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As we’ve explained before, integrating writing into disciplinary courses can happen when we focus not on the formal genres of our disciplines, but on using informal writing activities to help students learn content. These “writing to learn” activities can actually be quite short, even ungraded, and yet be structured in ways that let students work with the content and practice written communication and articulate key concepts in their own words. Professor Finn’s Postcard Assignment asks students to combine visual elements with short writing to demonstrate their understanding of principles of design and practice applying those principles in creative ways. For Professor Finn, the postcard assignment gives students practice in combining visual materials with precise writing even as they practice seeing the world as architects would. In other words, writing helps Finn teach the content of the course by giving students another way to engage with the material they need to learn and make it meaningful. Faculty often worry that assigning writing will create more work for them, especially when they teach large-enrollment courses. But it is possible to assign writing in such courses, and to use writing to help students learn content without spending unreasonable amounts of time reading and responding to that writing. J. Scott Finn, the Ann and Batey Greshman Associate Professor of Architecture, has continued to use a simple postcard assignment even though his course has grown from 110 students to 220 students each semester. We suspect his approach could be adapted to other disciplines as well.
Though we don’t all teach courses that include visual materials, writing to learn strategies are easily adapted to other classes as well. And, sometimes having students create a visual of the relationships between key ideas, or to illustrate a new concept, can help them think about the content in a new way. Having students do a quick summary of the reading at the beginning of a class session, having them write the key points at the end of a class session, pausing mid-way through a class to have students write a question about the material being presented, or giving them an application problem to work on either alone or in a small group are all ways to use writing to help students understand and work with the material we want them to learn. These informal pieces of writing don’t take up much time, but their impact on student learning can be significant and they can tell us early on whether our students are understanding what we are teaching or need more instruction.
Check out other writing resources in the Teaching Writing Library!