Writing to Learn Workshop

writing workshop attendeesThis semester, I was asked by the Teaching and Learning Innovations team to develop a workshop for faculty centered on the teaching of writing. As Composition Director at CI, I engage in several conversations with faculty across campus about the challenges they face in assigning and responding to student writing. I relish being part of these discussions and that so many faculty at CI are committed to helping students become more effective writers.

The workshop I developed, Writing to Learn, emerged out of a desire to support faculty in developing strategies for helping students use writing as a tool for thinking and learning. The focus was on low stakes writing assignments that help students make sense of difficult material in their fields of study.

Faculty who teach content-intensive courses often think they don’t have time to teach writing in those classes. But given the demanding and complex reading load often expected in such courses, low stakes writing assignments such as double-entry reading journals or learning logs are simply but powerful tools for helping students engage more closely with and internalize challenging content.

As we discussed in the workshop, Writing to Learn activities need not be onerous for faculty to respond to or assess. The WAC (Writing Across the Curriculum) Clearinghouse offers several strategies for focusing on ideas rather than form, suggesting that editing Writing to Learn activities will shift students away from understanding content to concentrating on format and mechanics.

When students are struggling to make sense of difficult material, we want them to engage in that struggle through the act of writing, forging that all important reading-writing connection. It is reasonable to expect students to edit and proofread their own writing before submitting it, and the WAC Clearinghouse provides several methods for helping students establish that habit.*  Ultimately, however, students will write with greater clarity when they are given opportunities to think their way through the material in low stakes assignments that emphasize understanding over format and mechanics.

An important point of discussion in our workshop was how Writing to Learn activities built into the course throughout the semester help prepare students for higher stakes Writing in the Disciplines assignments, in which students are expected to adhere to to the conventions, language, and format of professional, academic writing in their field of study.

Faculty often find students struggle with clarity in such assignments since students are still trying to synthesize what they’ve learned at the same time that they are attempting to meet the elevated expectations of these more demanding forms of writing. Giving students the opportunity to work through challenging material in low stakes writing assignments can help them take on more intensive writing tasks with greater confidence and preparation.

These ideas are all part of larger conversations that will continue to take place on our campus both synchronously and asynchronously, in person and online. All CI faculty are encouraged to invite themselves to the table of this ongoing discussion. In the spirit of #untetheredfacultydevelopment, the workshop materials are available on my CI Keys site, which includes a link to a Google folder where faculty can post writing assignments for feTedback. I’m also available to chat with faculty in person or via Zoom, either individually or in larger groups.

Integrating both low and high stakes writing assignments need not compete with the content that faculty expect students to learn in their courses. As Writing Across the Curriculum pioneer John Bean posits in his seminal book, Engaging Ideas, providing opportunities for students to engage with course content through writing “can actually increase total coverage of content” and allow instructors to “redirect some class time away from explaining readings toward critical discussions, problem solving, or other critical thinking activities” (9). Moreover, writing fosters the kind of deep learning that is essential to help students retain what they learn in a class and transfer that knowledge to future courses and their professional lives.

Say it with me now: “We all teach writing.”

Stacey Anderson is an Assistant Professor English and Composition Director at CI.

*I recently put together resources for David Claveau’s Computer 449 class to help students write with greater clarity. (Hint: students should never submit anything to their instructors that they haven’t read out loud to themselves or had someone else read out loud to them). I would be happy to adapt these materials or others that might be useful to other CI courses across the disciplines.

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