Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Teaching, Learning, and Writing! Oh, My!

I've been carrying around a set of papers for a few weeks now intending to blog about them eventually. Well, this morning I managed to spill coffee on them, and if that's not a sure sign that today's the day to actually do it and get them out of my bag I don't know what is.

This summer I attended the UW Teaching and Learning Symposium. By far the best breakout session I went to was Writing Across and Beyond the University: Innovative Writing Assignments that Foster Deep Learning in All Disciplines. I also participated in the first in a series of Writing Across the Curriculum workshops on Teaching with Writing in SBE and STEM Courses; part 1 was about Designing Writing Assignments to Help Students Learn. The main organizer of both these excellent sessions was Brad Hughes, Director of the UW Writing Center. Major props to him for consistently running efficient, engaging, informative workshops. 


Much of this entry is adapted from resources developed by Brad and others at the Writing Center. Check out their site for more innovative ideas and resources. I learned way too much to fit into one post and I don't want writing to become the main topic of my blog, so I'll stick to mostly bullet points for now. I'd be more than happy to flesh anything out in the comments if people have specific questions or interests, though!


Getting students to write is one of the best ways to promote learning in any class. (Yes, this applies to everything from engineering to music, not "just" English courses.) An abridged list of reasons why writing is effective, from writing "experts" and the brainstorming session of other brilliant grad students/ TAs/ professors/ instructors at the workshop:
  • It requires deeper knowledge than multiple choice questions or other forms of assessment.
    • It involves organizing and synthesizing knowledge.
    • It demands explicitness.
  • There's more chance for feedback (if done well...).
  • It engages students with the material over a prolonged period of time.
    • It slows down your thought process and concentrates your attention.
  • It's hard!
  • It can teach methodological practices of the discipline along with the content.
  • It helps improve other forms of communication (speaking, writing) too.
  • It allows for reflection and metacognition.
    • It can force a new perspective.
    • It can give you a chance to try on a new intellectual identity.
  • It provides variety compared to other standard assignments.
  • It's an active form of learning.
  • It can help you discover what you don't know.


So you've decided writing is important and you want to incorporate it into your course. Now what? One of the most important things I learned from these sessions is the true diversity of writing assignment possibilities. We don't have to be bound by the standard few options! Lit review and lab report just not cutting it for your class? Here's a sampling of what else is out there:
  • freewriting
  • discussion points
  • journal/ learning log
  • microtheme
  • summary/ precis/ brief
  • literature review
  • book/ article review
  • argument/ position paper
  • experimental/ lab report
  • proposal/ prospectus for research
  • annotated bibliography
  • theory paper
  • parody
  • blog
  • problem-based writing
  • letter to the author
  • course dictionary
  • Wikipedia entry
  • your own creative idea!


Another crucial lesson is to develop writing assignments mindfully. This will make the experience more pleasant and fruitful for everyone. A few key questions to consider:
  • What is the pedagogical goal? 
    • Is the assignment Writing to Learn or Writing in the Discipline? 
  • What is the writer's role, who is the audience to be addressed, and what is the central task? 
  • What are likely difficulties students will face and how will you address them? 
  • How will the assignment be integrated into the classroom? 
  • On what criteria will you evaluate the final products? 
    • How will you make these criteria transparent (e.g., using a detailed rubric)?

So in sum: I want to attend every Writing Center workshop ever (part 2 of the Writing Across the Curriculum series is coming up soon!), student writing is an effective technique to promote learning in any class, there are many kinds of writing assignments possible (get creative!), and it's important to think about the assignment carefully before sending it out to your students. Happy writing!

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