Designing "Writing to Learn" Assignments

What is “Writing to Learn”?

“Writing to learn” assignments include journals, microthemes, quick writes, WebCT bulletin board posts, and other forms of informal, “low stakes” writing. Writing to learn assignments can be ungraded (for example, when an instructor pauses during a lecture to ask students to do a “quick write” of questions they have about the material) or given a “low stakes” assessment (for example, an instructor assigns weekly reading logs and evaluates them holistically as a percentage of the final course grade). Because of the exploratory nature of writing to learn assignments, the instructor saves time in responding (there’s no need to mark errors) and the students are more likely to take risks and explore course content more deeply. Instructors who combine writing to learn assignments and formal writing assignments give students a chance to write for a variety of purposes. 

Types of Writing to Learn Assignments 

Quick writes. Quick writes include any brief in-class writing, and are usually not evaluated. Since writing is thinking, quick writes are a way to get students thinking about course content. Instructors can ask student to do a quick write about a reading to spark a discussion, stop a lecture and ask students to do a quick write to formulate their thoughts on a provocative question, or have students get into small groups and do a quick write list of questions for a class discussion.


Journals and Reading Logs.  Asking students to write informal, daily or weekly journals is an effective way to get them to engage critically in the reading, lectures, and other class content. In journals students can take risks, reflect on what they’ve learned, and relate course content to personal experience. Journals can be incorporated into class discussion in a number of ways: students can share journals in small groups, the instructor can photocopy a student’s journal entry and use it to spark class discussion, or the instructor can use journals as a place for students to develop ideas for more formal essays. Because journals are exploratory, correct grammar is less important than thoughtful engagement, and instructors don’t need to spend time marking grammar or responding to the student’s organization and sentence structure.


Microthemes. Microthemes are “mini-essays” on a focused topic. In a microtheme students might define a key term, summarize a research article, or respond to a debate. Like journals, microthemes can be evaluated quickly and holistically (for example, the instructor could make a few brief comments and assign a “check plus” or “check”).


WebCT Discussion Boards and Chat Room Posts. WebCT can be an excellent tool to get students writing without burdening the instructor. Students can write brief, informal responses to readings, and even responses to each other’s posts. Instructors can also use the chat room or discussion board to have students post drafts of their essays and ask other students to respond to their peers’ drafts. Again, this kind of informal electronic writing can be evaluated holistically, and requires less labor in responding than formal essays.

Uses of Writing to Learn Assignments