Writing to Learn Activities

Entry/Exit Freewriting

At the beginning and/or end of class, ask students to write for 5 to 8 minutes on what they learned from the previous class, from their homework, or from class activities that day. Ask some students to read what they have written; discuss this with the class.

Focused Freewriting

Assign a specific question about a concept from the course material for the day, and ask students to write a five minute answer.

Author’s Prejudices/My Prejudices

This activity is a way to help students focus their homework reading. Have students divide a piece of paper into two columns and record in the left hand column any prejudices of the author as they notice them In the right column, have the students record any prejudices of their own on the corresponding issues. In class, have them write briefly on how the two lists compare. Call on students to read their writing to the class, or have students share their writing with one another. 

Clarification Letters

Have students write a brief letter to a specific audience trying to clarify a key point of the day’s course material. Have some students read the letters aloud and discuss them. 

Class Letters

Once a week, have the students write a brief letter to the teacher about what they are learning (or not learning) in the class. The teacher reads the letters and writes a letter back to the class responding to several of the students’ writing.

Student Formulated Questions

Prior to a test, have students write three or four questions that they might expect to see on the exam. Discuss the answers. Assure students that at least some of the questions they suggest will be used in preparing the exam.

One minute Paper

After discussion, students spend one minute summarizing what they they thought was the most important or interesting or surprising point covered. 

Muddiest Point

Students write a short paragraph describing what they think was the point that that is still most unclear from the day’s class and why. 

Definition of key word

Ask students to write their own definition of a key term. Have several of them read their answers. Discuss them. 

Then and Now

Freewriting that reflects on a student’s understanding at an earlier point in the course and on their understanding now.

Dialogues

Ask student to write a brief dialogue between two historical or contemporary figures pertinent to what they are studying.

Interpreting graphs and tables

Put the contents of a graph or table into writing.

Projections

Ask students to project or predict what a situation they are studying will be in ten years.

The following activities are from the Colorado State University website on Writing to Learn: http://wac.colostate.edu/intro/pop5.cfm

Reading Journals

First, students use the left half of the page or the left sheet of an opened notebook for recording what the reading is about. Teachers can ask for quite a lot of detail in this half of the reading journal so that students get practice in summarizing entire articles or summarizing particular arguments, identifying main ideas, noting key details, and choosing pertinent quotations, among other crucial reading skills. On the right half of the page (or right page of the notebook), students jot down any questions they have or any connections they can make between readings or between readings and class discussions. At the beginning of the semester, the right half of the journal is dotted with questions, most of which can be answered quickly at the beginning of a discussion session in class. By the end of the semester, students will sometimes fill two right-hand columns for every reading. At this point, the questions are far richer (rarely about content) and the connections point out that students are integrating the readings and class work on their own. Students often need more focused questions to begin working on the right-hand side--the evaluative, reflective, or metacognitive side:

  • Why are certain details more memorable?
  • What connections can you make between X and Y?
  • How did you arrive at this conclusion?
  • Why is this conclusion significant?
  • How does this assignment touch you personally?
  • How does this assignment change your thinking on the idea?
  • How could you write about your new insight?
  • What other information might you need to pursue this topic?
  • How does this reading/writing/discussion/group work build on our earlier discussion of the larger concept of X?

Annotations

Unlike the summary that attempts an objective rendering of the key points in a reading, an annotation typically asks students to note key ideas and briefly evaluate strengths and weaknesses in an article. In particular, annotations often ask students to note the purpose and scope of a reading and to relate the reading to a particular course project. You can have students annotate (and eventually compare) readings assigned for the class, or you can ask students to compile annotations to supplement the course readings. Each student's annotations can be distributed to the class in one handout or through electronic media (Web forum, e mail).

Response Papers: A type of writing to learn that builds on assigned readings is the response paper. Unlike the summary, the response paper specifically asks students to react to assigned readings. Students might write responses that analyze specified features of a reading (the quality of data, the focus of research reported, the validity of research design, the effectiveness of logical argument). Or they might write counter-arguments.

Discussion Starters: Sometimes students feel baffled by a reading assignment and express that frustration in class, but they often understand more about the reading than they believe they do. When this situation arises, having students write about the reading can be especially valuable, both for clarifying what students do and don't understand and for focusing students' attention on key points in the reading.

If you know a particular reading assignment is likely to give students trouble, you might plan questions in advance. But even if students' frustration catches you by surprise, you can easily ask questions about the key issues or points in the article. Moreover, asking students to answer the same questions again at the end of the class, after you've had a chance to discuss the reading, will help you see what students still don't understand.

Focusing a Discussion: When a discussion seems to be taking off in several directions, dominated by just a few students, or emotionally charged, stop the discussion and ask students to write either what they saw as the main threads of the discussion or where the discussion might most profitably go. After writing for a few minutes, students will often be better able to identify and stay on productive tracks of discussion. Or, after asking a few students to read their writing aloud, the teacher can decide how best to redirect the discussion.

Learning Log: The learning log serves many of the functions of an ongoing laboratory notebook. During most class sessions, students write for about five minutes, often summarizing the class lecture material, noting the key points of a lab session, raising unanswered questions from a preceding class. Sometimes, students write for just one or two minutes both at the beginning and end of a class session. At the beginning, they might summarize the key points from the preceding class (so that the teacher doesn't have to remind them about the previous day's class). At the end of class students might write briefly about a question such as:

  • What one idea that we talked about today most interested you and why?
  • What was the clearest point we made today? What was the foggiest point?
  • What do you still not understand about the concept we've been discussing?
  • If you had to restate the concept in your own terms, how would you do that?
  • How does today's discussion build on yesterday's?

Such questions can provide continuity from class to class, but they can also give teachers a quick glimpse into how well the class materials are getting across. Some teachers pick up the complete learning logs every other week to skim through them, and others pick up a single response, particularly after introducing a key concept. These occasional snapshots of students’ comprehension help teachers quickly gauge just how well students understand the material. Teachers can then tailor the following class to clarify and elaborate most helpfully for students.

Analyzing a process: Sometimes students are baffled by the explanations teachers give of how things happen because teachers move too quickly or easily through the process analysis. A quick run-through of an equation is often just not enough for students struggling to learn new material.

A more useful approach to process analysis--from the learners' point of view--is to trace in writing the steps required to complete the process or to capture the thinking that leads from one step to the next. Students can either write while or after they complete each problem. Particularly when students get stuck in the middle of a problem, writing down why they completed the steps they did will usually help someone else (a classmate, tutor, or teacher) see why the student experienced a glitch in problem-solving. Similarly, teachers can look over the process analyses to see if students have misapplied fundamental principles or if they are making simple mistakes. In effect, students can concentrate on problem-solving rather than on minor details, and they can move from simple procedures followed by rote into a deeper understanding of why they are solving problems appropriately.

Problem Statement: Teachers usually set up the problems and ask students to provide solutions. Two alternatives to this standard procedure will give students practice with both framing and solving problems:

  • After you introduce a new concept in your course, ask students to write out a theoretical or practical problem that the concept might help to solve. Students can exchange these problems and write out solutions, thus ensuring that they understand the concept clearly and fully.
  • Ask students to write out problem statements before they come to your office hours for conference. (Or you might suggest that they use e mail to send you these problem statements in lieu of a face-to-face conference.) Students are likely to frame such a problem more concretely than they might otherwise do in preparing for a conference, and the resulting conference (or e-mail exchange) is likely to be more productive for both student and teacher.

Another version of this exercise is to have students write a problem statement that is passed on to another student whose job it is to answer it. Such peer answers are especially useful in large classes.

Pre-test warm-ups: Ask students to generate problems for an upcoming test. Students might work collaboratively either to generate problems or to draft solutions. By asking each student or group of students to generate problems, students will cover the course material more fully than they might otherwise do in studying. Moreover, if you assure students that at least some of the test material will draw on the problems students generate, they are more likely to take both the problems and solutions more seriously. Furthermore, if students don't understand the material, they will surely find out as they write questions for the exams! Another alternative for pre-test warm up writing is to give out sample test questions in advance of the exam. Students can work individually or in groups to write out responses. Again, because they know some of the test material will come from the WTL activity, students are likely to prepare more carefully.

Using Cases: Because cases provide students with a complete writing context, they can be exceptionally useful for student writers. A simple use of the case is to set up a single scenario which notes the audience, purpose, and focus of a brief writing task. For example, a business student might encounter this scenario: Assume that you've just been hired in a local office of a large asset management firm. Your first client has traded stocks conservatively for several years and now wants to try options trading. What basic principles of options trading do you need to be sure your client understands?

A teacher could assign this scenario and ask for a variety of writing tasks in response to it:

  • Outline the principles in three minutes at the start of class to review the reading from last night.
  • Write an e-mail message to your manager to brief her on your plans for educating your client.
  • As a final exam response, explain both the principles of options trading and your ethical obligations to your client.
  • Generate a working list of principles in a group of four students and then find a dozen sources from the library to annotate for their usefulness to the new employee. Compile the most useful annotations from your group to distribute to the entire class.

A more elaborate case can include both more details for the student writer, as well as a wider range of roles to write from. A full case can call for multiple kinds of writing, drawing on the full range of informal and formal writing outlined in this guide. It can also emphasize the kinds of questions (and writing) most common in the discipline, and full-scale cases work well with both individual and collaborative writing assignments.

Letters: Students can write to explain professional concepts, positions, or policies in letters of application or letters to politicians. Students can also write business letters of introduction and research gathering, introducing their projects and plans for approval. Another version of an introductory letter could have students try to persuade an interested party (e.g. a foundation, the NSA, etc.) to provide funding or approval for their research. Or have them write a letter after completing a project which tries to persuade someone interested in the project to accept their recommendations.

Believing and Doubting Game: 

  • First espoused by Peter Elbow, this writing activity simply calls for students to write briefly first, in support of an idea, concept, methodology, thesis;
  • second, in opposition to it.

As students complete this writing activity based on a course reading or controversy in the field, they become more adept at understanding the complexity of issues and arguments.

Analysis of events: Although this heading may suggest that only historians can assign this WTL task, in fact an analysis of events can be useful in most fields. This task can take two shapes: Post hoc analysis: After an event is reported in the general news media or in your disciplinary media, ask students to reflect on

  • what happened
  • why it happened
  • what it means to your field

Various engineering disciplines, for instance, could analyze the Pathfinder mission to Mars by focusing on appropriate elements of the actual event.

What-if analysis: Take an actual event and ask students to write about how the outcome might differ if one crucial condition were changed. For example, what if Dolly, the famous cloned sheep, had been successfully produced on the first try? Students in science disciplines can speculate about scientific elements of this event; students in agriculture courses can focus on the immediate impacts in food production; students in ethics courses could examine the balance of world-wide patterns of food production v. individual identity; students in political science could focus on government funding issues; and so on.