Informal Writing Assignments (Writing to Learn)


The term "writing-to-learn" refers to writing activities intended primarily to facilitate or develop students' understanding and thinking. Writing-to-learn activities are a necessary complement to formal writing in that a major cause of poor formal writing is poor understanding of the subject matter. In terms of a student's intellectual development, writing-to-learn may be even more important than formal writing since writing-to-learn serves as a vehicle through which students build their understanding of subject matter. During the writing-to-learn process, the main focus is on making sense of the material and not on communicating it in a specific format to an audience.

At a Glance

Purposes of Writing-to-Learn Assignments

  • to help students understand and learn
  • to promote
    • critical thinking skills (e.g., analysis, synthesis)
    • reflection
    • integration of new information with students' prior knowledge
    • affective/psychic development
    • careful reading
    • class discussion
  • to help students discover and formulate problems
  • to help students develop problem-solving strategies and skills
  • to allow and encourage students to raise questions and concerns
  • to sharpen student responses to their academic experiences
  • to help faculty monitor student progress through the course

Examples of Writing-to-Learn 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?)
  • process or progress reports
  • instructor/student written dialogue
  • e-mail & electronic conferences (especially, student to student dialogue)

Methods for Handling Writing-to-Learn Assignments

  • students collect in a notebook or folder to be seen by the instructor N times during the semester and/or
  • instructor collects during class for immediate feedback
    • read & comment
    • selectively read & comment
    • evaluate for engagement & effort
    • check that it has been done
    • ask for an assignment to be read aloud in class
    • ask students to read & comment on each other's work
    • read & discard
    • collect & discard

To illustrate the nature of writing-to-learn, consider the following classroom episodes.

In the middle of a class period, just after explaining an important idea, the instructor pauses and says, "All right, let's stop and think about this for a moment. Does anyone have any questions or comments?" The room is silent and eventually one or two hands go up. Students' questions focus on minor details they want clarified. The instructor answers these and then moves on to the next segment of the class.

Consider the same classroom situation, but this time after the instructor completes the explanation, she pauses and says, "All right, let's stop and think about this for a few minutes. Here's what I want you to do. Take out a piece of blank paper. Don't put your name on it. Now in the next three minutes I want you to answer this question." The instructor poses a question related to the concept she just explained. Students write for a few minutes, and then the teacher interrupts, "Okay, now, even though you may not be completely done with your thought, turn to the person next to you and explain your responses to each other." After several minutes of discussion by the student pairs, the teacher interrupts again and asks for volunteers to give their answers to the question. Quite a few hands go up, and the instructor selects four students to explain their ideas. As they do so, the teacher emphasizes essential points and helps clarify misunderstandings.

In the first scenario, the instructor stops to give students an opportunity to ask questions or comment on the topic. However, the opportunity typically produces fairly low level student responses. And this is actually to be expected. Some research indicates that students do not reflect on the material in these situations, but simply wait for someone to ask a question so the instructor can answer it and then move on. In contrast, the second scenario illustrates how writing-rather than provoking them to await an answer-will actually engage students in thinking about the course material in substantive and sustained ways.

Note how the writing episode contributes to students' learning. First, writing a response engages students in taking stock of what they understand and, possibly, what they still do not understand. Second, talking about their responses with a classmate provides an additional opportunity to clarify and extend their understanding of the material. For the act of explaining an idea to another person involves articulating the relationships and connections among facts and ideas. Moreover, listening to another student's explanation creates an opportunity to compare one's own understanding with a different version. And third, discussing their responses in class externalizes students' thinking so the instructor can take note of misconceptions, offer alternative views, and highlight ideas that students still do not seem to grasp. In effect, the apparently simple writing activity prompts knowledge building activities about the subject.

This example illustrates a key point—writing can be a successful vehicle for learning if it is used strategically to engage students in ways of thinking about the subject that lead to deeper understanding. It is not writing per se that matters but how students interact with the material through writing that matters. Students develop understanding when they explain, when they apply knowledge to new problems or situations, when they develop an interpretation or perspective, when they analyze, when they evaluate, when they integrate and synthesize ideas.

However, it is important to note that not all writing activities involve students in making sense of the subject matter. Taking notes, for example, can be a rote learning exercise that does little to promote understanding. And, writing assignments that primarily involve simple recall of facts and ideas do not necessarily build students' understanding of the material.

In a nutshell, effective writing-to-learn activities are sense making activities that involve students in making connections among disconnected facts and ideas, discerning relationships among ideas, relating new information to what one already knows, applying concepts and theories-whatever actively engages the student in developing understanding.

Examples of Writing-to-Learn Activities that Promote Understanding

Writing-to-learn activities can be used in a number of ways-before, during, and after class. They can be short and unrelated to one another or linked into a series that builds cumulative understanding of the course material over the entire semester. Most importantly, their use depends upon instructors' goals for student understanding. To design them effectively, an instructor must remember that these activities are tools that serve two major functions. First and foremost, writing-to-learn engages students in making sense of the course material. Second, writing-to-learn can be used to externalize students' thinking, providing the instructor with information about what and how students understand the subject matter. Consider these examples.

Understanding Hard Ideas. 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.

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.

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.

Developing Durable Understanding. We know students' understanding and expertise develop over a long period of time. That development is not a linear process of just adding more information, bit by bit, to memory. Instead, learning with understanding entails restructuring, reorganizing, revising and sometimes rejecting what one already knows in response to new concepts and information. Operating out of this sense of intellectual development, instructors in an academic program might use a series of writing-to-learn assignments throughout a sequence of courses to foster enduring understanding of important disciplinary knowledge. These could be designed to examine the subject from different perspectives, to integrate ideas from across courses, and to build more elaborated understanding. Such an approach would have the significant additional benefit of being used for formal assessments of students' understanding in the program as well. For example, students might be expected to respond to a set of prompts at several points in the major (freshman, junior, senior) and comparison of a student's responses at these intervals should reveal how her understanding has developed. Of course, the assignments should be intrinsically valuable for students insofar as they involve integrating and synthesizing ideas from multiple sources and engage them in careful reflection about significant disciplinary knowledge.

Writing is most likely to be an effective learning tool when it engages students in making sense out of the subject matter and when it helps students work through conceptual pitfalls, misconceptions, and problems. However, not all writing activities are equally appropriate for every discipline, instructor, and situation. And this is why it is important for instructors to analyze how students learn or fail to learn the subject you teach. We believe the analysis will help you identify key learning problems and the places in your courses where writing-to-learn can be useful. And perhaps more important, the analysis will help you design effective activities to promote learning with understanding.

A focus on learning with understanding. As teachers, we all strive to foster students' understanding of important concepts, ideas, and skills. Yet a large body of research indicates that students often acquire little more than a passing familiarity of our subjects. Surely, this is not satisfactory--particularly when there are solutions to the problem. We contend that writing, when used strategically, can promote learning with understanding. But designing assignments that lead to understanding requires careful thought. There are, after all, plenty of ways that writing can lead to little more than rote learning. This occurs when students perceive writing assignments as busy work or when assignments merely ask students to transcribe ideas. In order to use writing to foster learning with understanding, it is important to consider several interrelated issues:

  1. Determine what is worthy of understanding. We all strive for something more than superficial understanding or surface learning in our students; but students encounter far more information than they can possibly digest. There is good evidence that when students are deluged with information, they resort to rote learning strategies. Rather than try to make sense of the material, they try to memorize it. We do not oppose exposing students to a lot of information, but at the same time we cannot expect students to understand all of it deeply. To deal with this quintessential problem of the Information Age, the instructor must first recognize the difference between having information and understanding information within a conceptual or theoretical construct. Then, you must determine which ideas are central to understanding and which are secondary. We believe that instructors need to make critical distinctions between ideas students should be familiar with and those that should become part of their enduring understanding of the subject, just as they must make distinctions between which information is crucial to understanding and which is secondary.
  2. Engage students in performances of understanding. Students demonstrate their understanding in complex activities in which they use knowledge to accomplish larger goals such as conducting an analysis, applying new knowledge to solve problems, articulating an argument, making a case, developing a position, interpreting a theory or text. Writing-to-learn activities should be viewed as "performances of understanding" in which students do not simply demonstrate their grasp of the subject but advance it further. For example, when students are asked to explain an idea, they need to consider how various parts of the concept or concepts are related to one another. The act of finding relationships and connections among ideas is a sense making activity-it is an act of understanding. So the process of explaining not only externalizes students' understanding, it is a knowledge building activity as well.
  3. Address difficulties in understanding the subject matter. Writing-to-learn can play a key role in developing students' understanding of difficult material. In all fields, students encounter persistent problems, difficulties, stumbling blocks, and misconceptions as they try to understand the subject. Instructors can use specific problem areas as the bases for designing writing exercises and assignments to help students overcome persistent difficulties.
Note: This page is currently under revision.


Bryan Kopp
Writing Programs Coordinator and
Assistant Professor of English

426G Carl Wimberly Hall