Teaching Tip #3: Writing is Learning

Try this experiment:  ask your students to spend 5 minutes writing about a topic before beginning class discussion on the topic. You don’t need to grade it or even collect it, although you might want to use the students’ work as a way to take attendance.   Why do this?  Research findings suggest that students who write about topics learn more than those who do not.

Drabick, Weisberg, Paul, and Bubier (2007) compared the test performance of students who either wrote or thought about a topic for 5 minutes before engaging in a 10 minute class discussion of the topic. Ungraded writing produced larger improvements in student performance on both factual and conceptual questions than did merely thinking about the topic, with a larger benefit for conceptual questions. Even when student writing is not graded, these assignments can be effective strategies for improving student learning.

Brief, in-class “process” writing has other advantages.  Students who are reluctant to contribute to class discussion are more likely to do so if they have had a few minutes to gather their thoughts and write them down.  You can avoid calling on habitual responders and randomly ask students to share what they have written.

In-class process writing can also serve to quickly assess student knowledge about a topic.  You can use it as a pre-test, to assess reading comprehension or as an application exercise.  None of these writing assignments need to take more than a few minutes of class time, they require little faculty grading time, and they enhance student thinking and learning.

How do you use writing to learn in your classes?  Please share your ideas with us!

Want to hear more about teaching content through writing?  Join us for the faculty conversation on January 27, 2010 (11:30 am, main campus dining hall) with nationally recognized writing-across-the-curriculum expert Terry Zawacki.

Terry Zawacki will also be leading two informal writing-related conversations that morning–all are welcome.
9:30-10:20 (Ballston): group vs. individual writing projects
10:30-11:30 (main campus): writing and digital/new media

Thanks to Claudia Stanny at the University of West Florida for portions of this tip.

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, 172-176.

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2 Responses

  1. I ask undergraduate students to write answers to main questions on a chapter once I have finished the chapter. I provide them with a handout with the leading questions from the chapter. I call this a “Share and Learn” Exercercise and tell them that they have write the answers individually first. They can then share the answers with their team buddy and build on their answers. Finally they can ask me or anyone in the class to get a well-rounded answer. I spend 15-20 minutes after every chapter on this excercise.

  2. Before embarking on a new technique, I ask three-dimensional design students to write a mini research paper on the technique, and/or a noted artist who has used that technique. Each student gives the report in a “round table.” This gives the students a better understanding of precedents before they begin to create original art.

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