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Dyson College of Arts and Sciences


Writing to learn involves giving students many opportunities to explain things for themselves; thinking on paper; learning as discovery; writing as a way of objectifying thought. Students need the opportunity to explore their ideas in writing to engage in critical thinking before the final writing product is due. Along the way, writers need to ask themselves, "How do I know what I think until I say what I mean?"

Twenty-Five Ideas for Exploratory Writing (John Bean)

  1. Writing at the beginning of class to review material or to stimulate interest in topic of day.
  2. Writing during class to refocus discussion.
  3. Writing during class to ask questions, express confusion.
  4. Writing at end of class to sum up a lecture-i.e., one-minute paper asks two questions: What is most significant thing you learned today? What questions do you still have?
  5. Open-ended journals-write a certain number of pages per week about the course.
  6. Semi-structured journals-ask specific questions about learning.
  7. Guided journals-students respond to specific question.
  8. Double-entry notebooks-students make observations about texts and reflect on their observations; they talk back to text.
  9. "What I observed/what I thought" lab notebooks-make two columns: one records research; the other makes empirical observation.
  10. Contemporary issues journals-connect course content to real-world concerns.
  11. Exam preparation journals-make list of essay questions from which exam questions will be taken; students work out answers to questions.
  12. Marginal notes (annotate text), focused reading logs.
  13. Summary/response notebooks-summarize reading and reflect on it.
  14. Student responses to reading guide questions.
  15. Imagined interviews with authors of readings.
  16. Writing dialogues-between authors, philosophical figures, those with opposing ideas.
  17. Writing Bio poems-structure given; students fill in blanks.
  18. Metaphor games, extended analogies.
  19. Thought letters-explore an idea that can be expanded into an essay.
  20. E-mail messages or listserv newsgroup for class.
  21. Exploratory writing-to guide invention for formal writing assignments; focused freewriting.
  22. Portfolio system-students hand in folders with different kinds of writing and a cover letter.
  23. Practice essay exams.
  24. Thesis statement writing-one-sentence summary of an essay's argument.
  25. Frame paragraphs-give students organizational pattern and students must come up with generalizations and supporting data to flesh out prescribed form.

Brief Formal Writing Assignments

  1. Microthemes-one to three paragraphs, based on a problem, question or thesis to state and support.
  2. Short essays that present pro and/or con side of controversial idea discussed in course.

Checklist for Creating Brief Writing Assignments
The following are questions an instructor might ask himself or herself before distributing a writing assignment to students:

  1. Are the directions clear? Will students know what to do? Are format, length, and, perhaps, organizational structure specified?
  2. Is the audience clearly stated? Is a context for the assignment given?
  3. Is the writing assignment an integral part of the course? Does it fit in with main learning objectives?
  4. Will it challenge, motivate, interest students?
  5. Does it deal with real-life concerns and ideas?
  6. Do students have adequate skills and knowledge to accomplish the task?
  7. Are the criteria for evaluation spelled out?

Writing to Learn Exercises (Carol Rhoder)
Students are required to respond to each assigned reading on a 5 x 8 index card. They are given specific instructions to reflect on and respond to, not summarize, what they have read. They are asked to integrate their responses with other theories and ideas they have read as the semester proceeds, and with actual classroom practices that they may observe or participate in during their field work or when student teaching. This often is an uncomfortable task for them, since many of the readings present conflicting theories and ideas. However, by constraining space, while asking them to do a high-level, thought-provoking thinking and writing task, they are required to think through the readings, process them at a deeper level and form and clarify their own ideas. I respond to their cards and return them each week, and often a dialog takes place that lasts throughout the semester. At the end of the semester, their collection of cards helps them to apply theory to practice as they complete projects, curriculum units and take-home exams.

Directions on my syllabus are as follows: Response to each weekly reading assignment, on separate 5 x 8 index cards, due on the same day the reading is assigned. Print directly on the card or print on a separate page and staple to the card. You need not summarize what you have read; I have already read the articles. Rather, respond to it. Give your opinions, reflections, personal responses. Integrate your response with previous readings, your field work or student teaching as appropriate.

Students keep a "learning log" section in the back of their notebooks. At the end of each class I take about 5-10 minutes to have them respond to the following three questions:

  1. What is one thing you learned in class today, one point that you want to be sure to remember?
  2. Is there anything that confused you, that you did not understand or that you would like clarified?
  3. Is there anything you disagreed with or want to discuss further?

We then take a few minutes to share, if they choose to. This is completely risk-free; they don't have to share their ideas if they don't want to.


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