Writing is often considered the purview of the English teacher, but revealing student thinking via the written word is a keystone of learning across many subjects. That’s because writing is more than five-paragraph essays and mechanics (useful though these may be); if we define writing as a way of getting inside students’ minds and seeing how they’re processing content, we can use it to deepen student learning regardless of what subject students are studying.
However, writing in itself is not a silver bullet for getting students to think deeply. In John Hattie’s assessment of the impact size of various teaching interventions, writing is a “decent .44”, which is far less than one might expect for a rigorous skill that requires active thinking. Though any sort of writing is better for learning than no writing at all (Langer & Applebee, 1987), the type of writing that teachers ask students to do determines the benefit to their learning. In other words, not all writing is created equal: a writing assignment that focuses on lower-order thinking skills like recalling information from a text will have less benefit for learning than an assignment that asks students to manipulate ideas in a new way.
So how can teachers in any subject area integrate writing in a way that maximizes the learning benefit to students? Let’s look at a few aspects of deeper learning to understand how writing supports and guides student thinking.
1. Activate Prior Knowledge and Drive Cognitive Engagement
Writing often happens at the end of a learning episode: students typically absorb new information and then use writing to demonstrate their understanding. But writing can also be a powerful way to engage students in new content before the lesson begins.
By writing about a topic at the onset of a lesson, students are asked to consider what they already know. This enables them to activate their prior knowledge and create anchors for new learning. For example, a student who is asked to write about the Civil Rights Movement may recall previous learning about Martin Luther King, Jr. or a movie they have seen about Rosa Parks. Remembering these figures activates the mental network that helps to make sense of new information. Learning about peaceful demonstration, for instance, will be much easier once the student can connect that new information to the familiar figure of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Articulating their knowledge prior to the start of learning also enables students to reveal their misconceptions and the limitations of their knowledge. They may generate questions for further inquiry or engage in the lesson to confirm (or disprove) their preliminary ideas. If students have never heard of the Civil Rights Movement, for example, they may wonder what sort of rights were being fought for or confuse the Civil Rights Movement with women’s suffrage. In either case, they are cognitively engaging in the material before the lesson has even begun and creating a starting place for learning.
2. Get Insights from Formative Assessment
Unlike discussion, where it can be a struggle to have every voice heard in a larger group, writing enables every student to articulate his or her thoughts on a given question. Although formative assessment can (and is) often done with multiple choice questions, asking students to write short answer responses enables them to reveal their thinking in a more telling way. Teachers can know how students are making sense of the material and how their reasoning can be improved. These insights can then be used to inform instruction.
In order for the formative assessment to deepen students’ understanding, it is important for the teacher’s questions to solicit higher-order thinking. Teachers should be asking students to evaluate claims, create arguments, propose solutions to problems, or otherwise manipulate the material that students have learned. In other words, the questions that teachers ask should be requiring students to think about the material in a meaningful way (Willingham, 2003). It will not deepen student understanding to reproduce rote knowledge.
3. Distinguish Understanding of Text from Discussion
For students who don’t understand what they read, class discussion can serve as a means of filling in gaps in understanding (Lemov, Driggs, & Woolway, 2016). Students might come into class with a vague sense of what the text was about, listen attentively while the teacher and other classmates reveal the important elements, and essentially figure out the text without having to make sense of it themselves. While it’s beneficial to extract meaning from discussion, the student who uses class time as a work-around for gaps in reading comprehension is not building the important skill of deriving meaning from the text.
Writing prior to engaging in discussion or collaborative work can help to tease apart what students have learned by reading from what they have garnered through discussion with others. Regardless of what discipline students are studying, it is crucial that they build the skill of deriving meaning from text. As Lemov, Driggs, & Woolway have pointed out, the traditional cycle of read-discuss-write can be improved by changing the operations to read-write-discuss-revise. This enables students to demonstrate their understanding of the text, glean further insights from their peers, and ultimately improve their original writing (and thinking) by integrating what they’ve learned from collaboration.
4. Encourage Metacognition
Because writing creates a permanent record of student thinking, students can refer to their preliminary writing on a topic and use it as a benchmark to assess their learning. If students have revealed their knowledge before the lesson in writing, they can see how much more of their mental network they can fill in once the lesson has taken place, or reassess the validity of their misconceptions. The students who wrote about their content knowledge prior to studying the Civil Rights Movement can now go back and see how much they’ve taken away from the learning process by comparing their ideas pre- and post-learning.
This metacognitive awareness of students’ own learning is associated with improved learning outcomes and greater facility with transferring learning to new contexts. Students who reflect on how they learn tend to be more strategic in their thinking and more cognizant of what is and isn’t working in their pursuit of a learning objective. In addition to improving academic outcomes, seeing the progress of one’s own learning also helps to motivate students and develop their agency as learners. Students are more likely to put in the effort of studying if they see that it leads to tangible benefits.
Writing is the most effective way of getting inside students’ minds. Regardless of what students are studying, asking them to spend more time articulating their thoughts and organizing their ideas will improve their understanding and provide evidence of their learning. The central question for teachers is to figure out how they ultimately want to direct student thinking and then use writing to ensure that students are in fact getting there.
Langer, J. A., & Applebee, A. N. (1987). How Writing Shapes Thinking: A Study of Teaching and Learning. Retrieved May 1, 2017, from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED286205.pdf
Lemov, D., Driggs, C., & Woolway, E. (2016). Reading reconsidered: a practical guide to rigorous literacy instruction. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, a Wiley Brand.
Willingham, D. T. (2003). Students Remember... What They Think About. Retrieved May 01, 2017, from http://www.aft.org/periodical/american-educator/summer-2003/ask-cognitive-scientist