Writing to Learn

Our team draws on writing to learn (WTL), a concept from the Writing across the Curriculum (WAC) field, which argues that writing is a crucial strategy for learning and processing new information. Applied to science and engineering, writing to learn posits that writing in the classroom can not only help prepare students to write throughout their education and in the workplace, but also serves as an educational tool that gives students space to reflect on and work through concepts in science and engineering.

Writing to learn is grounded in the principle that writing is a key resource in encountering, processing, and acquiring knowledge. In science and engineering classrooms, WTL may take the form of a written reflection where students explain the clearest and muddiest points from the day’s lecture. In our work, we’ve found that faculty often already draw on WTL, though it may not be framed as such. Class notes, discussion boards, and written explanations of answers on quizzes and exams are all potential examples of WTL.

Starting Points:

  • Examine where students in your course are already using writing to process, explain, or reflect on course material. One small change that works as an effective starting point is to reframe existing writing in your course. Consider explicitly calling these activities writing, framing them as spaces to practice writing, and connecting them to other writing practices. For instance, how might students draw on their practice of explaining their answers on exam questions when describing their methods in a lab report?
  • Incorporate repeated, low-stakes writing throughout lectures. You might have students play with different audiences, having them explain a concept from the day’s lecture to a friend in a different field, for instance. Students could also write down a question they have about class material and exchange it with a peer who responds with a preliminary answer. Online forums are another space where students engage in WTL by articulating questions and answers to questions about assignments.
  • Writing to Learn Introduction from the WAC Clearinghouse
  • Writing to Learn Activities from the WAC Clearinghouse

Additional Resources:

Ablin, L. (2008). Student perceptions of the benefits of a learner-based writing assignment in organic chemistry. Journal of Chemical Education, 85(2), 237–239. 

Armstrong, N. A., Wallace, C. S., & Chang, S. M. (2008). Learning from writing in college biology. Research in Science Education, 38(4), 483–499. 

Balgopal, M. M., Wallace, A. M., & Dahlberg, S. (2012). Writing to learn ecology: a study of three populations of college students. Environmental Education Research, 18(1), 67–90. 

Chamely-Wiik, D. M., Haky, J. E., & Galin, J. R. (2012). From Bhopal to cold fusion: A case-study approach to writing assignments in honors general chemistry. Journal of Chemical Education, 89(4), 502–508. 

Cheng, C. K., Paré, D. E., Collimore, L. M., & Joordens, S. (2011). Assessing the effectiveness of a voluntary online discussion forum on improving students’ course performance. Computers and Education, 56(1), 253–261.

Drabick, D. A. G., Weisberg, R., Paul, L., & Bubier, J. L. (2007). Keeping it short and sweet: Brief, ungraded writing assignments facilitate learning. Teaching of Psychology, 34(3), 172–176.

Emig, J. (1977). Writing as a mode of learning. College Composition and Communication, 28(2), 122–128.

Franz, A. K. (2012). Organic chemistry YouTube writing assignment for large lecture classes. Journal of Chemical Education, 89(4), 497–501. 

Halsor, S. P., Faul-Halsor, C. L., & Heaman, P. B. (1991). Enhanced student learning through writing in a physical-geology Class. Journal of Geological Education, 39(3), 181–184. 

Herrington, A. J. (1981). Writing to learn: Writing across the disciplines. College English, 43(4), 379.

Kalman, C. S., & Rohar, S. (2010). Toolbox of activities to support students in a physics gateway course. Physical Review Special Topics – Physics Education Research, 6(2).

Libarkin, J., & Ording, G. (2012). The utility of writing assignments in undergraduate bioscience. CBE Life Sciences Education, 11(1), 39–46. 

Moni, R. W., Moni, K. B., Lluka, L. J., & Poronnik, P. (2007). The personal response: A novel writing assignment to engage first year students in large human biology classes. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 35(2), 89–96. 

Odell, L. (1980). The Process of Writing and the Process of Learning. College Composition and Communication, 31(1), 42.

Reilly, J., & Strickland, M. (2010). A writing and ethics component for a quantum mechanics, physical chemistry course. Journal of College Science Teaching. 

Reynolds, J. A., Thaiss, C., Katkin, W., & Thompson, R. J. (2012). Writing-to-learn in undergraduate science education: A community-based, conceptually driven approach. CBE Life Sciences Education, 11(1), 17–25.

Wandersee, J. H., Clary, R. M., & Guzman, S. M. (2006). A writing template for probing students’ botanical sense of place. The American Biology Teacher, 68(7), 419–422.