Writing to Learn

I’ve been touting the CIRTL (Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning) MOOC, An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching, for several weeks now. The course is coming to an end, but I am mining the materials for content to summarize here at The Innovative Instructor in case you missed it.

Students doing group workLast week the unit on Writing to Learn was particularly compelling. Janet L. Littrell, Ed.D, the Director of Distance Learning and Associate Director of the Engineering Education Research Center at the Swanson School of Engineering, University of Pittsburgh, taught the module. The material presented below is taken from the three videos Littrell produced.

The concept of writing to learn has been around since the 1970s, but has gained traction again more recently. The concept is to view writing as part of the learning process, not solely for the purpose of communicating information, but also as a reflective practice to increase student understanding, enhance learning, and provide instructors with feedback.

How does writing to learn differ from other writing students are asked to do as part of their coursework? Traditional writing assignments usually are done outside of class, are complete when turned in, are graded and returned to the students, and have the purpose of documenting students’ knowledge and comprehension.

Writing to learn assignments are often assigned and completed in class, are short, open-ended, may or may not be turned in, typically are not graded, and have the purpose of helping students think for themselves. Engagement is the goal, errors are ok. The idea is that students are encouraged to explore, question, develop their ideas, and/or reflect on their experiences. A writing to learn assignment is often a jumping-off point; it marks a beginning of a thought process rather than an end product. This type of writing is often referred to as low-stakes writing.

The goal of low stakes writing is to turn students into active learners, to help them find their own voices, and to focus on thoughts and ideas rather than on a formal writing structure. Have your students do smaller, more frequent writing assignments that are not graded. For example, have students keep a journal or learning log to document their ideas, thoughts, reactions, and to comment on class discussions, labs, readings and other assignments. At the beginning of class give students 5 minutes to free-write on a specified topic as a way of helping them gather their thoughts for a discussion. Take a minute or two at the end of class for students to write questions or comments they have on the day’s lecture or discussion. Or, if you sense that students may not be understanding what you are teaching, you can ask for mid-lecture feedback. Although writing to learn assignments are not usually graded, in these last two cases, where the responses provide formative assessment, the instructor should collect and read through them. In other cases, there might be a check plus/check minus system for completion of a writing assignment, with points that accumulate for credit over the course of the semester. You might also consider peer review for a writing to learn assignment.

Using low stakes writing or writing to learn assignments in your classes does not preclude having students write in more traditional ways. You should consider your learning objectives and assign writing accordingly. Consider, however, that the more students write, the better writers they will become. Low stakes writing helps them to understand that putting their thoughts on paper is part of a larger scholarly process involving inquiry, analysis, and critical thinking.

For more on writing to learn see these resources and examples:

You can also Google “writing to learn” for more on the subject.

Finally, hot off the press is a report on a multi-year research study of 2,101 writing assignments across 100 higher ed institutions undertaken by Dan Melzer, Associate Professor of English at California State University at Sacramento: Assignments across the Curriculum: A National Study of College Writing, University Press of Colorado, 2014. This is worth taking a look at as you think about what it means to write in specific disciplines and why you might want to integrate writing to learn into your courses.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Microsoft Clip Art

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