Writing to learn…

I’ve been mulling over this post for a little over a week now since attending a wonderful session put together by LLC colleague Jane Addison, Director of the USC Upstate Writing Center. The session, “Creating Effective Writing Assignments”, included a very interesting interdisciplinary panel discussion that has really made me think more intentionally about the role of writing in courses I typically teach.

Jane provided very useful information she has gathered on ingredients for effective writing assignments – no matter what the discipline or subject matter. I appreciated a sample she provided of a format and content of a writing assignment from SEGL 102. Jane also shared some of her own experience in the Writing Center with helping students make sense of and complete various writing assignments in all sorts of courses. (The idea that the encouragement and teaching of writing is not just the responsibility of the faculty in one department really resonates with me!)

M. B. Ulmer from Math and Computer Science shared his own insights and excellent examples of how he incorporates writing into math instruction (Yes! MATH instruction!); frankly, in ways one might not typically expect in a math course. The idea is to help students engage the material through a reflective process of thinking critically then writing – specifically as a process, not necessarily an outcome (although the writing as an output reflecting the thinking process IS important).

Then, our new colleague Rick Hartsell from the School of Education shared some of his perspective on teaching writing and writing to learn. He introduced us to the work of Peter Elbow, particularly the notion that in higher education we most often engage our students in writing to respond, but not so often in writing to initiate. I especially love this idea….particularly in the context of what I understand about Web 2.0 and its underpinning of “user generated content”, where the writing is pretty much ALL writing to initiate conversations and connections. Still thinking about this part…more in another post.

The idea of writing to learn makes so much sense to me. (I like this explanation from the WAC Clearinghouse). I have been telling students (for years really) that an important way to apprehend material and meaning when they study is to write. I never thought that much about my role as a guide to that process through the thoughtful suggestion of prompts and context. Freshly armed last week with my new resolve to ask more of my students by way of writing – to learn – I asked one class to reflect upon and write a paragraph about the single most important “big idea” they have learned so far this semester. The results were stunning to me. Sure, some responses were not very “deep”, but others reflected a degree of thoughtful internalizing of concepts and ideas I had not anticipated. I could see where some students “got it” and others had more work to do. This individual writing prompt contrasted (rather sharply) with the “public” reflection spaces I have tried to create in the course in the form of a wiki for discussion of our readings and yielded an entirely different product; one much more reflective of the learning that is occurring.

I know that I am only beginning to grasp the full meaning (and potential) of asking students to write to learn. Thus I am inviting reflection, comments, questions, and criticisms on this post to frame a dialogue here amongst colleagues (and beyond). Share your thoughts, ideas, resources, and examples. Looking forward to the conversation.