Writing to Learn

Initial Publication Date: June 24, 2010
Writing to Learn - Medium

In the last few decades, the notion of 'writing to learn' has been explored by writing teachers. The result is the 'writing across the curriculum' movement (and more recently the 'writing in the discipline') which has led to writing intensive requirements at many universities.
'Writing to Learn' is a simple, but profound idea. We tend to think of writing as a product, but it can also be understood as a process. In the latter, the focus is on writing as a creative activity, a tool for creating understanding. As Greenlaw (2005) observes, "Writing is a tool of discovery, a way of working through ideas that you don't fully understand. ... When you write, you don't merely put down what you already know; rather you end up knowing more." Knoblach & Brannon (1983, 467-468) explain it this way: "Writing enables new knowledge because it involves precisely that active effort to state relationships which is at the heart of learning. .... It involves the sustained effort to select and order ideas as patterns of connection, and thereby to generate creative insights." In other words, the process of writing is productive. It is much like the way one works through a problem set, at times struggling to work out the answer. In this context, writing can be used as a tool for students to explore and ultimately improve their understanding of economic concepts and relationships. Indeed, Jacobsen (1994, 32) in the Journal of Economic Education declares "strong evidence indicates that students who have writing assignments in their classes learn the material more effectively than those who do not." Her finding is not unique. Because the emphasis for 'writing to learn' is on process rather than product, there is no expectation that an instructor should be a writing expert, only that they should be an expert on disciplinary thinking. Thus, incorporating writing does not require a teacher to grade the grammar or rhetoric of student papers or to use the language of composition instructors. As Knoblach & Brannon (1983, 471) note, "Only the teacher of a particular discipline knows enough about the learning process characteristic of that field, the ways in which information is gathered and organized, the perspectives that apply, the ways in which problems are solved and questions answered, to respond in a manner" appropriate for disciplinary thinking and writing. In short, the primary reason for using writing in teaching your discipline is not that students need to become better writers, though they do, but rather because writing is a powerful tool for learning a discipline.

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