How Can Writing Help Students Learn Content?

How can writing help students learn content?

Because writing, by its nature, forces students to articulate ideas and reasoning, it can help them deepen, develop, and revise their thinking about the subject material.

A recent report from the National Survey of Student Engagement (see pages 21-22) affirms that “when institutions provided students with extensive, intellectually challenging writing activities, the students engaged in more deep learning activities such as analysis, synthesis, integration of ideas from various sources, and grappled more with course ideas both in and out of the classroom. In turn, students whose faculty assigned projects with these same characteristics reported greater personal, social, practical, and academic learning and development. Taken together, these findings provide further support for the movement to infuse quality writing experiences throughout the curriculum.”

Writing summaries of texts helps students to identify key claims, patterns of reasoning, and use of evidence.

In our minds, ideas and thoughts exist in shorthand or schematic form. Until we spell out those thoughts in their logical and grammatical relationships (what’s the subject here? what’s the action? what’s subordinated to something more central? what term might be an accurate synonym for that concept?), we can easily miss important distinctions and connections. Students can come to recognize what they don’t yet understand when they realize that they’re struggling to write a brief summary, and this can help them to raise useful questions in class.

Writing responses to texts helps students to establish a critical position.

Reading material for class can often seem a passive activity for students, particularly in classes with lectures. Their high school training may have taught them that they primarily need to remember the main points of readings, and thus their standard practice of reading commonly includes highlighting text to make main points stand out. Until they actively have to state a response, though, they often don’t work through the meaning of the text in depth. Some students, in fact, may not know how to respond, to “speak back” to a text, particularly if they’ve come from a culture in which young people don’t speak back to authority.

Writing about course material helps students to develop a sense of authority over the content.

The relation between “author” and “authority” is not arbitrary; students who write about ideas, problems, evidence, and questions gain a sense of ownership over the material that they do not develop from merely reading or listening to lectures. Writing, in this sense, is the “hands-on” work of ideas--it helps students to play with, manipulate, and integrate the material with their own thoughts and concerns. The National Study of Student Engagement has shown a correlation between writing in a subject and students’ own perception of engagement and higher-order thinking about the subject.

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