Writing to Learn… and THINK

PUBLISHED: Oct 9, 2018

In This Episode.

Steve and Dave offer some concrete, class-ready exercises for using writing to learn to improve learning outcomes and foster deeper critical engagement of subject matter.  They explain why WTL doesn’t require extensive time or effort in order to produce better outcomes.  They also discuss the inherent power in writing, and in writing to learn, explain why it holds such power.

Episode Archive

Podcast Transcript

Voiceover: Welcome to the Critical Thinking Initiative podcast, we bring you research driven solutions to critical thinking education. Why? Because it’s Bertrand, Russell said most people would sooner die than think. In fact, they do so. And now your hosts, Steve Pearlman and Dave Carillo.

Steve Pearlman: Hey, welcome back to the Critical Thinking Initiative podcast. I’m Steve Pearlman.

Dave Carillo: I’m Dave Carillo.

Steve Pearlman: Today, we’re talking to you about writing to learn, and what we’re going to do is we’re going to briefly get into some of the research on writing to learn. We don’t want to bog you down in it, but we certainly want to talk to you a little bit about what’s going on in terms of what makes writing to learn effective when it isn’t necessarily as effective. How to know the difference and how to invest it in your class. For those of you who aren’t really familiar with writing to learn, I would think most of the people listening probably have some familiarity with it. But writing to learn is just basically using writing, not for the purpose of summative assessment in terms of assigning it a grade like writing a paper. Writing to learn is something where we use writing prompts or some writing exercise for students so that they can better understand whatever the subject matter of the course

Dave Carillo: Might be right and an easy way of sort of conceptualizing that is writing to learn is often contrasted with something called writing to communicate, which is essentially writing to regurgitate or report on on information without any sort of reasoning or evaluation process involved in that.

Steve Pearlman: So I’m going to start really back with E.M. Forster in nineteen sixty two.

Dave Carillo: Wow, you predate my earliest one by like nine years.

Steve Pearlman: Well, we can probably go back since I was writing on this.

Dave Carillo: No, we should start every podcast chronologically. So sixty two, he said.

Steve Pearlman: How can I know what I think until I see what I say?

Dave Carillo: See, that’s interesting. You know, I’ve heard that attributed to Zora Neale Hurston, too.

Steve Pearlman: She said something that exact phrase or I know she said something very similar.

Dave Carillo: But. All right. Ian Forester

Steve Pearlman: Yeah. And one of the things I want to jump into here and I’m not going to bog down in it, but the neuroscience on this is really interesting. And basically, one of the things that it shows us about writing and language is that when students are simply listening to information, it’s going into one part of their brain. And in order to get more parts of the brain involved, they have to start generating language around that issue. And that brings in other parts of the brain, and that makes it more meaningful to the student, makes it more meaningful to the brain and ties it into parts of the brain that make memory easier for the student because it becomes something meaningful. So the first thing I really just want you to think about in terms of writing to learn is that it changes the process of acquiring subject matter from something that’s receptive to something that’s generative and generative is a much more powerful means of understanding material than just receiving it.

Dave Carillo: I’m going to jump in here now to what I want to jump in with is is my earliest article is from Janet Imag, the noted composition from college composition and communications, the Journal of College Composition and Communication. Mine is from seventy seven, and I brought this in specifically because it’s one of the sort of foundational articles trying to make the case for writing as a mode of learning title. The article is writing is learning, and this is seventy seven. So we’re just getting into the neuroscience. We’re just starting to see the field of composition sort of grow out of fields like education, among others. And she says much the same thing as she’s trying to piece together this sort of overarching argument for writing as learning, she says quote writing is also integrative and perhaps the most basic possible sense the organic. The functional writing involves the fullest possible functioning of the brain, which entails the active participation in the process of both the left and the right hemispheres. Writing is markedly by Sphero, although in some popular accounts, writing is inaccurately presented as cheaply left hemisphere activity, perhaps because the linear written product is somehow regarded as analog for the process that created it, and the left hemisphere seems to process material linearly. And then she also goes on to say that the right hemisphere also contributes to this idea of a unique form of feedback that writing as an act produces, which is quote, a unique form of feedback as well as reinforcement, which exists in the writing process because information from the process is immediately, invisibly available as that portion of the product already written. The importance for learning she goes on to say of a product in a familiar and available medium for immediate, literal re scanning and review cannot be overstated. So even then, in seventy seven, this article is starting to put together a really good argument from across a lot of disciplines, including neuroscience for the fact. That writing does incorporate the whole brain in ways that other classroom activities don’t.

Steve Pearlman: So let me build off that and leap forward about 40 years, and I’m going to reference Graham and Herbert’s article writing to read a meta analysis of the impact of writing and writing instruction on reading. And this is specifically looking at obviously writing with respect to reading improvement. But it does a great job really of summing up what Reading Learn does, and they list five specific points that writing to learn accomplishes, and it builds right off what image was saying there. One, It fosters explicitness as the writer must select which information text is most important to. It is integrative, as it encourages the writer to organize ideas from text into coherent whole, establishing explicit relationships, among the other ideas. Three. It facilitates reflection as the permanence of writing makes it easier to review, reexamine, connect, critique and construct new understandings of text ideas. It’s a lot of C words, right? They use there for it can foster a personal involvement with text as it requires active decision making about what will be written and how it will be treated. Five. It involves transforming or manipulating the language of text so that the writer puts ideas into their own words, making them think about what their ideas mean. And those five apply equally. If we’re going to have writing to learn about a lecture that just happened or something that just happened in class or any learning experience, we could easily supplant any kind of educational construct for the word reading or text in that listing. Continuing on with the article, they ask a number of different questions. And basically what they did was a very large meta analysis of the existing studies that have been done on writing to learn with respect to reading, and they ask a number of questions and basically go through some of the key ones very quickly. Does writing about material read enhance comprehension? And they found ninety four percent of the studies showed that writing about what people read enhanced reading comprehension. That’s not surprising.

Dave Carillo: Yeah, not surprising at all. But still, it’s a major percentage.

Steve Pearlman: Does writing skill instruction improve reading? So if you’re just teaching, writing skill instruction to the students, does it actually improve how well they read? We found that writing instruction enhances students reading in all twenty one experiments. Wow, isn’t that amazing? Yeah, right now. And writing to learn isn’t necessarily offering instruction on writing, but it does show the powerful connection here. And this part actually is a little off topic, but it just fascinates me so much. They found that instruction involving sentence construction or spelling instruction actually improved how well people could read. And this is just a sentence level work, which is is really fascinating. Does increasing how much students write improve reading? And they said they found that increasing writing improves reading comprehension in all nine studies that focused on it and the only complicating study to that. And this is kind of where I’m going to then back off. Some of the research comes from one of the latest articles. This is a magnificent study by Anderson, Anson, Gonyea and Paine, and it’s titled The Contributions of Writing to Learning and Development results from a large scale, multi-institutional study, and they use the nesi and the WPA.

Steve Pearlman: And this is one of the larger studies that’s been done on this, and they look at all kinds of aspects of writing and learning and reading and writing instruction, and they say something very important absent of any controls. Effective writing practice had a more robust relationship with deep learning experience tended the quantity of writing. And what’s so critical here is to understand, therefore, that when we say writing to learn, it’s not the quantity of writing that the students do, that matters. It’s the nature of the writing that the students do. That matters. The students have to be able to write something meaningful, and it doesn’t have to be a lot. So educators who are concerned about burdening themselves with so much writing and increasing their workload should realize not only those writing to learn something that you don’t necessarily even have to grade. You might sometimes check off whether or not students did it, but it’s not something that you’re grading, but it’s also not a quantity factor, even just a short writing to learn exercise if it’s meaningful, if it’s the right one at the right time can radically change learning outcomes.

Dave Carillo: It’s a good thing that you’re sort of bringing up this idea, and we brought it up before, but we reiterate that it’s not quantity, it’s definitely quality. And any effort that you might have to put in ahead of time to develop that quality and to flesh out kind of framework is going to pay dividends in the end.

Steve Pearlman: Yeah. And what they write here is this for both first year and senior students, the strongest relationship with all three deep approaches to learning was observed for the frequency with which students reported being given. Meaning making writing tasks. So again, it comes back to that point that it’s not just asking students to blather on. It comes down to the point of the more we can involve students in meeting making and get all the brain involved in generative work, the more learning is going to happen.

Dave Carillo: No, and I love that too, for two reasons. One, to go back to the immigrant article just very briefly. One of the things that she does in order to establish her argument is to start to draw the distinction between writing and other forms of communication, such as talking. And in fact, she goes on a little bit about the difference between something like talking and writing, specifically to emphasize the idea that writing is a very specific, deliberate act as opposed to something like talking or other forms of communication, which often go on in classrooms in place of the kind of specific sort of meaning making activities that we know research support. She goes on to quote Vernadsky when she says quote writing makes a unique demand in that the writer must engage in deliberate semantics in Vegas, elegant phrase, deliberate structuring of the web of meaning. And so that deliberate structuring of the web of meaning is a great way of thinking about the kind of meaning making act that we want from specific types of writing, writing to learn, rather than just writing a law or writing to communicate. Just to reinforce what you’re saying, though, in terms of this idea of of quality. This idea of context, I want to briefly reference an article by Sarah Winston Fry and Amanda via Gomez from 2012 in the journal College Teaching called Writing to Learn Benefits and Limitations. They wanted to see whether writing to learn supported students active learning retention and writing development in an upper division psychology course. And we do know from other research that that is the case that more so than rote memorization, more so than most or practically all other types of learning methods. Writing increases retention. Writing increases critical thinking outcomes more than anything else here, though, what happened was that after their experiment in which a test group was given writing to learn journal entries throughout the semester and a control group was not, they actually found that though everybody learned throughout the course, there wasn’t a major difference in the writing to learn intervention as opposed to the control intervention.

Steve Pearlman: How can that be? Dave, given that our podcast today is about writing to learn,

Dave Carillo: Well, it’s funny because we were only bringing in two pieces of literature per person right before we get to our classroom tips. What they say in terms of their findings is that a couple of things one upon reflection, we recognize that this does not necessarily mean writing to learn was not helpful, they say. Quote, It may be that the way we implemented writing to learn was not effective in raising post test scores, but other models might have greater impact. It is also possible that because the course already required a substantial amount of writing outside the class comparison group, students also benefited from writing to learn, and the additional in-class time did not make a significant difference for the treatment group. So they were writing anyhow, right sitting there, writing anyhow, and the authors note that they might not necessarily have implemented the writing to learn journaling or journal prompts as effectively as they could, which is why we’re going to go into this next part of the podcast, however, where they found overwhelmingly favorable responses were in the qualitative outcomes. So essentially, what this study found was that even though there wasn’t a major difference, students had a favorable response to writing to learn and their pedagogical benefits based on that.

Dave Carillo: Moreover, they do note that taking class time for writing to learn did not diminish student learning. Of course, content as measured by the pre post test and it did provide an opportunity for students to enhance their metacognitive and reflective thinking skills. What they do say, however, is that in order to allow for writing, to learn, to make the greatest impact, you need to do a few things. And that’s where this idea of context comes back. One. Ask the right questions at the right time What they’re basically saying is as you move through the class, the questions for your students in these kinds of writing to learn assignments need to get more complex. They also say be honest about the time commitment for the students. And if you’re able to set up a framework by which you’re not just simply asking students to write, but you are asking them to do more and more complex cognitive and cognitive tasks throughout the semester and providing food. Then riding to learn is going to produce favorable responses,

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Steve Pearlman: So let’s use that as a springboard and great delve into some of the ideas for how we can go about writing to learn. And these could be as short as what I call index card writings, where you’re actually just hand out of five by seven card and ask students to write something on them all the way to lengthier journaling outside of class. It doesn’t have to be a long involved process, or it could be something deeper as you want to get into the more complex ideas that you’re contending with. I’m going to go through just a short list here of some ideas for how to approach writing together. I’ll tell a little bit about the rationale for each of those in what context they might be most valuable. The first one is the simplest, and all it says is take what we cover today in class or take what you did in the reading and put it in your own words. And that goes right into what I was talking about before with respect to the neuroscience, right? Very simply take what was something that was receptive and turn it into something generative, put in words that make sense to you, organize it in a way that makes sense to you. And that in itself shows tremendous differences in learning outcomes and memorization for students and meaning making and so forth. A second one and this is more if you really want students to remember a particular thing or understand a particular thing in a way that’s different is to ask them to analogize it to something in their own lives.

Steve Pearlman: So make some personal connection to this thing. And now that sounds like it’s not always possible, but you can take something like learning about cell walls and say, talk about relationship walls and your life. Use that as an analogy for as a metaphor for what’s going on with respect to a cell. It doesn’t matter what the abstract connection is, it matters that they connect it to something to happen in their own lives or something material, because then they’re just organizing it in their brains in a way that makes sense. And they’re also connecting it to themselves in a way. So it’s no longer compartmentalized information. It’s integrated information into other parts of their memory and live. Similarly, if you want to start building continuities and this is a better assignment for later in the semester, we can ask students to connect what they just learned or read to other texts or other lessons or other subject matter in the course in the past. So you might do a prompt where you say to students, write something where you’re taking me on a tour of what we learned and explaining the connections between them and why we move from one piece to the next. So here’s why we started with this and then explain to me why we went into the next, and you can list the number five pieces of information or five critical moments that you experienced in this exploration of this text or reading Shakespeare play or whatever it is.

Steve Pearlman: But explain to me how this discussion involved. You can even do that on a short scale for one class. Explain to me that the narration of this class today and the story it told, or the path that it took or explained to me over multiple classes or an entire semester, another one I’ve had very good success with is to ask students to write me a letter about whatever I just presented, and part of that could be explaining it to me. But part of that letter can also be here’s something I didn’t explain. Well, here’s why they don’t think I explained it well, or here’s something that we didn’t discuss enough or here is a good point of your lecture today. Here is a bad point. I typically don’t lecture, but but were I to lecture more? That would be a positive one, but we can do it for part of our discussion. I do it for having students write a letter to the person to whom they just read the paper. They just read a student’s paper in class. They write a letter explaining to them their reading experience through that journey and how they could approach it better or differently if they were the writer. I’ve actually also had students write letters to their own papers explaining to the paper where it’s problematic, like, and that is a wonderful experience.

Dave Carillo: In your paper, you have let me down extraordinarily and consistently.

Steve Pearlman: That’s typically have

Dave Carillo: A Page one to Page eight.

Steve Pearlman: I actually have students write the letter as if they’re in a relationship with the paper and some. Some of these breakups, you know, they don’t go. They are not pretty. Another thing you do with writing children is that you can invite students any time during the course of a class as a policy that they are always allowed to take a two minute time out, turn away from what you’re talking about and write something about it. So at any moment, break off and write something that puts it in your own words at any moment. Write a detailed question about this that we can get to later at some point rather than interrupting the class with it. Write it down and let’s catalog it, and we’ll contend with it at some later point. Perhaps at the start of the next class. Always contends with questions or the last ten minutes of class. Always contends with questions. Student wrote down at some point of the class, but it can’t just be one line. It has to contextualize it. We were talking about X, Y and Z. What makes sense to me about X, Y and Z is the following. It doesn’t make sense about x, y and Z is the following. And finally, I’ll give this prompt before we get into how to do it with our critical thinking model. I always also find a lot of value in asking students to do it where they’re using some abstract metaphor for whatever it is we’re talking about. So if I say take what we’ve learned today about writing or take your paper and analogize it to a Snickers bar, it’s a totally abstract way of thinking of it. What it does is it forces the brain to make some meaning and make some sense of things in a way that it never would have otherwise. And that’s also valuable because it surprises the brain into new challenges, because that analogy can always be something weird and quirky.

Dave Carillo: Sure. And those are all great suggestions. Steve, thanks for producing that list, and I want to I want to share my observations about your list. And this first observation actually is reminiscent of a discussion we had on the podcast a few weeks ago with Marianne Fallon about growth mindset and how it might seem as if there’s very little that any professor or educator or teacher can do for a student or a class of students who are exhibiting static mindset about learning. And first and foremost, she said, there are a lot of low stakes assignments that you can do in class. And that’s the first thing that strikes me about your list is that it’s all low stakes. They’re all things that don’t necessarily require weeks or months of work in order for the students to at least engage in some of the kind of learning that you want them to do to. They all seem to be enhancing the engagement with content rather than taking time away from content. The last two observations I have are really things that educators are going to find if they consistently work these things into Class one students are going to be become more adept at them and therefore be able to do more complex things. The last thing, too, is that if there is a larger writing assignment, if there is a larger assignment at all toward the end, all these low stakes content engaging assignments can be called upon either in the prompt for the last assignment or the major assignment, or even in a class discussion. Remember the kinds of things we did in such and such exercises or these kinds of exercises? I’m looking for the same sort of intellectual engagement in this larger assignment. So not only are they not going to take away time from content, they can build towards something much more complex and meaningful at the end as well.

Steve Pearlman: And one of the things I really like about that is that you touched on the idea that writing to learn can also Segway very easily into self-directed learning, where we can have students write about their studentship, which is also something that I do. And I wasn’t going to get into it as much today because it’s more of a slightly different topic, but it seems worth at least a mention. I’ll have students write about what are they going to do procedurally as they go to engage their paper and revise their paper that they didn’t do last time? How are they going to change something about their writing process? Just putting that down as an explanation prompts them to have to reflect on what did they do before? What are they going to do next? And it sort of commits them to going and trying something different. So there are all kinds of things about Studentship as well that we can ask them to be reflective about. I always ask my students around mid semester to do a reflection on how could you be a better student in this class, right? Right. And it forces them, to be honest, in certain ways about what they’ve done well and what they haven’t done well and so on. I think we should therefore also delve into how we use our critical thinking model as a writing to learn, implement because I use that the most.

Dave Carillo: Oh, yeah, no, that’s basically all I use. So to briefly review our own definition and critical thinking process or the target, and you can see this on our website at the critical thinking initiative. Target is made up of five acts that we have found through our own research and development are interrelated and work together to allow a student to not only think critically about any subject whatsoever, but also develop and strengthen as a critical thinker. And then also allows for you to assess the strength of the students critical thinking through writing and presentations and other types of assignments, but then also discuss with a student how to improve as a critical thinker. And again, all of this in turn allows the student to more deeply engage in the content you want them to engage in. The target is made up of five intellectual acts analyze, question, evaluate, complicate and conclude.

Steve Pearlman: So writing to learn through this, if we want to apply it to a text, there are a couple of different ways. For example, you can ask students to look at how the text that they’re reading fulfills each of the targets. Five categories Where is the author analyzing? What question is the author asking? What is the author evaluating? Where do you see the author engage in complication and what is the author doing in terms of drawing conclusions? So now this becomes an evaluative way to look at what other authors do, or it could be what happened during the lecture, or it could be what happened in another student’s paper. You can apply it to anything, which is the wonderful thing about you could say, look at so and so’s philosophy, or I look at so and so’s model of psychology. Whatever it is, you have a way for them to look at it through this lens and start to break it down. And again, this is something that for them can just be a writing to learn exercise. Figure out what’s going on. A second level of this, therefore, is that instead of looking at what this person is doing with respect to representing the target, we’ll do it yourself. Analyze the text or the source or the discussion, the lecture, the model, whatever it is that’s in question. Form your own question about it. Do some evaluation, complicate the thing and draw your conclusion. And this could be you did it or you didn’t do it kind of assignment. We’re just getting them to go through that. We’ll go through that process cognitively over and over and over again just for the sake of engaging it. And what happens is they are thinking critically about that subject matter regardless and thinking critically about the subject matter. All the research tells us not only improves their engagement in the material that improves their appreciation of the material, but certainly improves the depth of their understanding of that content as well.

Dave Carillo: And as you’re asking students to write through the target process to learn about the content or learn about a particular reading in your class, they’re becoming better readers as well. The other thing that I’ll add to this, too, is that because we recognize in our critical thinking model that there are interrelated acts, you can assign just specific pieces of that target instrument. So for the first week or to have students write to learn, but only do the analyzed category, and then you can move through the particular elements of the target. So we’re going to now work on locating and formulating questions based on our understanding. And all I want you to do is take an index card and write down three questions of your own based on your understanding of the material from this lecture or from this text or from this particular set of classes,

Steve Pearlman: We’re using the next card to justify one question as being important, which is sort of the next

Dave Carillo: Level. Right, exactly.

Steve Pearlman: Well, I think that really does a great job of landing us where we should be at the end of this podcast, right? In terms of having covered some of the inception of writing to learn the research that supports it. Methods for doing it. And certainly where critical thinking can play an integral role and should play the most integral role in terms of educational experience overall and how this can integrate it on some low scale levels.

Dave Carillo: And if you’re interested in any of the kinds of things we were talking about in terms of what you can do in the classroom, if you’re interested in the target, you can see the target at WW, the critical thinking initiative talk. But we are also moving to print the second edition of our textbook.

Steve Pearlman: In fact, by the time you’re hearing this, the second edition should be out.

Dave Carillo: It should be out, and the faculty edition goes into the research behind how we are approaching critical thinking and is just chock full of in-class exercises. And the student edition is chock full of samples and writing examples and annotations and any and all things you might need to allow you and your class to walk through the critical thinking process and get to some positive critical thinking outcomes. So check that out as well. And thanks again for tuning in.

Steve Pearlman: Thanks for listening!

Voiceover: Got questions about critical thinking, questions about pedagogies related to critical thinking, questions about writing, reading, grading or anything else in the critical thinking realm. Contact Steve and Dave at Info at the Critical Thinking Initiative. Talk with your questions or your feedback about the podcast. Thanks for listening.


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