Academics care a lot about definitions. And definitions matter. And that’s a lot of what can turn folks off from academic writing. Here’s a short example.
Writing to learn. Seems simple enough, right? Yes, and no. For a lengthy discussion, I suggest this great resource from the Writing Across the Curriculum Clearinghouse. A shorter discussion…
For some people, writing to learn supports students learning content and involves the type of writing that is a good fit for the class–probably a more formal, polished kind of writing. By doing a writing assignment in, say, accounting, students can better learn accounting content, even though they aren’t running calculations in Excel. For others, writing to learn is informal, short writing that is done to capture thinking in the moment, often while students are in class. This writing could be a professor asking students to jot down ideas on an index card before class, and then using them to start a discussion.
Another way to think about the definition is that writing to learn is writing that happens as you’re thinking–through an idea, reading a text, watching a move, listening to a podcast, looking at a piece of art. The audience for this writing is usually the writer, the purpose is to think, so the form/genre is whatever works. Notebooks often hold writing to learn, but it could be a piece of paper scrounged from the bottom of a bag. Sometimes this writing happens in class, or while doing homework for class. Sometimes this writing happens as part of tasks that are a part of a writer’s life, like making a grocery list, or a pro-con list. It’s writing that isn’t pretty, grammatically correct, or in sentences or paragraphs. It can include drawing or sketches, post-it notes, quotes, or who knows what. It is first-draft thinking so that, by the time you get to the writing that’s for other people in particular forms, the thinking has been refined. If the length is any clue, this broad, wide-ranging understanding is where I stand.
But, no matter how to you define writing to think or writing to learn, there isn’t enough writing that supports learning going on in classrooms, either at the K-12 level, or at the college or university level. So I was really excited to read a study that looked at writing to learn and found it had value in college classrooms.