DoingCL - Writing to Learn





Writing to Learn

Writing is an effective method to teach content as well as to test knowledge and can be combined with collaborative learning structures (e.g., peer editing).

Writing aids critical thinking skills as well as lower levels of learning. Emig (1977) believes, "Writing represents a unique mode of learning - not merely valuable, not merely special, but unique." To learn we must place new knowledge into a cognitive framework. Writing provides the process needed to relate new knowledge to prior experience (synthesis). It also provides a means by which knowledge is symbolically transformed via language into icons. Finally, the written material, the product of this process, is concrete and visible and permits review, manipulation, and modification of knowledge as it is "learned" and put into a framework (Emig, 1977; Fulwiler, 1982; Tomlinson, 1990).

Writing is an active process of discovery and reinforcement. Writing prevents students from being passive, "every time students write, they individualize instruction; the act of silent writing, even for five minutes, generates ideas, observations, emotions...regular writing makes it harder for students to remain passive." (Fulwiler, 1980). Finally, writing provides the reinforcement (i.e., practice) needed to retain knowledge, "If the most efficacious learning occurs when learning is re-inforced, then writing through its inherent re-informing cycle involving hand, eye, and brain marks a uniquely powerful multi-representational mode for learning." (Emig, 1977).

Types of Writing
Writing can be done in a group or individually, and can be categorized in many ways, including low and high stakes writing. Low stakes writing is typically informal, briefly reviewed or non-graded, and often focuses on the student's thought processes as he/she learns new content. High stakes writing is formal, usually involves a formal grading scheme, and is used to assess whether a student has learned something and is not discussed here.

Low stakes writing (e.g., quickwrites, letters, freewrites, thinkpieces, inkshedding) helps students think and learn about the course content, and stay engaged on a day-to-day basis. When students write, they are obliged to organize concepts, place them in their own language, and connect them with their own analogies and metaphors. The style is typically free flowing, personal, wide ranging, with detail to structure and syntax secondary. Frequent use helps students become accustomed to this type of assignment and provides constant reinforcement for the content.

Low stakes writing helps instructors find out what students do and do not understand, how the students' thought processes are organized as they learn the concepts, improves student's writing ability, and provides the instructor the opportunity to clarify concepts in real time.

Elbow, P. (1997). "High stakes and low stakes in assigning and responding to writing" In Sorcinelli, M. D., and Elbow, P. (Eds.), Writing to learn: Strategies for assigning and responding to writing across the disciplines, New Directions for Teaching and Learning No. 69.

Emig, J. (1977). "Writing as a mode of learning" College Composition and Communication, 28, 122.

Fulwiler, T. (1980). "Journals across the disciplines", English Journal, 69 (12), 14.

Fulwiler, T. (1982). "Writing: An act of cognition" In Griffin, C. W. (Ed.), Teaching writing in all disciplines, New Directions for Teaching and Learning, No. 12.

Herrington, A. J. (1997). "Developing and responding to major writing projects" In Sorcinelli, M. D., and Elbow, P. (Eds.), Writing to learn: Strategies for assigning and responding to writing across the disciplines, New Directions for Teaching and Learning No. 69.

Tomlinson, S. (1990). "Writing to learn: Back to another basic" In SVINICKI, M. D. (Eds.), The changing face of college teaching, New Directions for Teaching and Learning, No. 42.

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