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I am a big proponent of assigning writing as an active learning tool in the classroom. This should not come as a surprise, as I am pursuing a PhD in English and have primarily taught English courses that require writing as a major component. Yet, I actually learned the best methods for incorporating writing into the classroom from a philosophy professor I observed who decided to make writing the focal point of his classroom after finding himself frustrated by traditional methods of knowledge acquisition in philosophy classrooms. Upon altering his pedagogical approach from one that was test and teacher centered to a student centered course in which students weekly articulated substantial responses to philosophical texts in writing, he observed a significant increase in critical thinking and theoretical sophistication in the majority of his students.

Writing as a tool can benefit every discipline if it is implemented as an active learning strategy, in which students are tasked with developing a deep, focused written engagement with a question or idea. This means that the focus should be on quality of thought rather than on grammatical conventions. This is not to say that a final draft should be turned in without having been carefully proofread but only to emphasize that thinking is sometimes messy and that, especially in early stages, good, interesting written ideas might still need to be polished. Writing, like thinking, is a process.

Writing as Active Learning Strategies:

  • Provide students with time to write down their initial responses to a new idea or topic, especially one that is particularly complex, in writing before discussing the topic in depth. This writing does not need to be collected or formally graded but should rather be thought of as a springboard for discussion. If students have had time to articulate their ideas on their own first, they will be more confident in their knowledge and more likely to participate in the class discussion. Even five minutes is helpful.
  • Generate specific writing assignments or writing prompts. The complexity of the questions can vary depending on what you are looking for from the assignment. Are you looking for understanding of key concepts or are you expecting students to delve deeply into a difficult concept? The more transparency you provide the better the students will be able to engage with the assignment.
  • Have students present their writing in class. This option can include a formal presentation or a more informal presentation given to select group members. The idea is to give the students a chance to test their ideas out on others. As the saying goes, the best way to learn something is to teach it.
  • Divide the class into groups based upon specific topics or questions. For examples, in a philosophy section on Kant, you could task each group with responding to a specific Kantian principle. Each student would develop a rough draft of a written response independently and then get into their shared groups to enhance other’s grasp of Kant’s concepts. You could then have them each develop a further draft of their individual ideas to hand into you.
  • Build in multiple drafts. As emphasized above, writing and thinking take time. The first articulation of an idea might be the seed of a more complex argument that just needs more time to germinate. Providing students with a response to an initial draft and requiring them to hand in a revision based upon your comments will help them to think more deeply about their initial ideas and give them a chance to further enhance their argument. It is important not to frame revision as corrections, as that implies that there was something negative about the student’s initial draft that needs to be fixed and this could frustrate a student. Instead, frame it as what it is: a chance to develop their argument. How many drafts should you allow? That’s up to you. My advice is to allow or require at least one revision.

Even STEM Classes Can Benefit from More Writing

Writing is important to any discipline, as anyone who has drafted a grant or had to give a public lecture understands. Yet, writing is too often attached only to English courses, or at best, the humanities. While the suggestions I have provided above would work for any discipline, the links below provide resources that include discipline specific information related to the importance of writing in the classroom and specific strategies that can be used to effectively implement writing into your course.

Further Reading:

Writing Across the Curriculum Page at Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (Includes extensive bibliographies for further reading): https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/671/01/

Example of a Writing Across the Curriculum program: http://www.wac.pitt.edu/

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