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Using Writing to Reinforce Class Learning

Students best learn course content when they are asked to write about it. The good news is that there are many short writing activities that can help them learn—without using much class time and without requiring time or effort from you. Some of these short writings, in fact, needn’t be read by anyone except the student, since the purpose is not to communicate with others.

Here are several short "writing to learn" assignments you might consider:

  • One writing exercise asks students to write for a short period of time at the beginning of class, perhaps to raise questions about an assigned reading, or perhaps to summarize their understanding of an assigned reading. This activity forces them to recall and assess previous information, and provides a basis for understanding an upcoming lecture that may be based on the reading. This kind of exercise needn’t be collected (though you certainly can collect it if you’re curious about their responses); its main purpose is to stimulate their thinking. You might allow 3-5 minutes for them to do it.
  • A second in-class writing exercise can be used when a class discussion either gets out of control or is going nowhere. You might just stop the discussion in its tracks and ask students to write (again, for approximately 5 minutes) about what they’re feeling at the moment (about the topic or issue being discussed), what confuses them, and so on. You might even ask them to write a brief speech expressing their point of view regarding the issue or topic being discussed. Again, this doesn’t require your reading; the purpose is to help them clarify their thinking.
  • Another in-class writing exercise might come in handy during a lecture. Again, you might just stop at some point and ask students to summarize the information you’ve presented to that point; and/or you might invite them to write questions about information or concepts they find confusing. Or, instead, you might ask them, whenever it seems appropriate, to develop an example or a scenario (either real or invented) that illustrates a principle or concept you’ve just presented.
  • If students have assigned reading, you might require them to write reading summaries and/or reader responses. One type of summary, the objective summary (like the lecture summary above), works as follows: Students read an assignment (e.g., a chapter or a section of their text), then close their texts and write, trying to capture the main points or pieces of information conveyed in the reading—without including any personal opinion. It’s important that they do this in their own language, and that they not open the text while writing. It’s also useful if you indicate a word range (50-75, perhaps) for this; if you don’t, some students will write too much and not focus on the key points alone, and others will write too little. (A TIP: Suggest that your students not use the personal pronouns I, me, my, or myself when writing an objective summary.)

    A second type of reading summary is the subjective summary. In this activity, students again close their texts after reading and write in their own language. However, in this assignment, they will provide their own personal reaction or response to the reading. They may need help here, so you might provide them with questions to consider for this assignment. For example: How do you feel about what you’ve just read? Has this information changed your views in any way? Why or why not?
  • You might also ask students to produce opinion-based or "thesis-support" writing exercises. For this activity, you provide them with a opinion statement about an issue connected to the content of your course, and then ask them to write for 10-15 minutes in defense of this opinion.

    To help them to think more flexibly, you might ask them to follow up on this activity by writing for 10-15 minutes in an attempt to refute that same opinion. Doing these two activities requires them to examine more than one side and, in so doing, can heighten their understanding of issues in your course.
  • Another approach is the "student-as-teacher" assignment. In this exercise, students play the role of teacher by trying to explain a course concept—in writing—to a newcomer. This activity forces students to define the concept and explain it to a specific audience. It’s an effective way for students to determine how well they understand that concept.

There are many other possibilities, of course. In fact, you’ll probably develop several ideas of your own about other approaches you might take to fit your individual courses. The point is that they do these things—frequently. Making these activities a regular part of class should provide some variety, keep students on their toes, stimulate thinking, help students master course content, and provide your students with valuable writing practice.

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