Writing to Learn
Writing Across the Curriculum programs (such as SAGES) have demonstrated that students can gain a deeper understanding of subject-area content by writing about it. This insight is often dubbed “Writing-to-Learn” (WTL), and it suggests that we see writing not as a demonstration of already acquired knowledge (as in a final term paper) but as a means to gain knowledge, explore ideas, and ask questions. To foster WTL in your class, consider the following kinds of informal assignments:
- Brief In-Class Writing: Ask students to reflect in writing for two to five minutes about the topic of the day (at the beginning or end of class). What do they remember from the reading or the class discussion? What questions do they still have? What was one idea that they didn’t get a chance to express? You can use these pieces of writing in a variety of ways: collect them to give yourself an idea of where to start the discussion (or how to plan the next class); ask for volunteers to read their statements to begin discussion; have peers exchange their work and comment on each other’s ideas, questions, and comments.
- Informal Journals: Ask students to keep journals where they react to the readings before class (entries can be brief, even half a page, handwritten). This has the benefit of getting students to pause and reflect on what they have read. In “response journals,” students write their thoughts on the left-hand side of the page; then, they exchange journals and respond to each other on the right-hand side of the page before the next class period. The instructor may participate in this process occasionally (taking home some or all of the journals and commenting) or simply review the journals periodically.
- Question Cards: At the beginning or end of class, hand out index cards and ask students to write a question or a quotation from the reading that they enjoyed (or were troubled by, etc.). Collect the cards and use them to start discussion. Formulating good questions is one of the skills that leads to better papers – the more practice students get at this, the better.
- Reaction Papers: Ask students to reflect (outside of class, in one or two pages, typed) on what they have read or discussed in class. This kind of short assignment might ask students to expand on a journal entry or discussion point—in other words, it might build on writing they have done in a less formal situation.
Learning to Write
All of your students need to develop academic writing skills: they must know how to cite sources, articulate arguments (as opposed to stating opinions), select appropriate and persuasive evidence, etc. These skills should be foregrounded not only when students write, but also when they read academic texts. Consider the following exercises:
- Identify the Thesis: Ask students to find one or two sentences in a reading that they think summarize the author’s main argument, and have them discuss their selections. Are there multiple “thesis statements”? Do subsequent sentences clarify or narrow the argument?
- Examine Evidence: Ask students to focus on the author’s use of evidence. What kind of evidence is invoked? Is it effective? What are the sources? How are they cited? What other sources might have been chosen (for example, to make an opposing argument)?
- Practice, Practice, Practice: Break down the skills necessary to complete your larger writing assignments. For example, give students practice at writing “claim statements” (maybe they will turn in a first paragraph to you several weeks before a paper is due). Or, ask them to bring in one source that they have chosen, and then devote class time to a discussion of academic versus popular source material. Or, ask students to cut apart their paragraphs and give them to a peer—can the peer put the paper back together in a logical order? Is that logical order the same one that the student originally developed? What is the role of topic or concluding sentences in making this exercise harder or easier?
- Give Examples: Provide sample paragraphs that accomplish (or fail to accomplish) the goals of your assignment. Ask students to edit the paragraphs in pairs or groups; share results with the class.
- Offer Opportunities for Revision: Ask for a rough draft (Version 1.0, as Mano Singham, professor of physics and UCITE director, calls it) from students well before the final draft is due. Provide feedback on content, argument, evidence in this draft—where does the student seem most convincing? Least convincing? Is the argument clear? Encourage students to incorporate a new source or additional ideas into their final draft.
- Make Your Grading Criteria Clear: Discussion of the grading criteria (even asking students to write in their own words what the criteria mean) helps them internalize your standards. It also helps students identify the important aspects of college writing. When you say, “Analyze this passage,” do students know what it means to analyze something? What is the difference between analysis and summary? Provide examples—especially some written by members of the class—of successful analysis (or whatever the skill is you’re emphasizing).
- Define a Purpose: Help students identify the purpose of their writing. The answer should not be: to get a (good) grade. Instead, students should have a genuine question or argument about the topic. Push students to articulate a paper topic that is interesting to them (and to you) by asking: Why should your reader care about this topic?