Writing to Learn

Writing-intensive instructors at UH Mānoa use a multitude of writing activities to increase student learning. Some of these activities depend upon such well-known assignments as essays, book reviews, and research and lab reports, but many more fall into a category of writing often labeled either "informal writing" or "writing-to-learn."

These latter writing activities defy any strict definition but they tend to share similar characteristics. They:

  • promote active learning

  • require limited time to complete

  • encourage discussions

  • remain mostly ungraded

  • engage all students

  • can be used in both large and small classes

  • may be expanded into longer, more formal assignments

  • provide writing practice useful in many exam situations

Freewriting and journal writing are particularly popular writing-to-learn assignments. For more about either of these, see the separate pages Freewriting or Teaching with Journals.

Below are brief descriptions of some additional effective ways to use writing-to-learn.

Integrating Informal with Formal Writing Assignments

Informal writing can stand alone or it can be used to accompany other, more formal assignments. In the latter case, informal writing may be used throughout the process of completing a project, from the moment the assignment is handed out, to any point in-progress, to prior to submission, to after returning the assignment with instructor comments.

When planning to use informal writing during formal assignments, consider the following possibilities:

  • Assignment Paraphrase
    Too often, teachers hand out an assignment, read it aloud once, ask if there are any questions, then assume that students understand the assignment. But many don't understand and won't discover this fact until they are at home attempting it. On the day an assignment is handed out, ask students to turn the assignment sheet over and write a three or four sentence paraphrase of it on the back. Several students can read them aloud, and then the class can discuss the degree to which these paraphrases accurately reflect the work they've been asked to perform. It's an exercise that helps many students. (For additional ways to help students explore assignments, see the Mānoa Writing Program's
    Writing Matters #3: Writing and Research; the section "Challenge #1: Constructing an inquiry" may be especially helpful.)
  • Progress Statement
    Mid-way through a project or paper, have students write a self-evaluation of their progress on it, noting what they've accomplished thus far, what they're most satisfied with, and what specific work remains to be done.
  • Assignment Cover Sheet
    On the day students turn in a lab report, case analysis or essay, have them write for 5-10 minutes, reflecting on the project and discussing the process, and then hand that reflection in as a cover sheet to their assignment. What problems and concerns did they have along the way, and how did they overcome them? What insights did they attain? Explain in what ways the project was and was not worthwhile. Can they pose one or two specific questions for the grader to respond to? Such cover sheets are quick reads which give the teacher a good sense of the typical kinds of problems students had and make responding easier and more focused.
  • Response to the Response
    Many times when assignments are handed back, students hunt for the grade, then file the assignment away, never looking closely at the teacher comments. The teacher might ask students to respond for 5 minutes after reading the teacher's responses. They might be asked to paraphrase it or identify one strength and one area to work on that is evident from the teacher's comments.

Eleven Additional Effective Writing-to-Learn Activities

1. Pre-reading and Post-Reading Writing Activity
During the last five minutes or so of class, ask students to look over the next reading assignment. Perhaps ask them to write what they think the chapter and/or sub-heading titles suggest will be their topics. And/or let them write about how these new texts might relate to previous course material. Ask: How might this material be mathematically (economically, biologically) significant? A possible follow-up, after reading, is to have students respond to these pre-reading questions again or to let them read and revise their initial speculations.

2. Microtheme
A microtheme is brief in-class essay, perhaps composed on a 3 x 5 card, on a topic specified by the instructor. The brevity created by the small card forces students to practice summary and concision. Microthemes deliver quick, valuable feedback to instructors and encourage students to begin shaping what they are learning. Questions or topics may appear later on exams or may be expanded into more formal essays.

3. Mid-Semester Course Evaluations
Get a written evaluation at mid-course, at a point where there is still time to make adjustments to improve the course. Design questions tailored for the specific course and objectives for the semester. Include questions requiring feedback on writing activities--what's working well and what hasn't worked so well.

4. Counterarguments
If an argument has been raised in class, or an alternative method of solving an equation has been shown, or more than one theory has been advanced to explain a particular phenomenon, stop for five minutes to allow students to write down all the counter arguments or counter evidence, list the benefits and drawbacks of the alternative methods, or present the case for accepting one theory over another.

5. One Minute Papers or Closure Statements
At the end of class, have students summarize a lecture or discussion, identify the key point, or pose a final question.

6. Exit Box
In large lecture halls, some teachers put boxes by the exit doors where students drop closure statements (see #5) or brief comments, queries, concerns as they leave the class. They provide valuable feedback and keep students alert during the class, planning what they will write.

7. Admit Ticket
Dropping off a brief writing--summary of a reading, two questions drawn from reading, etc.--can be required for admittance into the classroom or lecture hall.

8. Student Note-Takers
In a small class, assign one student each day to be the official note-taker. In larger classes, three or four students may be appointed. These students compare notes after class and create one polished version for distribution. For the note-takers, the activity is a valuable exercise in summarizing, organizing main ideas, and collaborative revision. This activity also provides feedback to the instructor and review material for the class as a whole.

9. Priming the Pump
Ask students to spend the first five minutes of class responding to a question that will be addressed in the lecture or discussion. ("What gene combinations make it possible for a person to have blue eyes?" "How does violence affect children?") Let them know that a few will be called on to read their responses. This encourages students to prepare their compositions with care.

10. Class Dictionary
Ask students to write brief definitions of key terms ("the law of large numbers," "risk assessment," "functionalism," "corporate social responsibility.") If students write on transparencies, their definitions can be put on the overhead for discussion and debate of differences, etc.

11. Breakthrough Metaphors
Kepler tried out various outlandish metaphors in his attempts to understand the universe. We can ask our students to do the same kind of creative and exploratory thinking. Ask them to compose metaphors or analogies to help them think through the nature of a phenomenon. Is the unconscious like a god? a devil? a mechanism? What properties do each of these metaphors foreground? What does each distort or leave out?
(Most of these writing strategies have been adapted from Writing-To-Learn/Informal Writing: A List of Possibilities, a web site maintained at Virginia Tech University.)

What to do with this writing?

There are many possible ways instructors can use informal writing. In her book Helping Students Write Well, Barbara Walvoord explores some of these possibilities. She writes:

Once the class has written. . . there are several ways to handle it:

  • Simply go on. You trust that the writing has served its purpose.
  • Give students a chance to ask questions or to clear up confusions they discovered while writing. You might have each turn to a neighbor and, in pairs, share their answers. Most students can learn something from someone else's answer, and some inaccuracies can be cleared up by peers.
  • Begin a class discussion or blackboard list of, say, all the counter arguments to a certain position, so that individual writers can complete or revise their lists.
  • Collect the papers. You can read them for your own information, or you can grade them.
  • One instructor awards three points for each exercise; students build points toward the final course grade. Another has students keep their writing until the semester's end, then hand in their five best for grading.

For more discussion about possible strategies, see the Mānoa Writing Program's
Writing Matters #2: Responding to Student Writing.