Writing Promotes Engagement

Initial Publication Date: June 24, 2010

  • Learning occurs when students interact substantively with content, in conjunction with the instructor and other students. In traditional chalk & talk pedagogies, students listen to lectures and read texts, both of which can be fairly passive learning approaches.
  • Bain and Zimmerman (2009) differentiate between shallow learning (memorizing for the test and then forgetting afterwards) and deep learning (learning for understanding). Students have been trained almost since kindergarten to produce shallow rather than deep learning. Writing is a form of active learning. Research has shown that active learning practices are more likely to result in deep learning than are passive pedagogies like lecture and reading. Of course, this is not an either/or question, as one can combine writing with other pedagogies.
  • When students are assigned to read a text, they may get little out of it. Many students simply don't do reading assignments, preferring to depend on lecture notes to get the content. Others don't know how to read carefully—it's not a skill which is taught much in US secondary schools. They think that the goal for them, like putting in hours on a job, is to read from the first page to the last, but not necessarily to grasp the content.
  • Writing requires more thought, more engagement than reading. It can't be done on autopilot as reading can. Writing can't be done by stringing random words together. Authors have to think about what they are writing. In the process of thinking, learning occurs. As Thomson (2001,1) notes in his Guide for the Young Economist, "The process of writing itself always leads to new knowledge."
  • Writing gives students practice working with and thus learning economic concepts, helping to bridge the gap between novice and expert learners. Good writing assignments help students explore central concepts and identify key relationships that define the mental framework of a discipline that experts see.
  • In-class writing can improve the assimilation of content from lectures. Freewrites at the beginning of class increase the likelihood that students will prepare for class by doing assigned readings, etc. Crowe & Youga (1986) propose asking students at the end of a lecture to briefly summarize their understanding of one of the topics presented. (Knoblach & Brannon (1983) offer a more sophisticated example of this type.) Field et al (1985, 214) explain that writing exercises such as these "convert passive notetaking into active class participation, with close supervision by the professor. Being required to explain their economic understanding in writing during the learning phase of the course, rather than merely on the exam when the course is over, encourages students to organize their ideas and reexamine their beliefs."
  • Writing assignments also improve class discussion. Instead of asking students to "prepare" for a discussion on some topic, they can be given a short writing assignment on the topic to complete in advance. Because of the writing assignment, all students have thought about the topic before the class discussion. As a consequence, they all have something to contribute. Field et al (1985, 214) speak to this point: " [D]iscussion again encourages active participation by the student through interaction with the professor and classmates, which strengthens long-term retention and provides an early challenge indicating to the student whether his comprehension of the material is adequate."