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Writing as Instructional Practice

By Stephen A. Bernhardt, University of Delaware

We should think less about teaching students to write, and more about how we might use writing in our classrooms in the interest of learning.

Writing and learning

Writing is never mere transcription—it is not a simple process of capturing in clear language what one already knows and “just writing it down.” The process of casting new knowledge into one’s own language is transformative: the knowledge changes shape, it is personalized, it receives the stamp of one’s own perspective as it is represented in language. One’s existing mental frameworks for knowledge change shape, too, as they accommodate the new knowledge.

Written language, in particular, requires the thinker to come to grips with the object of learning. Writing is a journey. Writers may begin with a plan or an outline, but it is the act of writing that determines the path and the eventual outcome. No one can imagine ahead of time exactly what will happen during writing.

Writing is thinking made visible. Because writing is visible, it allows people to work together in a complex intellectual space. Writing can provide a shared space for teachers and students.

Myths we live by

Too many teachers embrace unproductive beliefs or myths about writing and writing instruction. Sometimes, it is best to unburden ourselves of the myths that hamper learning.

Writing is a problem to be fixed: Writing is not something we fix with seat time in a required course. Writing is a complex skill that grows over time as students practice in various contexts. My colleague at UC-Santa Barbara, Susan McLeod, suggests that writing is a skill like piano playing. Musicians practice, get feedback, develop a repertoire, perform, and over time, become good players. Writing is like piano playing.

Writing should be graded: Writing assignments frequently represent tests of one sort or another, with grades attached, something that comes at the end of learning. Students become conditioned to view writing as a display of learned or memorized material, exchanged for a grade in the academic barter culture. This pattern can be broken by using writing as part of the learning process—a typical classroom activity, rather than as a form of performance or testing.

All writing should be carefully marked by the teacher: Some teachers take it as their duty to mark up student writing, to try to catch each mistake and problem, and to assign a grade. Far better to break this pattern, offer students comments in process, hold conversations with students as they develop ideas, and intervene while the writing is still alive. Students benefit from thoughtful feedback, but often, less is more—a few high level comments and some broad diagnosis of problems is better than marking everything at every level.

Writing is an individual skill: Writing is essentially social. It takes place as communication among people, and often takes place in the context of conversations, on-going work, and collaborative efforts. Writing is a good opportunity for students to get to know each other, work together, and form learning partnerships.

Writing must be formal, academic, and serious: No, it mustn’t. Students should have fun with writing, experiment, play around, or argue both sides. Try having students write something outrageous, or illogical, or off the wall. If we want students to control language, play is a more effective method than drudgery.

Small steps in the write direction

Over the last 30 years as part of the movement known as Writing Across the Curriculum, teachers have developed sensible ways to use writing as a learning tool. Here is a sampling of good practice that teachers have found to be valuable.

Learning logs: Students maintain informal notebooks with their reactions to reading assignments or lecture topics. The writing is largely personal, analytical, and reflective, as students attempt to summarize and integrate what they are learning. Some teachers require a double-column format, with students summarizing material on the left, and reacting, criticizing, or raising issues and questions on the right. Teachers can collect and examine them from time to time, give credit for maintaining the logs, and react to the writing as an interested reader.

Micro-themes: A micro-theme forces students to construct a mini-essay or highly distilled discussion within a restricted space. Some teachers require micro-themes to be written on one or both sides of an index card. Students might define a key construct, describe an important historical event, or summarize a research article. Micro-themes can be composed frequently and read quickly by teachers, with a checkmark to confirm satisfactory completion or a short comment to the student.

Quick writes: Teachers can pause during a lecture, presentation, or discussion to allow students to formulate their thoughts in writing. They might be asked to respond to a provocative question, identify a key piece of learning that has emerged that day, or question something they are having trouble understanding or applying.

In a short story course, we stopped class five minutes early each day, and students responded to a question I would pose, dropping off their paragraphs on the way out of class. The writing was intense and focused. I could quickly read their writing, assign a check for satisfactory or a check plus for “beyond expectations,” and write a comment or two on each.

The half hour or so I spent with their writing—before the next class—showed me what we needed to work on, where the confusion was, and who had been quiet while sitting on a really great interpretation. I could begin the next class by sharing thoughts from their own writing, answering good questions that had been posed, or asking specific students to elaborate on an interesting idea from their quick writes. For the students, it was a good method to develop the kind of fluency they needed in more serious essay exam sessions.

Reflective writing: Writing is a primary way that students can reflect on what they have learned. In internships, coops, service learning, and other contexts of experiential learning, writing represents a way to encourage students to be reflective, to come to terms with their experience and new understandings. In laboratory or problem-based classrooms, writing can be used to help students reflect on what went right, what was unexpected, what is still poorly understood, or how things might be done better the next time. Writing can capture and consolidate what is learned.

Chat and bulletin boards: Many teachers have discovered that classroom Web tools can increase the amount of writing in class without burdening the teacher. Over a term, students become much more skilled at representing complex positions in written arguments; they find comfortable public voices for themselves, and they become members of a vocal classroom community. They also find they can let loose, have some fun with ideas and each other, and discover the diversity of opinion and feeling represented in a typical class.

I encourage faculty to think more about learning and less about “good writing.” This is not to say that we should be unconcerned with helping students become good writers, able to put together a report, and in good control over their sentences. But some measure of control will come naturally if teachers use writing frequently across all classes, in both informal as well as formal ways.

References & Resources

Anson, C.M. (Ed.) 2002. The WAC Casebook: Scenes for Faculty Reflection and Program Development. New York: Oxford University Press. Vignettes for training workshops that help faculty think through issues of using writing to learn.

Bazerman, C. & Russell, D. (Eds.) 1994. Landmark Essays in Writing Across the Curriculum. Davis, CA: Hermagoras Press. Classic essays from the early years of WAC.

Bean, J.C. 2001. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. The premier resource for faculty: thoughtful, practical ideas for using writing to foster critical thinking.

Haswell, R.H. (Ed.) 2001. Beyond Outcomes: Assessment and Instruction Within a University Writing Program. Perspectives on Writing: Theory, Research, Practice 5. Westport, CT: Ablex. Wisdom from a mature program, with a great model of program assessment.

McLeod, S.H., Miraglia, E., Soven, M. & Thaiss, C. (Eds.) 2001. WAC for the New Millennium: Strategies for Continuing Writing-Across-the-Curriculum Programs. Urbana, Illinois: NCTE. Great ideas for creating and maintaining campus-wide programs.

Russell, D. 1991. Writing in the Academic Disciplines, 1870-1990: A Curricular History. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. Deep historical and theoretical context on writing in American colleges.

WAC Clearinghouse at Colorado State University, a wealth of resources to support faculty and schools:

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