Writing to Learn

Writing Skills classes will benefit from a scaffolded approach in which the course progresses with short, low-stakes writing assignments that build to a full paper assignment. Students tend to find ways to go deeper into the material if offered short periods of class time (no more than 10 minutes; often three to five minutes will do) for writing in response to the topics and texts being studied. This in-class writing can take place at the beginning of class as students arrive; in the middle of class when you’re transitioning to a different topic or find students need some encouragement to re-engage or push through a divisive conversation; or at the end of class to reflect on what’s been discussed and help it stick in students’ memories.

Faculty teaching other types of classes can borrow from this approach: five minute writing assignments the week before a paper is due, and again on the day it is returned, can make a huge difference in the depth of student learning on the topic.

Some options for this short work include:

  • Freewriting. In this exercise, there is no question or prompt, just the guidance to write about the topic on today’s agenda without pause (and without concern for grammar, mechanics, spelling, or sounding smart—no one else needs to see their freewrite). Students should be encouraged to write longhand in a notebook or on their computers, whichever makes them feel more comfortable.
  • Writing in response to a short question about the text or topic on the agenda. This question should help them remember and understand the text or topic being studied, but not go too deep into analysis. You might want to write the question on the board ahead of time and ask students to settle in and begin responding as they arrive. This work should be done on laptops, as it’s possible you’ll want to do a peer or TA review with these short assignments later.

Many faculty teaching WS courses use the freewriting time in class to do some writing of their own, including to home in on the prompt they’ll eventually assign. Others prefer to present the prompt first and then introduce shorter assignments that build towards it. Either way, students will be more prepared to write a full paper after having had this class time to write and discuss the texts and topics at hand.

Note: If you offer students short questions as described above, schedule a peer review session (see more about writing groups here) or ask students to take their early writing and brainstorming to the Writing Workshop for review from a peer writing tutor. The goal here is for students to figure out what they think about the text or topic being studied, not to find citations or do further research. During this time, students should aim to deepen their responses and begin to add structure and, sometimes, argument explaining what they think. While some students will come to this through freewriting or writing to low-stakes questions, others will benefit from talking it out with a peer or their writing group.

When students have some of their own language about the texts or topics being studied, they will remember and understand the material better. These short, low-stakes assignments serve as toe and finger holds. The higher the student climbs, the deeper the holds become, so that by the time they reach the top, their entire hands and feet make purchase; they now know what (and why) they’re writing.