“Write-to-Learn” Assignments

“Write-to-Learn” Assignments

The College of New Jersey

Mary Goldschmidt, Ph.D.


“. . . writing is an interaction of ideas rather than a final product to be corrected. . . . using small [low stakes] writing assignments to structure the course allows me to push students to keep up with the readings without putting me into the constant role of taskmaster. . . . the emphasis shifts towards students exchanging ideas and away from graded quizzes. . . . We are not English teachers and it is not our responsibility to teach composition, but to demonstrate how students can enter dialogues and use the language of our field. If a student has grammar difficulties I expect a revision after they have visited the writing center. Student writing is a tool to explore course content in depth; it is not an end in itself.”

-- Alisa Roost, “Writing Intensive Courses in Theater.” Theater Topics 13.2 (2003) 225-233.

As an English teacher, I cringed when I first read this, but for years, I have been using informal assignments that get students to interact critically with assigned readings. It has not increased the amount of grading I have to do—because I do not “grade” these assignments based on grammar or organization. Rather, I grade them on a simple point scale based on how thoroughly the student has engaged with the material in the assigned way. What it has increased is my interaction with students’ thinking about course content and my ability to clarify what is unclear or challenge them more deeply.

It’s important to remember that various stages of our thinking about an issue or problem can be messy; if writing is thinking, then certain stages of our writing are going to be messy as well. And this messy writing need not be graded, or even read, by the professor. In Engaging Ideas, John Bean uses the following apt analogy: reading everything a student writes is equivalent “to a piano teacher who listens to tapes of students’ home practice sessions” (99).

Below are some examples of write-to-learn assignments from Bean, which I hope will spark some ideas for you in your discipline. (Bean also has numerous strategies for exploratory writing, using open-ended and semi-structured journals, double entry journals, and in-class writing activities.)

A Journal Task: “Suppose you are a parent who goes to a child psychologist for advice on how to get your ten-year-old child to practice the piano. The child rushes out of the room screaming every time you insist that he practice. What different advice would you get if the child psychologist were a behaviorist, a psychoanalyst, or a humanistic psychologist?” (103-04).

Dialogues or Argumentative Scripts: “For the design application we have been studying, your design team has proposed four alternative solutions: conventional steel or roller bearings, ceramic bearings, air bearings, and magnetic bearings. As a team, write a dialogue in which each team member argues the case for one of the alternative solutions and shows weakness in the other solutions” (129-30).

Explaining course concepts to new learners: “Write a procedure for finding the number m modulo n that a fifth grader could understand” (124).

Role-Playing or Unfamiliar Perspectives: “Assume that space scientists, working with sports clothing manufacturers, have developed a superthin and superfelxible space suit that allows athletes to run and jump freely on extraterrestrial soil. As an all-world sports promoter, your uncle, Squeebly Rickets, decides to schedule an exhibition baseball game on the moon. One of his first tasks is to provide instructions for laying out the baseball diamond and outfield fences. But then he begins to wonder, How will the lack of an atmosphere and the greatly reduced gravitational force affect the game? For help, he turns to you as an expert in physics” (127).