Jan 25 2011
Learning by Writing
Try this experiment: ask your students to spend 5 minutes writing about a topic before beginning class discussion on the topic. You don’t need to grade it or even collect it, although you might want to use the students’ work as a way to take attendance. Why do this? Research findings suggest that students who write about topics learn more than those who do not.
Drabick, Weisberg, Paul, and Bubier (2007) compared the test performance of students who either wrote or thought about a topic for 5 minutes before engaging in a 10-minute class discussion of the topic. Ungraded writing produced larger improvements in student performance on exams given later in the semester. Students who were assigned to write about the topic prior to discussion performed better on both factual and conceptual questions than did students who thought about the topic prior to discussion. Interestingly, the improvement was greater for the conceptual questions. Even when student writing is not graded, these assignments can be effective strategies for improving student learning.
Brief, in-class “process” writing has other advantages. Students who are reluctant to contribute to class discussion are more likely to do so if they have had a few minutes to gather their thoughts and write them down. You can avoid calling on habitual responders and randomly ask students to share what they have written.
In-class process writing can also serve to quickly assess student knowledge about a topic. You can use it as a pre-test, to assess reading comprehension, or as an application exercise. None of these writing assignments need to take more than a few minutes of class time, they require little time to grade, and they enhance student thinking and learning.
Drabick, D. A. G., Weisberg, R., Paul, L., & Bubier, J. L. (2007). Keeping it short and sweet: Brief, ungraded writing assignments facilitate learning. Teaching of Psychology, 34, 172-176.
To follow up on any of these ideas, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. This Weekly Teaching Note was adapted from a contribution to the Teaching and Learning Writing Consortium sponsored by Western Kentucky University.
Director, Center for Teaching Excellence