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“Writing to Learn” Journals (Interdisciplinary)

Activity aim: To provide students with an opportunity to consolidate their learning or find the gaps in their own understanding; to review key concepts; to check understanding after a more passive task

Materials needed: Each students needs a pen and paper.

Time: 5-15 minutes

Activity Description

Writing to learn (WTL) activities are brief, low-stakes ways to encourage students to reflect on key concepts, to synthesize what they’ve learned, and / or to identify what they still don’t understand. This writing doesn’t necessarily need to be “formally” evaluated (here’s a website with some suggestions for alternatives to assessing WTL), but if they are assessed, it is typically for content and ideas rather than for grammar.

Establishing a consistent WTL component in your class (such as giving a Writing to Learn journal prompt that students complete every class session) can give you good feedback about what students know and what they still need to know. This can help you to tailor your own instruction, to form groups for peer instruction, or to know when to speed up something up or slow something down. It can also bring students’ awareness to what they know and what they still don’t understand, which is less likely to happen in a more passive format.  You can use WTL to prompt discussion, to check in on what happened in group work, or as a task to complete during a lecture.

Some instructors conduct WTL at the beginning of class, and others conduct it at the end. Another good time to conduct WTL is after students have finished an activity as an alternative way to check feedback rather than having everyone share out.

Here are some sample WTL activities and journal prompts which could be used in a wide variety of classes:

From Bernadette Russek’s “Writing to Learn Mathematics” (PDF)

  • (after class or right before students leave) Write a letter to a classmate who could not attend class today so that [they] will understand what we did and learn as much as you did. Be as complete as possible.
  • (after class or right before students leave) Reflect on your participation in class today and then complete the following statement: I learned that I…. / I was surprised that I… / I discovered that I… / I was pleased that I…
  • (after a few weeks of class, at the midterm, and a few weeks before the final exam) Reflect on where you are in the course and complete the following statements. Select two: 1) Now I understand, 2) I still do not understand, 3) I can help myself by doing, 4) You [the teacher] can help me by doing

From Jeffrey Nevid, Amy Pastva, and Nate McClelland’s “Writing-to-Learn Assignments in Introductory Psychology: Is There a Learning Benefit?” (PDF)

  • In this study, professors gave one of two writing prompts. In the first, students were supposed to write about what they learned about a concept that they didn’t know before (i.e. “What I learned from the concept of ______ is that…”). In the second, students had to come up with a real application of the concept (i.e. “An example of the concept of _____ in my life is…”). The researchers found that significant learning benefits resulted no matter which prompt they were given.

From William Taffe’s “Writing in the Computer Science Curriculum” (PDF)

  • (as class begins, or at the end of class) Write a potential question for the next hour exam, and explain what this question measures about knowledge of the subject.
  • (after a project is over) Explain what you did, what problems resulted, and how the problems were (or weren’t) overcome.
  • (throughout the class) Keep a Programming Languages journal during lectures and also while you’re studying. Write down concepts or ideas that you don’t understand. When you’ve finished your entry, either write the solution to the problem you’re posing, or write a well-focused discussion question to ask in the next class.

From Patricia Johnson’s “Writing to Learn Science” (PDF)

  • (after a lecture or activity) In poem form (acrostic), write a summary of what you’ve just learned that spells out the letters in the name of a plant or an animal that we’re studying. Points are given for correctly using vocabulary words from the study unit For example

Mollusks (CLAM) by Pedra Santos
C alcium protects the average BIVALVE
L ike a HATCHET a foot gives the movement they have
A ll people think the SIPHON’s the neck
M uscles close the shell to save them by heck!

  • (after a lecture or activity) From the following list of vocabulary words (50-60), write a coherent, creative story using as many as you can. You can write fact or fiction, but it should be a cohesive story: not a list of sentences. Grading will be based not only on the correct use of terminology but also on cohesiveness.
  • (as homework) Become an animal and write authentically from that animal’s existence for a day, an hour or whatever length of his lifetime is appropriate depending on how much detail about this animal is available in our library [or via a Google search]. Do not anthropomorphize your entity. If you choose to be a reptile, use a reptilian brain. Some of you will choose mammals to be on the “safe side.” Your grade depends on accuracy regarding the animal’s habitat, diet, movement (in other words, all the ways it satisfies necessary life processes)…An extinct animal is acceptable. Try to choose a creature about which you can find sufficient data.

Image credit: Eisenbahner (KrzysztofTe Foto Blog), Flickr Creative Commons