Research on Writing to Learn

DictionaryAcademics 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.

Even the title of this one might be tough: The contributions of writing to learning and development: Results from a large-scale multi-institutional study (PDF, Anderson, Anson, Gonyea & Paine, 2015) published in Research in the Teaching of English last November.  Regarding my discussion of definitions above, this article takes the position that writing happening in classrooms should be designed to support learning, which includes interacting around the writing before a final draft is handed in, and that the writing requires original, critical, or integrative thinking, but it does not dictate the type of writing. Further, this article uses a huge, long-standing, well-respected national survey of college freshman and seniors, the National Survey of Student Engagement, so they end up with just shy of 30,000 responses to work with.

Paraphrasing from the conclusion, the key finding is: When students experience (1) writing assignments with clear expectations, that (2) require original/critical thought, and include (3) purposeful interactive components (e.g. peer response) before a final draft, they (1) learn more deeply and reflectively and (2) think they’ve learned more, academically, personally, and socially.  Because of the robustness of these findings, the authors also suggest professors can draw on these findings–clear expectations, original/critical thought, and interaction–to design writing that will enhance student learning in their class.

The authors do lots of statistical stuff to the data (here I’m trusting the folks at RTE have fully vetted these stats, which is one of the beauties of peer-reviewed research!) that mean these findings hold up across different student populations at different kinds of colleges and universities.

A key quote from the implications section:

[T]he more actions instructors take to explain their assignments clearly (independent variable), the more the students will report positive behaviors

and perceptions (dependent variables). (p. 229)

So, if you’re teaching and want to think about writing in your courses, go for it!  Length or form doesn’t matter, really, but making it meaningful, interactive, and with clear expectations does.  And I’d love to hear what you tried!

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