Writing to Learn in Times of Change

Strategies to Consider for Course Planning to Support Students’ Writing

For many of us, quarantine has made writing an integral part of our daily professional and personal lives. We’ve kept in touch with colleagues and students through email; we’ve sent texts or letters to a friend or family member to give or ask for emotional support; and a few of us may even have found a way to use this time to focus on a writing project we have been evading for a long time. Just as writing can be a means of processing (or escaping from) what’s happening in the world around us, it can also be a useful teaching tool for helping our students process, understand, and apply our course content in a meaningful way.

In Africana Studies, I use writing assignments to encourage deep learning, the kind of learning that goes beyond rote memorization or answering a question just for a quiz. I hope to impact students’ development as whole people.

-Lisa Biggs, Assistant Professor of Africana Studies/Rites and Reason Theater

This page explores “writing-to-learn” (WTL) teaching practices. These evidence-based strategies can be useful for both in-person and remote teaching, and in both small- and large-enrollment courses. While the focus of WTL is fostering understanding through writing rather than teaching the skill of writing, instructors often find that students learn how to write as a collateral benefit of WTL. Thoughtfully-designed WTL assignments can help students make sense of complex ideas, and connect ideas from both within and outside course content. These activities are designed to help students think through key concepts (both skills and content) presented in a course, and they can be particularly useful in helping students move from rote learning toward deeper understanding of concepts and disciplinary ways of thinking. They are often short, low-stakes writing assignments which can be designed as in-class activities or as take-home/at-home assignments. After describing the benefits of WTL, this newsletter will provide ideas for using WTL in your own course.

Why Teach with Writing?

Writing is among the most effective ways to help students develop their thinking in a way that is meaningful and enduring. A study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) included writing-intensive courses on a short list of high-impact educational practices, inclusive learning strategies which have been shown to increase student retention and engagement (Kuh, 2008). These high-impact educational practices are effective because they tend to require students to devote substantial time and effort to purposeful tasks, encourage students to regularly interact and collaborate with faculty and peers, and involve frequent and substantive feedback (NSSE, 2007). Researchers found that when courses across the curriculum emphasized writing, undergraduate students showed marked improvement in quantitative reasoning, oral communication, and information literacy (Kuh).

Writing weekly memorandums in my Law and Public Policy course, and actually putting theory into practice, helps me sort through my thought processes and teaches me how to apply the law to the facts.

-Michael Wang ‘22, double-concentrator in comparative literature and behavioral decision sciences

Most educational theorists, cognitive theorists, and educational psychologists agree that writing is a proven way to promote critical thinking, improve understanding, and encourage information retention (e.g., Britton et al., 1975; Galbraith & Baaijen, 2018; Menary, 2007). In this way, WTL supports a number of learning objectives, including science practice skills, disciplinary thinking, scientific reasoning, conceptual learning, argumentation from data/evidence, and representation competency (Bangert-Drowns, Hurley, & Wilkinson, 2004; Rivard, 1994). Additionally, students are more likely to remember the things they write about because writing slows the thinking process, enabling the writer to think carefully, intentionally, and analytically. Writing requires numerous individual decisions: what to argue, what evidence to use, how to organize ideas, what style to adopt, and so on (Berthoff, 1982; Griffin, 1983; Raimes, 1980). When paired with faculty feedback, WTL activities have even been shown to improve student performance on summative assignments such as exams (Linton et al., 2017; Moore, 1993).

In addition to improving student learning, WTL can be beneficial to the course instructor. Reading student writing can often be an educative experience for the instructor; students often have unique insights on course readings and discussions, and make creative connections between various courses and other learning experiences. WTL can also provide instructors with a tool for identifying gaps in students’ understanding of the course material.

When I took Brazilian Democracy in History and Literature, the writing process for my final essay really helped me extend my learning in the course; I felt this especially during office hours with my professors as we brainstormed a thesis that would succinctly show the intersections between my topic of interest, the emergence of the samba genre, to the class theme of Brazilian democracy.

-Elana Hausknecht ‘21, concentrator in music and urban studies

The benefits of WTL may also extend beyond the classroom. In a study of seniors at three different universities, researchers found that writing can be an especially meaningful element of the undergraduate experience. Well-designed writing activities, this research suggests, can connect students’ development as writers to their overall cognitive and social development (Eodice, Geller, & Lerner, 2017). Another survey of more than 70,000 undergraduate students across the United States revealed that writing assignments can have a positive impact on students’ personal and social development (Anderson et al., 2015). In his Language, Culture, Identity and Citizenship in College Classrooms and Communities (2016), Juan Guerra suggests that writing in the classroom can be an important meaning-making tool through which students can better understand their social, cultural, and civic engagements. As a way to connect students’ cognitive and intellectual development with their communities and interests beyond the classroom, WTL can be an important teaching tool in Brown’s Open Curriculum.

Assignment Ideas and Strategies

A well-designed writing assignment will prompt students to think more deeply about what they’re learning. Assignments may also ask students to bring in ideas and observations from outside readings and experiences. WTL assignments are usually low-stakes assignments: short, informal writing assignments which, if they are evaluated by the instructor at all, are evaluated for quality of content, analysis, and reflection rather than polished prose, grammar, and structure. For example, Africana Studies professor Lisa Biggs notes that “students have to first access their existing frameworks of knowledge on a given topic,” and so she asks her students in Contesting the Carceral State (AFRI 1030) to “write about what was considered good or bad behavior at home and how they were ‘punished’ when they did wrong.” She adds that “this exercise helps prepare them for a conversation later about whether people have the capacity to address wrongdoing outside of the criminal legal system.” Patricia Sobral, Distinguished Senior Lecturer in Portuguese and Brazilian Studies, recently added writing prompts to both her courses, Mapping Cross-Cultural Identities (POBS 0990) and Performing Brazil: Language, Theater, Culture (POBS 1080), which “created a space for students to write about the experience we are living through right now.” Professor Sobral “felt that documenting this experience might help [her students] make sense of it, or at least release some of their emotions.” 

In order to manage the amount of time that instructors spend on providing students with useful feedback, and to make WTL activities scalable for classes of all sizes, many of these types of writing assignments can be reviewed and commented upon by fellow classmates. Studies have shown that when instructors provide students with proper guidance on how to give useful feedback, the student who reviews a peer’s writing receives as much benefit as the student who is being reviewed (Cho & MacArthur, 2011; Lundstrom & Baker, 2009).

The following are ideas for implementing WTL in your classroom. You will see that many synchronous WTL activities can be repurposed as asynchronous activities, and vice versa.

Ideas for synchronous, in-class WTL activities (e.g., while teaching in Zoom):

  • Choose a short passage from the course reading and ask students to paraphrase it for a general audience. This activity requires students to explain new concepts or disciplinary jargon in their own words, and can be a useful formative assessment allowing the instructor to identify gaps in understanding. If the students are asked to share and compare their paraphrasing with their peers, students may see the nuances in different paraphrases and achieve a deeper understanding of the material.
  • Before a class discussion, give students three to five minutes to free-write. You may provide them with a specific prompt related to the readings, or you may have them generate thoughts, reactions, or questions related to the readings. Give students the opportunity to record their thoughts in any method they wish (e.g., in a full paragraph, in an outline, in a concept map, etc.). You may choose to have students keep this piece of writing to themselves, share it with a classmate, or share it with you—it is best to tell them what you plan to do with this piece of writing before they begin to write.
  • If a discussion starts to go off topic, pause the discussion and give students three to five minutes to put down their thoughts in writing. Allow them to post these thoughts to a Canvas discussion board so that they can continue the off-topic discussion outside of class time. After they have finished writing, focus their attention back on the relevant discussion topic.
  • At the end of class discussion, give students three to five minutes to free-write. A useful prompt might be to ask them to write about one thing they changed their mind about during the course of the discussion, or one thing they would like to know more about. Like the pre-discussion free-write, you may find it useful to give students the opportunity to record their thoughts in any method they wish (e.g., in a full paragraph, in an outline, in a concept map, etc.). Students can keep this writing to themselves; they can post it to the class’s Canvas discussion board; or you can collect the writings and hand them back at the beginning of the next discussion.

Ideas for asynchronous, take-home/at-home WTL activities (e.g., while teaching with the Canvas discussion feature):

  • Blogging or commenting on a class discussion board can be an effective learning tool because students tend to pay careful attention to how they present their ideas to their peers and how their peers comment on their writing (Kerawalla et al., 2009). To help students think metacognitively about the online class discussion, divide the class into two groups. Each student in the first group writes a post in response to a prompt that you pose. Each student in the second group then provides a meta-commentary on the posts written by students in the first group (these commentaries can address common observations, critiques, etc.).
  • Ask students to annotate their solution to a problem set, describing the steps they took to reach their solution. By narrating their process, students become aware of the methods they use and the cognitive steps they take to come to a solution. This narrative can also reveal, for both the student and instructor, logical errors, faulty assumptions, and misinterpretations.
  • To help students focus their attention during a class lecture, provide them with a question or two related to the lecture before beginning. At the end of the lecture, ask them to respond to the question on the class’s Canvas discussion board. The question might ask students to summarize that day’s lecture (e.g., “What do you see as the most important take-away from today’s lecture and why?”) or to synthesize lectures (e.g., “How does today’s lecture build on our last lecture?”).

Sheridan Center/Writing Center staff are available to help instructors integrate these approaches into their teaching. To connect with a Sheridan staff member, email [email protected] or see the Sheridan staff directory.

This page was authored by Charles Carroll with input from Sheridan Center staff and Jonathan Readey, Associate Director, Nonfiction Writing Program, and Senior Lecturer in English.


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Works Cited

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