Over the past few decades, a fairly substantial body of research has emerged in the professional literature about the use of writing in the disciplines, not as the final, formal measure of a student’s understanding, but as the informal means to explore that understanding in the first place. Called “writing-to-learn,” this growing set of activities and practices is one response to the question: “Academically speaking, how do I know what I know, until I write about it?” “Writing-to-learn” activities are used as a catalyst to stimulate the process of learning, rather than as a formal demonstration of that learning. While “writing-to-learn” activities undoubtedly can contribute to the improvement of one’s formal writing in a course, in no way are they intended to replace or supplant whatever formal writing has been planned. If formal, graded writing in a course can be viewed as “high stakes” writing, then informal, ungraded “writing-to learn” activities can be viewed as “low stakes” writing.
In recent years, each academic discipline has begun to develop its own “writing-to-learn” activities and practices and to integrate them into their courses. One can point to a number of general activities by way of introduction:
1. Reading logs
This is a form of note-taking that has developed in a number of ways:
a. Ask students to keep a log of what they have read: main ideas, with the facts and illustrations to support them.
b. Ask students to write down key or significant passages and in their own words explain their significance.
c. Ask students to write down passages they don’t fully understand and try to explain their confusion, especially by asking questions.
d. Ask students to divide a piece of paper in half. On one side, record the passages from the text. On the other, write down speculations, questions, comments, and important connects to other passages or to one’s experience.
e. Ask students to write a precise of certain passages of their reading, summarizing and putting the material into their own words.
A journal is probably a more informal way than a reading log to maintain written contact with one’s thoughts and ideas, whether these are towards one’s reading or otherwise. A journal can be considered “private,” where no one reads it but the writer, or “public,” where the teacher may ask to read it from time to time during the semester. Journals have long been used in writing and literature courses, especially with apprentice writers, to cultivate a sense of one’s own voice as a writer and to develop a conviction of having something to say and the means to say it. Some faculty members prefer to have students publish their reflections to a blog which serves as an online journal.
3. Free writing
Pioneered by Peter Elbow in the 70’s, “free writing” has become a much adopted practice of allowing students to “simply write” for a certain period of time, say 10 minutes, on whatever they want. The only “rules of the game” are to start writing as soon as possible, to keep the pen moving at all times (even if it means writing about having nothing to say) and to avoid looking back or reading over one’s writing for coherence or correctness. It has become widely used, especially in composition classes, as a means of overcoming certain blocks that student’s invariable face in getting underway. The practice can be used at the beginning of a class to stimulate discussion. A variant of this practice, called “directed free writing,” involves the teacher giving students a subject or topic to write about for a short period of time, generally building around a key phrase, sentence or passage, which is called a prompt.
4. Response papers
Rather than asking students for formal written work, a number of professors are now asking students to write “response papers,” which may or may not be graded, and may or may not be used as the first draft to a more formal piece of writing. Response papers allow students to be more free-ranging and imaginative than usual in their thoughts and associations, without being required to handle the more rigorous demands of formal writing, particularly in providing illustrative material to support one’s ideas.
5. The micro theme
One can ask students to write micro theme (in or out of class) on a smaller part of a larger subject, or perhaps on a major concept imbedded in a larger whole. Micro themes can also appear as essay questions on exams, with the response generally being no more than a paragraph or two.
6. The two-minute essay
This activity can take place at any time during the class. At the beginning of the class, it can focus students on the subject under discussion for that day or recall a subject from a previous class. At the end of the class, it can be used to ask students to summarize the day’s discussion, look forward to the next class, or raise questions they might be having about work.
Letters are a very flexible, “low stakes” writing activity. They can be used as a means of exchange between students, informally to explain material, raise questions, admit confusion, or locate areas of doubt. Exchanges can also take place where partners develop ideas together or come to some new understanding about a particular subject. Finally, letters can occur between student and teacher, possibly through E-mail, or accompanying one’s formal writing, as a way for students to alert the teacher to parts of the paper that may need further work.
Although, at first, assigning and commenting on ungraded first drafts of formal papers appears quite onerous, it is a very powerful “low stakes” tool to direct and develop student writing, without inflicting unnecessary penalties upon the writer. As well, the final set of papers is generally of much higher quality and with less need of major repair or comment.
Drafting has also proven to be an effective method of preparing students to write short essays on tests. Here, students create and write responses to their own questions about key concepts that are likely to appear in some form on an exam.
*Originally Compiled by Prof. Peter Miller, Campus Coordinator, Writing Across the Curriculum, College of Staten Island