Writing-to-learn (WTL) activities are typically short, informal writing assignments that are informational and often assigned at the spur of the moment as an impromptu task. Generally these are intended to assist students to critically think about important concepts or ideas that are a part of the course content. These writing tasks are frequently limited to less than five minutes of class time or assigned as brief homework assignments.
How to Use WTL
Some of the ways this teaching approach is used to engage students can be found online at https://www.ecu.edu/cs-acad/writing/wac/upload/Writing-to-Learn-Activities.pdf.
- Free writes
- One-minute paper
- One-sentence summaries
- Learning logs
- Dialectical notes
- Directed paraphrasing
- Letters, memos, notes
- Mock tests
- Drafts for peer feedback
- Reading journal
- Response papers
- Synthesis papers
- Discussion starter
- Analyzing the process
- Problem statement
- Solving real problems
- Pretest warm-ups
- Using cases
- What counts as a fact?
- Analysis of events
- Project notebooks
Impact on Learning
WTL can impact learning through:
- Helping students learn better and retain information longer.
- Having students think actively about the material they are learning.
- Prompting students to think at the appropriate cognitive level for the level of learning that is to be accomplished through the course.
- Encouraging students to define an audience other than the instructor.
- Developing students’ sensitivity to the interests, backgrounds, and vocabularies of different readers.
- Giving students the chance to learn about themselves including their emotions, values, cognitive processes, and learning strengths and weaknesses.
WTL activities usually are not graded. Instead, they are quickly read by the instructor or by peers and reviewed for basic understanding of the content being covered.
Suggestions for reviewing WTL activities:
- Use an occasional WTL warm-up at the beginning of class as a “quiz.” Share the correct response and allow students to self-assess their writing.
- Collect completed WTL activities from half a dozen to a dozen students every class or every other class. Briefly review to determine concepts students might need help with.
- In online tools, use stars, “likes,” “praise” and other positive reinforcement tools to encourage correct responses.
- Ask students to select their best WTL writing for you to review.
- Ask students to share WTL activities with one or two classmates.
- Ask students to post provocative questions or summary/analysis of readings on an electronic bulletin board or web forum for class comment.
Writing-to-Learn with Canvas
In Canvas, several tools can be used for Writing-to-Learn:
Discussions: Canvas provides an integrated system for asynchronous online class discussions. Instructors and students can start and contribute to discussions. You can learn more about using Discussions in Canvas from the Canvas Community at https://community.canvaslms.com/docs/DOC-3188 or from the Penn State Canvas Learning Center at https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1741795/pages/4c-create-and-manage-discussions?module_item_id=20342417.
Wiki pages: In Canvas, students can complete WTL assignments by creating a page as a wiki and allowing it to be edited by anyone so that students can to a group writing assignment. Instructions for creating a page are available from Canvas at https://community.canvaslms.com/docs/DOC-1842 .
The following technologies can be used for writing assignments:
Sites at Penn State: Penn State provides blogging services to all members of the University community.
Twitter: After you have finished reading, researching, or discussing assigned content, write about the material until you come up with a brief summary of some aspect of what you learned that will fit into a Twitter post. A Twitter post (or tweet) allows for 140 characters, including the hashtag and its name.
Yammer: A social networking service similar to Facebook but made available as a private tool for Penn State users, Yammer can be used for discussions where students can also share files, take polls, give praise, and comment on each other’s posts.
Polling: Polling software and apps for phones can often be downloaded for free and used in the classroom with technology owned by the student such as a laptop, tablet, or cell phone. For example, Poll Everywhere is free and can be used with PowerPoint or any other type of presentation. Short, open-ended written answers can be given through Poll Everywhere.
VoiceThread: This online communication and presentation tool can be used for asynchronous discussion that easily shares images, videos, voice comments, documents, and written comments.
Things to Consider
For successful implementation of WTL, you should consider the following strategies:
WTL activities can easily provide a quick classroom assessment to quickly determine what your class is learning while still focusing on the topic. Through this informal formative assessment, instructors can easily diagnose and clarify points of confusion before giving students the next exam and moving on to other topics.
Reading short, informal writing assignments is no more time consuming than any other type of class preparation.
Kiefer, Kate. “What is Writing to Learn?” The WAC Clearinghouse, Colorado State University. http://wac.colostate.edu/intro/pop2d.cfm.
Kopp, Bryan. “Informal Writing Assignments: Writing to Learn.” University of Wisconsin, La Crosse. http://www.uwlax.edu/catl/writing/assignments/writingtolearn.htm.
Morris. Gayle. “Integrating Low-Stakes Writing in Large College Classrooms Supplement 2: Twitter Assignments.” University of Michigan. http://www.lsa .umich.edu/UMICH/sweetland/Home/Downloads/Supplement2_TwitterAssignments.pdf.
Nilson, Linda B. “Writing-to-Learn Activities and Assignments.” In Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors 2010, 17-172. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010. http://www.pharmacy.cmu.ac.th/unit/unit_files /files_download/ 2014-05-02Teaching-at-its-best.pdf.
“Writing to Learn.” Duquesne University, Center for Teaching Excellence. http://www.duq.edu/about/centers-and-institutes/teaching-and-learning/writing-to-learn.
“Writing to Learn Activities.” East Carolina University. https://www.ecu.edu/cs-acad/writing/wac/upload/Writing-to-Learn-Activities.pdf.