Thinking on Paper

Writing to Learn

If you don’t already teach with writing, the suggestion may invoke your deepest fears of avalanches of paper, or hours spent writing comments that no one reads; but in fact we can harness the remarkable power of writing to promote learning without sentencing ourselves to perpetual grading jail.

Peter Elbow (1994) insisted that “students understand and retain course material much better when they write copiously about it,” but you don’t have to assign formal papers to use writing as a mode of teaching and learning. “Think pieces” and other informal, low-stakes writing are valuable in classes of any size, and even in highly technical or quantitative fields. Writing-to-learn activities can help students learn content, practice critical thinking, and even get better at assessing and directing their own learning. Both the WAC Clearinghouse and UNC’s Writing Center provide great examples and further guidance.

How Writing Supports Learning
As Daniel Willingham (2009) explains, “memory is the residue of thought” (p. 54). In order to help students remember what they’re learning in our courses, we have to get them to think about it as much as possible—and it helps if we can get them to think about it in the right ways. Our writing prompts can direct students’ thinking about particular topics or concepts, and the process of writing helps them to focus, to concentrate on the question or problem they’re working through. When we give students the opportunity to think through to a conclusion or discovery, they’ll end up with a fuller understanding of the concept, and they’re not as likely to forget it.

According to John Bean (2011), “Writing is both a process of doing critical thinking and a product that communicates the results of critical thinking” (p. 4). Writing tasks can offer students the practice they need to develop as critical thinkers, and give us opportunities to guide their practice, so that they can perform the kinds of higher order thinking we expect from them in upper-division courses, future careers, and civic life.

In any discipline, students can be asked to do the kind of writing that helps them to monitor, assess, and control their own thinking and learning. Students can benefit from these metacognitive writing exercises even if you can’t always read them. According to Elbow (1994), “students won’t write enough unless we assign more writing than we can comment on—or even read. There is no law against not reading what we make them write.” (But if you do read some of these exercises, all the better, since you’ll form a clearer picture of what your students are doing to learn, and how you can help.)

Additional Support
For help designing assignments or activities that guide students’ in their thinking, join us on Monday, September 17, from 12-2, for our Learning-Centered Assignment Design workshop, or sign up for the Engaging Ideas reading group. We can also provide individual support as you generate great assignments and in-class exercises, so please contact us with your questions. We look forward to working with you!