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Learning by Writing

posted: 2.13.12 by archived

Some interesting work in composition research addresses the ways that writing represents an advanced form of thinking, conceptualization, and memorization. See, for instance, Janet Emig’s work on “Writing as a Mode of Learning.” Also, a few weeks ago, Wired magazine summarized a recent study showing that students actually study best by writing essays. The study originally appeared in the journal Science. As writing teachers, we often believe in the power of writing—and we try to communicate it to other teachers and to our students. I know I do. But I also know that sometimes I lose sight of an important fact.

Yes, it is so important to see writing “as a mode of learning,” or as a type of “higher-order thinking.” Otherwise, it is too easily seen as just a skill. But look a bit more closely at the recent Wired study. It shows that most students were best able to memorize information about a series of scientific articles that they read when they studied by writing a short essay about the articles. On average, writing worked much better than concept-mapping or other “elaborative studying” techniques. Writing an essay rather than creating a concept map, for most students, even prepared them to create better concept maps when they were later tested. You can’t get much better evidence for the power of writing than that.

But let’s not lose sight of the fact that, for a minority of students, concept-mapping was still more useful and productive than writing. It is even possible that a very few students became better writers by concept-mapping, instead of the inverse. There is always an exception to the rule. In a classroom, this exception can take the form of 3–5 actual students. So, while it is tempting to take research and generalize it, and to argue (most of the time) for the value of more writing, we need to be responsible and responsive to all of our students, not just the majority.

My blog post today may just be a reminder to myself: research that reveals the predominant ways that students learn also reveals the variety of ways that students learn. I am a writing teacher, and I believe in the power of writing. But I also believe in the diversity of student approaches and abilities, and so I need to develop flexibility.

Note: For other research related to Emig’s work, see articles by Chuck Knoblauch, Lisa Ede and Andrea Lunsford, and John Ackerman.

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Categories: Jay Dolmage, Uncategorized
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One Response to “Learning by Writing”

  1. Morgan Holmes, WLU Says:

    Yes! This is exactly why I write so much more than I end up publishing (and I’m totally OK with it). The writing is a process of coming to understand the resources with which I am working, and it’s a way of coming to know what I think about a given topic/idea/problem…
    It is what I want my first year students, especially them, to understand about writing: that it isn’t about the finished product as much as it is about the process. For that reason I reward the process with lots of feedback and (given the system we are in) graded assessment.
    Not all of them end up agreeing with me about the value of writing, but most of them do end up doing pretty well with the course content anyway.