What is write to learn?
When we consider how Writing across the Curriculum (WAC) has been implemented at a range of universities, we see that writing assignments generally fall into one of two categories: writing to learn (WTL) and writing in the disciplines (WID). A third category, writing to engage (WTE), falls between the two more commonly used types of writing assignments.
Please note that teachers can combine these categories and assign writing that meets the goals of each. More often, however, teachers choose to focus on one of these types of writing.
Generally, writing-to-learn activities are short, impromptu or otherwise informal and low-stakes writing tasks that help students think through key concepts or ideas presented in a course. Often, these writing tasks are limited to less than five minutes of class time or are assigned as brief, out-of-class assignments.
Because writing-to-learn activities are crucial to many WAC programs (because they best meet teaching goals through writing), this guide presents a great deal of information on writing to learn (WTL), including a detailed rationale, examples, and logistical tips.
Theoreticians and practitioners alike agree that writing promotes both critical thinking and learning (See Adams, 1973; Applebee, 1985; Britton et al., 1975; Bruner,1975; Emig,1977; Herrington, 1981; Odell,1980; and Parker, 1985 in the citations below.) As Toby Fulwiler and Art Young (1982) explain in their "Introduction" to Language Connections: Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum:
In "Writing to Learn Means Learning to Think," Syrene Forsman (1985) makes the same point, but she directs her attention not to a theoretical justification but a practical rationale for writing to learn:
The Consequences of Writing by Robert P. Parker and Vera Goodkin (1987) is an especially good early resource on writing to learn. Following a detailed discussion of the theoretical links between language (especially writing) and learning, these authors outline projects that focus on writing in entomology, clinical nursing, psychology, and mathematics, all with similar results: students learned key concepts and understood material more fully while also practicing some features of discourse for the specified discourse community. Thus, writing to learn can have additional positive effects in helping students mature as effective communicators even though the initial goal is to help students become better learners.
Writing-to-learn activities can happen frequently or infrequently in your class; some can extend over the entire semester; some can be extended to include a wide variety of writing tasks in different formats and to different audiences. Use the list below to read more about writing-to-learn activities.
If you teach in a computer classroom, if students can bring laptops or tablets to class, or if students have easy access to computers outside of class, WTL activities of all sorts can be adapted for in-class writing.
What Kinds of WTL Tasks Can Be Carried Out in a Computer-Supported Classroom?
For additional ways to use technologies to support WTL, see How might computer technologies support students' writing in my classes?
Because they are informal and often impromptu, writing-to-learn activities aren't marked for correctness. Rather, teachers or classmates quickly read the writing for a general sense of what students understand and don't understand.
Because most teachers cannot read through and comment on every WTL activity students complete, we suggest the following alternatives:
Logistical Tip: Always have students use loose-leaf paper, not a spiral bound notebook. Students might misplace some of their writing, but teachers can much more easily pick up single pages to review.
The literature now available on writing-to-learn or writing-to-engage practices is deep and broad, encompassing far more than a brief bibliographic essay can accurately capture. Let me offer instead two pieces of advice - consult the more general resources noted here on low-stakes or writing-to-learn activities and look at the journals in your discipline that take up teaching issues. Those journals are most likely to include articles that situate writing-to-learn and writing-to-engage activities in the courses you might find yourself teaching. The articles themselves will glean from the robust resources to point you toward those titles that will best fill in background you might find helpful.
We collect below titles from across disciplines to offer some potential starting points, most from 2005-2012. We have organized the resources in two tables to cluster articles by discipline and then by writing activity. Please note, however, that disciplinary titles here point to writing to learn rather than writing in the disciplines (or writing to communicate) titles that are included in the WID section of this resource. All titles refer to the list of Works Cited that follows the tables.
Titles sorted by broad disciplinary focus
Titles sorted by type of writing activity or outcome emphasized
Ablin, L. (2008). Student perceptions of the benefits of a learner-based writing assignment in organic chemistry. Journal of Chemical Education, 85(2), 237-239.
Adams, P. (Ed.) (1973). Language in Thinking. Harmondsworth: Penguin Press.
Allain, R., Abbott, D., & Deardorff, D. (2006). Using peer ranking to enhance student writing. Physics Education, 41(3), 255-258.
Alvine, L. (2001). Shaping the teaching self through autobiographical narrative. High School Journal, 84(3), 5-12.
Anderson, K. (2010). The whole learner: The role of imagination in developing disciplinary learning. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice, 9(2), 205-221.
Applebee, A.N. (1985). Writing and reasoning. Review of Educational Research, 54(4), 577-596.
Armstrong, N.A., Wallace, C.S., & Change, S. (2008). Learning from writing in college biology. Research in Science Education, 38(4), 483-499.
Badley, G. (2009). A reflective essaying model for higher education. Education & Training, 51(4), 248-258.
Bahls, P. (2012). Student writing in the quantitative disciplines: A guide for college faculty. Indianapolis, IN: Jossey Bass.
Balgopal, M.M., & Wallace, A.M. (2009). Decisions and dilemmas: Using writing to learn activities to increase ecological literacy. Journal of Environmental Education, 40(3), 13-26.
Balgopal, M.M., Wallace, A.M., & Dahlberg, S. (2012). Writing to learn ecology: A study of three populations of college students. Environmental Education Research, 18(1), 67-90.
Black, K.A. (2008). Understanding the impact of gender by imagining the self as the other gender: A role-play writing assignment. Journal of College Teaching & Learning, 5(2), 9-14.
Blevins-Knabe, B. (1987). Writing to learn while learning to write. Teaching of Psychology, 14(4), 239-241.
Bobich, J.A. (2008). Active learning of biochemistry made easy (for the teacher). Journal of Chemical Education, 85(2), 234-236.
Bowie, J. (2012). Podcasting in a writing class? Considering the possibilities. Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy, 16(2). http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/
Brewer, S.M., & Jozefowicz, J.J. (2006). Making economic principles personal: Student journals and reflection papers. Journal of Economic Education, 37(2), 202-216.
Britton, J., Burgess, T., Martin, N., McLeod, A., & Rosen, H. (1975). The Development of Writing Abilities (11-18). London: Macmillan Education.
Browning, B.W. (2011). Gladwell and group communication: Using "The Tipping Point" as a supplemental text. Communication Teacher 25(2), 90-93.
Bruner, J. (1975). "Language as an Instrument of Thought." In A. Davies (Ed.), Problems in language and learning. London: Heinemann.
Carnegie, J. A. (2012). The use of limericks to engage student interest and promote active learning in an undergraduate course in functional anatomy. Anatomical Sciences Education, 5(2), 90-97.
Carnes, L.W., Jennings, M.S., Vice, J.P., & Wiedmaier, C. (2001). The role of the business educator in a writing-across-the-curriculum program. Journal of Education for Business, 76(4), 216-219.
Cavdar, G., & Doe, S. (2012). Learning through writing: Teaching critical thinking skills in writing assignments. PS: Political Science and Politics, 45(2), 1-9.
Centellas, M. (2010). Pop culture in the classroom: "American Idol," Karl Marx, and Alexis de Tocqueville. PS: Political Science and Politics, 43(3), 561-565.
Chamely,Wiik, D.M., Kaky, J.E., & Galin, J. (2012). From Bhopal to cold fusion: A case-study approach to writing assignments in honors general chemistry. Journal of Chemical Education, 89(4), 502-508.
Cheng, C.K., Pare, D.E., Collimore, L., & Joordens, S. (2011). Assessing the effectiveness of a voluntary online discussion forum on improving students' course performance. Computers & Education, 56(1), 253-261.
Cisero, C.A. (2006). Does reflective journal writing improve course performance? College Teaching, 54(2), 231-236.
Clark, K.M. (2010). Applied and transformed understanding in introductory psychology: Analysis of a final essay assignment. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 10(3), 41-57.
Coe, C.D. (2011). Scaffolded writing as a tool for critical thinking: Teaching beginning students how to write arguments. Teaching Philosophy, 34(1), 33-50.
Coles, K.S. (1991). Journal assignments in an introductory -geology course help the student and teacher. Journal of Geological Education, 39: 167-169.
Cooper, A. (2012). Today's technologies enhance writing in mathematics. The Clearing House, 85(2), 80.
Cunningham, K. (2007). Applications of reaction rate. Journal of Chemical Education, 84(3), 430-433.
Danielson, C. (2010). Writing papers in math class: A tool for encouraging mathematical exploration by preservice elementary teachers. School Science and Mathematics, 110(8), 374-381.
Defazio, J., Jones, J., Tennant, F., & Hook, S.A. (2010). Academic literacy: The importance and impact of writing across the curriculum—A case study. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 10(2), 33-47.
Doll, K.K., Kereakoglow, S.S., Radhika Sarma, A.A., & Hare, J.J. (2008). Using students' journals about death experiences as a pedagogical tool. Gerontology & Geriatrics Education, 29(2), 124-138.
Doty, L.L. (2012). A mathematician learns the basics of writing instruction: An immersion experience with long-term benefits. Primus, 22(1), 14-29.
Drabick, D.A.G., Weisberg, R., Paul, L., & Bubier, J.L. (2007). Keeping it short and sweet: Brief, ungraded writing assignments facilitate learning. Teaching of Psychology, 34(3), 172-176.
Ellis, R.A., Taylor, C.E., & Drury, H. (2007) Learning science through writing: associations with prior conceptions of writing and perceptions of a writing program. Higher Education Research & Development, 26(3), 297-311.
Emig, J. (1977). Writing as a mode of learning. College Composition and Communication, 28, 122-28.
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Forsman, S. (1985). "Writing to Learn Means Learning to Think." In A. R. Gere (Ed.), Roots in the sawdust: Writing to learn across the disciplines (pp. 162-174). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
Fouberg, E.H. (2000). Concept learning through writing for learning: Using journals in an introductory geography course. Journal of Geography, 99(5), 196-206.
Frank, R.H. (2006). The economic naturalist writing assignment. Journal of Economic Education, 37(1), 58-67.
Franz, A.K. (2012). Organic chemistry YouTube writing assignment for large lecture classes. Journal of Chemical Education, 89(4), 497-501.
Fulwiler, T. & Young, A. (1982). "Introduction." In T. Fulwiler and A. Young (Eds.), Language connections: Writing and reading across the curriculum (pp. ix-xiii). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
Galer-Unti, R.A. (2002). Student perceptions of a writing-intensive course in health education. Health Educator: Journal of Eta Sigma Gamma, 34(2), 35-40.
Gallavan, N.P., Bowles, F.S., & Young, C.T. (2007). Learning to write and writing to learn: Insights from teacher candidates. Action in Teacher Education, 29(2), 61-69.
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Herrington, A. (1981). Writing to learn: Writing across the disciplines. College English, 43, 379-87.
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Hughes, J.L. (2008). Encouraging students to apply human sexuality material to themselves by using integration papers. American Journal of Sexuality Education, 3(3), 247-253.
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Writing-to-learn (WTL) activities are typically short, informal writing assignments that are informational and often assigned at the spur of the moment as an impromptu task. Generally these are intended to assist students to critically think about important concepts or ideas that are a part of the course content. These writing tasks are frequently limited to less than five minutes of class time or assigned as brief homework assignments.
Some of the ways this teaching approach is used to engage students include:
WTL can impact learning through:
WTL activities usually are not graded. Instead, they are quickly read by the instructor or by peers and reviewed for basic understanding of the content being covered.
Suggestions for reviewing WTL activities:
In Canvas, several tools can be used for Writing-to-Learn:
Discussions: Canvas provides an integrated system for asynchronous online class discussions. Instructors and students can start and contribute to discussions. You can learn more about using Discussions in Canvas from the Canvas Community at https://community.canvaslms.com/docs/DOC-3188.
Wiki pages: In Canvas, students can complete WTL assignments by creating a page as a wiki and allowing it to be edited by anyone so that students can to a group writing assignment. Instructions for creating a page are available from Canvas at https://community.canvaslms.com/docs/DOC-1842 .
The following technologies can be used for writing assignments:
Sites at Penn State: Penn State provides blogging services to all members of the University community.
Twitter: After you have finished reading, researching, or discussing assigned content, write about the material until you come up with a brief summary of some aspect of what you learned that will fit into a Twitter post. A Twitter post (or tweet) allows for 140 characters, including the hashtag and its name.
Yammer: A social networking service similar to Facebook but made available as a private tool for Penn State users, Yammer can be used for discussions where students can also share files, take polls, give praise, and comment on each other’s posts.
Polling: Polling software and apps for phones can often be downloaded for free and used in the classroom with technology owned by the student such as a laptop, tablet, or cell phone. For example, Poll Everywhere is free and can be used with PowerPoint or any other type of presentation. Short, open-ended written answers can be given through Poll Everywhere.
VoiceThread: This online communication and presentation tool can be used for asynchronous discussion that easily shares images, videos, voice comments, documents, and written comments.
For successful implementation of WTL, you should consider the following strategies:
WTL activities can easily provide a quick classroom assessment to quickly determine what your class is learning while still focusing on the topic. Through this informal formative assessment, instructors can easily diagnose and clarify points of confusion before giving students the next exam and moving on to other topics.
Reading short, informal writing assignments is no more time consuming than any other type of class preparation.
Kiefer, Kate. “What is Writing to Learn?” The WAC Clearinghouse, Colorado State University. http://wac.colostate.edu/intro/pop2d.cfm.
Kopp, Bryan. “Informal Writing Assignments: Writing to Learn.” University of Wisconsin, La Crosse. http://www.uwlax.edu/catl/writing/assignments/writingtolearn.htm.
Morris. Gayle. “Integrating Low-Stakes Writing in Large College Classrooms Supplement 2: Twitter Assignments.” University of Michigan. http://www.lsa .umich.edu/UMICH/sweetland/Home/Downloads/Supplement2_TwitterAssignments.pdf.
Nilson, Linda B. “Writing-to-Learn Activities and Assignments.” In Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors 2010, 17-172. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010. http://www.pharmacy.cmu.ac.th/unit/unit_files /files_download/ 2014-05-02Teaching-at-its-best.pdf.
Students improve retention and comprehension when they write regularly and reflectively about their learning—not only about what they learn but also the difficulties they face, the surprises they encounter, and the strategies they employ along the way.
You can deepen your students’ thinking across the curriculum by making writing a regular part of your classroom. Consider using any of the following writing-to-learn activities, or adapt them to fit the needs of your students. Each activity takes just 10-15 minutes to complete.
A learning log is a journal for schoolwork. Students use learning logs to write their thoughts, feelings, and questions about the subjects they are studying. Writing in this way helps them connect new information to what they already know, reflect on their learning processes, and think through ideas that are unclear.
Note: Learning logs begin this list because students can incorporate almost all the other writing-to-learn activities in them.
View minilesson for Keeping a Learning Log.
Students submit brief writings on “slips” to you before and after class. The slips can include questions, comments, observations, or reflections about the material being presented in class. Encourage students to write about ideas that they find confusing, interesting, upsetting, and so on.
Students write a letter or an email to a person connected to an event or topic they are studying (whether that person can actually receive the message or not). Examples include a letter to a Civil War general or an email to Robert Oppenheimer, father of quantum mechanics.
Students write brief notes back and forth with another student or teacher about things they are learning in class.
View minilesson for Creating a Dialogue Journal.
A fictional dialogue is a made-up written conversation between students and another person (or two). For example, students could create an interview script between themselves and Madame Curie.
View minilesson for Writing a Historical Dialogue.
Students write their very first thoughts about a topic. Writing a paragraph about the topic of a new unit will remind them what they already know about the topic. When they finish the unit, they can revisit their first thoughts to consider what they have learned.
With the topic of a lesson or unit in mind, students write quickly about the topic for 5 to 10 minutes without stopping. Use prompts like these to get them started:
View minilesson for Writing Freely and Rapidly.
Students try writing one sentence that captures the importance of something they are studying or reading. This technique gets its name from the idiom “put it in a nutshell” (the smallest possible space).
View minilesson for Summarizing Ideas in a Nutshell.
Students write what they expect to happen next in a book or lesson. When predicting, they must think carefully about what has already happened. Their expectations will either be met or not, but either way, they will have thought more deeply about the material.
In this type of journal entry, students express their feelings about the things they are reading. Writing about challenging books can help them understand what they are reading.
Students pause during their reading or listening to write a reflection about the text or lesson. Use questions like these to prompt student responses:
I personally learned how this worked after meeting a well-known learning expert, and educator, Susan Ambrose. Ambrose is Senior Vice Provost for Education Innovation at Northeastern University in Boston.
She started by explaining how often people assume that they are reflecting or even learning, when in reality they’re not absorbing information. In many U.S. schools and colleges, the assumption is that if you put information in front of a student, it will enter their brain. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
This is where reflection in the learning process comes in. As it turns out, the more information you are exposed to, and the more you are trying to learn – the more important reflection becomes. As part of her role as Vice Provost at Northeastern, Ambrose supports an internship program that encourages students to engage in this sort of reflection.
Students are required to write, and answer questions about their internship experience overall, both during, and at the end of their time working with an organization.
Ambrose told of a female Northeastern student who offered a strong example of the progress these writing assignments facilitate. The college student in question worked with a Human Rights non-profit in Cambodia for one summer. She reported that writing about her experience, in the course of living it, made an enormous difference.
Writing helped her to reflect on what she was learning, and how the experience was pushing her to grow. It led her to thinking what she wished to accomplish in the remainder of her time in Cambodia. The space given by the writing assignment was a chance to take a step back, and witness the experience from a new perspective.
This is the promise of writing to reflect, and writing to learn. Write to learn is both a mindset, and a toolset that can be used in virtually any context to improve reflection and comprehension. Whether it is an ER surgeon improving his practice, like Mark Bernstein, losing weight, or interning in Southeast Asia, the results are consistent.
In a classroom context, writing has the radical potential to position students as active participants in their own learning. Rather than regurgitating information, writing offers students a chance to create, and use higher order thinking.
WRITING TO LEARN is a strategy that helps students think deeply about a text by activating background knowledge about a text, recording thinking while reading a text, and extending thinking about what was read.