Initial Publication Date: June 24, 2010

Writing as a Window into Student Thinking

Thinker thru window

  • Writing can be an excellent tool for formative as well as summative assessment. Crowe & Youga (1986, 219) describe writing as "an activity, a process of recording thought while the thinking and learning are occurring and after they are completed—thus reflecting both the 'technique of thinking' and the 'conclusions.' " This is analogous to the way an instructor can follow a student's thinking by examining the student's work on a math problem.
  • But following student thinking is only part of the process. Petr (1998) observes "[Writing] becomes a diagnostic tool in the hands of a skilled professor, who can then try to direct those processes more toward greater facility with 'the economic way of thinking'." Knoblach & Brannon (1983, 471) similarly portray writing as a tool of intellectual dialog between student and teacher, in which the student presents initial thinking to which the teacher responds. "The teacher here is not an examiner, ... but rather an intellectual guide whose concern is to lead the less knowledgeable toward fruitful lines of inquiry of interest to them both." Instead of commenting on what is wrong with a student paper, the instructor can simply ask questions about it. This results in a very different and productive dynamic between student/author and instructor/commentator.
  • Not only is writing a means of monitoring student progress, but it can also be a tool for student self-assessment. By observing the instructor's responses to student writing, students learn to assess their own progress, as well as that of their peers. This self and peer-assessment can be enhanced by the use of grading rubrics, which inform writers about the criteria by which they will be graded.