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Informal writing

A page within CATL Teaching Improvement Guide

Brief Description

Informal writing assignments are a specific kind of formative assessment. Also known as "writing-to-learn," informal writing assignments help instructors monitor and develop student learning related to course goals, promoting skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking (analysis, synthesis, etc.), reflection and creativity. By writing informally, students can integrate new information with their prior knowledge, make connections with personal experiences, engage more closely with course topics and readings, raise questions and concerns, and prepare for formal writing and other assignments

TIG: Informal Writing

Examples of informal writing assignments
  • field or laboratory notes
  • reading notes (summaries, analyses, outlines, reactions)
  • anticipatory reading notes (preparation for reading)
  • research notes
  • reactions to a speaker or film
  • class logs
  • learning logs or journals
  • listing topics for papers, discussion, or research
  • explaining a task or assignment
  • no-grade (or no-name) quizzes
  • writing in preparation for discussion
  • exploring concepts
  • imaginary dialogue (with a theorist? between opposed theorists?)
  • course blogs or wikis
  • online discussion posts
  • peer reviews
  • process or progress reports
  • instructor/student written dialogue
  • e-mail messages
Class preparation assignments

Lack of student preparation for class is a common problem. One way to improve the quality of their preparation is to ask students to respond in writing before class to several thought provoking questions. These could be based on assigned readings, but the questions should relate directly to the topic of the next class period. To insure they respond thoughtfully, ask students to email their responses to you the day before class. Or, better yet, have several of them post their responses on a web site where all the students are asked to read them prior to class. In addition, ask everyone to bring a hard copy to class. Not only does this engage students more thoughtfully in the material, but their responses help you gauge their understanding before class: very useful information in planning for class.

The muddiest point

A general way to monitor student understanding that works well in large classes is to ask students at the end of the period to explain briefly in writing what they thought were: 1) the big point (or main idea) they learned in class and 2) the main unanswered question or muddiest point from the class period. This technique is called "The Minute Paper," and generally takes no more than a few minutes to write. The activity engages students in monitoring and evaluating their own understanding (i.e., making sense of what they learned). These provide an overview of students' thinking, common patterns of responses, and prominent misunderstandings-which the instructor can respond to at the next class period.

Tips to implement informal writing effectively
  • Although informal writing assignments are generally low-stakes and not heavily weighted in course grades, instructors should make them count in some way. Below are some different approaches to managing these assignments:

    • Students collect informal work in a notebook or folder to be seen by the instructor N times during the semester

    • The instructor 
      • collects work during class for immediate feedback
      • reads and comments
      • selectively reads and comments
      • evaluates for engagement and effort
      • checks that it has been done (completion)
      • asks for an assignment to be read aloud in class
      • asks students to read and comment on each other's work
      • reads and discards
      • collects and discards
      • requires and counts as part of participation grade
  • Explain the purpose of informal writing assignments. Otherwise, students may perceive them as busy work.

  • Vary assignments throughout the semester to avoid monotony.

  • Make informal writing assignments as authentic as possible to improve student motivation. 

  • Focus on understanding. Every course has certain concepts that are especially difficult for a large number of students. If you are still looking for strategies to deal with these "hard ideas," consider this. Before you teach the idea(s), ask students to write a response to a prompt or question that elicits their knowledge of the concept(s). It is best if you can ask questions that get at the root of students' basic assumptions and beliefs about the topic. Their answers indicate how they already conceive of the concept(s), and will probably reveal important misconceptions or gaps in their knowledge. Then as you teach the class, ask students to respond again to the same initial question(s) (e.g., midway through material and/or after you finish teaching the topic). These responses can be used in several ways to foster student understanding. For example, have students compare their initial ideas with their later versions. Or ask students to read their responses in class, discuss them, and then further develop the ideas. Or ask students (even in very large classes) to read their responses to the person in the next seat, and then discuss the similarities and differences between the two versions. In each case, students have an opportunity to analyze and extend their understanding. Moreover, their responses indicate their progress in understanding the material during the semester.

Kopp, B. (2015). Informal writing. In Teaching Improvement Guide. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from

Kopp, B. (2015). Informal writing. In Teaching Improvement Guide. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from