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Writing to Learn

Using Writing-to-Learn Activities

"Generally, writing-to-learn activities are short, impromptu or otherwise informal writing tasks that help students think through key concepts or ideas presented in a course" (WAC Clearinghouse, n.d.). The use of writing as a means to encourage thinking is emphasized over more formal aspects of writing assignments, like grammar, organizational structure, or supporting ideas with cited sources. Compared to traditional writing assignments, writing-to-learn activities are more about the process than the product, allowing students "to voice and explore questions," and to "see writing as a tool…to help them think about new material" (Penn State Learning, n.d., para. 2).

Facilitating Writing-to-Learn Activities

1. Prepare

  • Identify key concepts or ideas from your course for which writing-to-learn activities would help students think through them.
  • Select an activity that is appropriate for the type of thinking you want students to complete (see Writing-to-Learn activities, listed below). These activities are meant to be conducted quickly—some in as few as five minutes.

2. Engage

  • Discuss the writing-to-learn activity with your students. Be clear about the amount of time they should spend on it and how the end product should look. Let them know the differences from formal writing assignments—i.e., "Don't focus on grammar or structure. Just get your ideas down."

Writing-to-Learn Activities

  • Annotations with Diigo: First, create a class group with Diigo, a free social bookmarking service. Tell students to create a free account and join the class group. Identify a number of online articles that relate to a course topic or ask students to find articles independently, using a set of criteria. Ask students to then answer specific questions using Diigo comments, by commenting on the whole page, highlighting specific content and adding comments with a floating sticky note to the page.
  • KWL chart:  Individually, in small groups, or as a class, students brainstorm what they know (K) and want to learn (W) related to a particular topic. After engaging with class activities on the topic, students reflect on what they learned (L).
  • Exit slips:  At the end of a class session, students write down key takeaways from the lesson, as well as any remaining questions or areas of confusion. Exit slips can help students take stock of their learning, and they are also a valuable tool for the instructor to identify areas where students are still struggling.
  • The Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) Clearinghouse describes a number of writing-to-learn activities

References and Additional Resources

Bean, John C. (2011). Engaging ideas: The professor's guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning into the classroom. Jossey-Bass.

Penn State Learning. (n.d.). Writing-to-learn activities vs. traditional writing assignments

Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) Clearinghouse. (n.d.) What is writing to learn?


Page author:
Dr. Kevin Kelly, Lecturer at San Francisco State University

Last updated:
August 13, 2020