Writing to Learn and Communicate

Using "Writing to Learn" approaches tends to require that we think about writing as an integral part of the learning process. To make this approach work, think about what kinds of writing can help students master material and communicate about it:

  • Summaries of reading
  • Annotations and reading responses
  • Developing discussion starters and problem statements
  • Describing and analyzing a process
  • Reviewing the literature in a field
  • Synthesizing a variety of perspectives in one assignment
  • Keeping a reading journal

These techniques and assignments all force students to process their reading and thinking into the written word: writing in order to learn. But for many faculty, using writing to learn  pedagogy raises questions of time management (all those essays!) and how to get students to correct their own errors. Following are tested and effective practices for getting the most out of student writing by capitalizing on teaching moments:

  • Spend some class time explaining the writing required for the course, and write it all down in your syllabus, with plenty of explanation about the rationale and expectations.
  • Make it clear that the writing assignments are an integral part of the learning process in your course. Don't let students (or yourself) think of them as "added on."
  • Spend class time analyzing examples of good and excellent writing in the discipline. Draw students' attention to specific techniques or features (passive vs. active voice, paragraphing, the conventions of introductions, voice vs. voiceless, etc.) that you want to see in the writing they submit to you. Characterizing these faculty expectations as essential concepts for college students is just one way students learn to write at the college level. Draw examples from your own writing; draw examples from the reading you assign; draw examples from the students in your class.
  • Require prewriting strategies (e.g., brainstorming, questioning, categorizing, free writing, diagramming, outlining and journal-keeping) as students compose your assignments. In this way, you can learn where students are having trouble long before you expect mastery of the information. In addition, by your requirement of prewriting, students begin to make the material their own. If we provide plenty of opportunities for students to connect thinking with writing, the results will be worth the time we invest. Even upper-level students benefit from pre-writing strategies, although we might expect them to have already mastered this basic process. Research has demonstrated time and again that students' development and mastery of the writing skills they need is uneven, conditioned by a number of elements over which the teacher has no control. We know, however, that students learn best what they do often.
  • Assign several short writing assignments designed to improve student thinking and writing. For instance, students may write rough drafts, journal entries, summaries, research proposals, annotated bibliographies, reviews of literature, book reviews, progress memoranda and abstracts. Sequencing those assignments from smaller to larger helps students learn to build from one small bit of thinking into much bigger and more critically aware thinking, and this building process need not add onerous grading time to a busy teacher's schedule.
  • Require revision. To revise well, students should occasionally have access to "peer reviews" from their classmates as well as comments from the teacher. Students may need explanation from teachers about what "revision" means -- so provide examples. Drawing examples from your own writing process helps to demystify the writing for students in addition to humanizing their professors.
  • Always demonstrate what you're asking for in a writing assignment. Don't make the students guess what you want to see.
  • Use grading selectively. Not everything needs to be evaluated, and the literature suggests that students find being judged while still learning to be inhibiting. We know, for instance, that students engaged in active learning often make simple mistakes on things they already know; as one example, a student studying higher-level psychology material may produce writing with a lot more comma errors than his or her average. We can expect to see low-level mistakes more often when students are learning; it is often the evidence that they ARE learning. This reminder does not mean that student writing need not be read -- much of it does need some response, whether formal or casual. However, "grading" tends to send the message that the work of the writing task is over, a counterproductive signal for students engaged in a lifelong learning process.


Evidence for Success 

Writing in Psychology:

Johnson, E. Jean; Tuskenis, Albert D.; Howell, Glenna L.; Jaroszewski, Kimberly Development and Effects of a Writing and Thinking Course in Psychology Teaching of Psychology, v38 n4 p229-236 Oct 2011. 8 pp.

Abstract: The authors developed and assessed a new undergraduate psychology course: Thinking and Writing in Psychology. A description of how the course was developed using the APA learning goals as well as results from an analysis of the course's effectiveness are offered. The course demonstrated a positive impact on the overall grade point average and thinking and writing skills of students within the course as well as in more advanced courses. Implementing and requiring a thinking and writing course relatively early in the undergraduate psychology major was strongly supported by this study. (Contains 2 tables.)

Writing In Sociology:

Burgess-Proctor, Amanda; Cassano, Graham; Condron, Dennis J.; Lyons, Heidi A.; Sanders, George . A Collective Effort to Improve Sociology Students' Writing Skills. Teaching Sociology, v42 n2 p130-139 Apr 2014. 10 pp.

Abstract: Nationwide, academic sociologists at all types of higher education institutions face the challenge of working to improve students' writing skills. In this article, we describe a collective effort by a group of faculty members in one undergraduate sociology program to implement several effective writing-improvement strategies. We advocate aiming to improve students' writing by working together on a united front rather than working in isolation. After explaining the origins of the collective emphasis on writing that emerged in our group and briefly outlining the writing-improvement strategies that we utilize, we use student survey data to reflect on major themes before concluding with a discussion of the merits of our collective approach.

Writing in Biology:

Brownell, Sara E.; Price, Jordan V.; Steinman, Lawrence. A Writing-Intensive Course Improves Biology Undergraduates' Perception and Confidence of Their Abilities to Read Scientific Literature and Communicate Science. Advances in Physiology Education, v37 n1 p70-79 Mar 2013. 10 pp.

Abstract: Most scientists agree that comprehension of primary scientific papers and communication of scientific concepts are two of the most important skills that we can teach, but few undergraduate biology courses make these explicit course goals. We designed an undergraduate neuroimmunology course that uses a writing-intensive format. Using a mixture of primary literature, writing assignments directed toward a layperson and scientist audience, and in-class discussions, we aimed to improve the ability of students to 1) comprehend primary scientific papers, 2) communicate science to a scientific audience, and 3) communicate science to a layperson audience. We offered the course for three consecutive years and evaluated its impact on student perception and confidence using a combination of pre- and post course survey questions and coded open-ended responses. Students showed gains in both the perception of their understanding of primary scientific papers and of their abilities to communicate science to scientific and layperson audiences. These results indicate that this unique format can teach both communication skills and basic science to undergraduate biology students. We urge others to adopt a similar format for undergraduate biology courses to teach process skills in addition to content, thus broadening and strengthening the impact of undergraduate courses. (Contains 8 tables and 5 figures.)

Writing In Accounting:

Riordan, Diane A. Riordan, Michael P. Sullivan, M. Cathy. Writing Across the Accounting Curriculum: An Experiment. Business Communication Quarterly. Sep2000, Vol. 63 Issue 3, p49-59. 11p

Abstract: To improve the writing skills of accounting students, we developed a structured writing effectiveness program across three junior level courses in the accounting major: tax, cost, and financial accounting. Writing counted for approximately five percent of the grade in each course and accounting professors discussed grammar, sentence structure, and word choice. A consulting expert on writing also contributed to the program. We tested the results of our program empirically through both a pretest/posttest design and a control/treatment group comparison. The results provide evidence that our writing across the curriculum project significantly improved the students' writing skills. [ABSTRACT FROM AUTHOR]

Writing in Political Science:

Cavdar, Gamze; Doe, Sue. Learning through Writing: Teaching Critical Thinking Skills in Writing Assignments. PS: Political Science and Politics, v45 n2 p298-306 Apr 2012. 9 pp.

Abstract: Traditional writing assignments often fall short in addressing problems in college students' writing as too often these assignments fail to help students develop critical thinking skills and comprehension of course content. This article reports the use of a two-part (staged) writing assignment with postscript as a strategy for improving critical thinking in a lower-division political science course. We argue that through well-designed writing assignments, instructors can encourage students to reconsider concepts, critically evaluate assumptions, and undertake substantive revisions of their writing.

Writing in Math and Computer Science:

Van Dyke, Frances Malloy, Elizabeth J. Stallings, Virginia (Lyn) . Conceptual writing in college-level mathematics courses and its impact on performance and attitude. International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science & Technology. Mar2015, Vol. 46 Issue 2, p223-233. 11p.

Abstract: This study looks at the impact of college students' writing on a regular basis about mathematical concepts. Specifically we examine the effect of this practice on performance and attitude while controlling for confounding factors. Two professors and a total of 97 students in four different classes participated in the study. Students in the writing groups were required to write a total of eight papers, each concentrating on an important concept in the course. All students were given a visual skills assessment at the beginning and end of the course. Students in the writing group were assessed to determine their attitude toward the writing assignments. Positive trends were associated with the writing group over the non-writing group in overall score and in all but one of six individual components. However, within the writing group, students' attitude toward writing in mathematics class was negative. [ABSTRACT FROM PUBLISHER]

Writing in Music Education:

Countryman, June. Learning Posts: A Pedagogical Experiment with Undergraduate Music Education Majors. International Journal of Education & the Arts, v13 n7 Dec 2012. 22 pp.

Abstract: This article describes the effects of a year-long reflective writing assignment--weekly Learning Posts--designed for students in an undergraduate music education course. I created this assignment to cause students to regularly interrogate the teaching and learning they experience in their own daily lives. This study's research question emerged from critical reflection at the intersection of practice and theory. Does a weekly requirement to describe and interpret a personal learning experience encourage, over time, instances of significant learning (Fink, 2003). My data sources consist of regular entries in my teaching journal monitoring the assignment and post-course interviews conducted with four students. I identify the positive potential of Learning Posts, improvements to enhance their effectiveness and broader issues concerning the reflective writing we assign music education students. The concept of self-authorship confirms the importance of reflective writing for young adults and the notion of threshold concepts contributes a potential framing device. (Contains 3 footnotes.)

Writing in Finance:

Dahlquist, Julie R.. Writing assignments in finance: Development and evaluation. Financial Practice & Education. Spring/Summer95, Vol. 5 Issue 1, p107-112. 6p. 3 Charts.

This article discusses the importance of articulating the objectives of writing assignments in finance. The use of writing in college courses can strengthen this important skill and, thus, make students more employable. However, the benefits of writing in a course go far beyond acquiring a marketable skill. Writing, in fact, also helps students to learn more. By writing, students become collaborators in the educational process. Although these are persuasive arguments for including writing in course pedagogy, professors often resist doing so. This resistance often is the result of negative experiences with writing assignments. Writing can, however, be used as a way to help students learn and as an effective evaluation instrument, if a few easy steps are followed. Students have spent their entire scholastic careers writing for teachers who know the correct answers. This type of assignment, however, encourages students to realize that when they are employed, they will have to write to communicate information that is unknown to their readers.