about life, history, literature, reasoning, etc. The assumptions should bear logical inspection, and if arguable they should be explicitly acknowledged.


9) Transitions & Signposts
or, How to help the reader follow the argument

Words that tie together the parts of an argument, by indicating how a new section, paragraph, or sentence follows from the one immediately previous (transitional words and phrases); and by offering “signposts” that recollect an earlier idea or section or the thesis itself, referring back to it either by explicit statement or by echoing earlier key words or resonant phrases.


10) Orienting
or, Another way to help the reader follow the argument

Brief bits of information, explanation, and summary that orient readers who aren’t experts in the subject, enabling them to follow the argument, such as: necessary introductory information about the text, author, or event; a brief summary of a text or passage about to be analyzed; pieces of information given along the way about passages, people, or events mentioned.


11) Stance
or, How to address the audience

The implied relationship among the writer, the readers, and the subject. Stance is defined by such features as style and tone (e.g. familiar or formal); the presence or absence of specialized language and knowledge; the amount of time spent orienting a general, non-expert reader; the use of scholarly conventions of format and style. The stance should be established within the first few paragraphs of your essay, and should stay consistent.


12) Style
or, Another way to address the audience

Choices made at the word and sentence level that determine how an idea is stated. Besides adhering to the grammatical conventions of standard English, an essay’s style needs to be clear and readable (not confusing, verbose, cryptic, etc.), expressive of the writer’s intelligence and energetic interest in the subject (not bureaucratic or clichéd), and appropriate for its subject and audience.


13) Title
or, How to frame the paper and establish expectations

The title should both interest and inform, by giving the subject and focus of the essay as well as by helping readers see why this essay might be interesting to read.

Want Help?

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