MET:Writing to Learn

From UBC Wiki

This page was originally authored by Kevin McCormick (2009).
This page was edited and added to by Erin Kitchen (2012).
This page was edited and added to by Sarah Parker (2014).

Writing to Learn


The act of writing engages the learner in thinking about the material at hand. For the learner to write, and not just regurgitate information such as copying notes, but more in terms of rephrasing, paraphrasing and summarizing, they must revisit the meaning of the content, and understand it in order to write. There is much research noting the virtues of writing and learning. The interactive process involved in writing creates an environment for the learner in which they must think more deeply about what they are writing. It is the meta-cognitive effects of writing that makes it a valuable learning tool. The nature of writing also lends itself well to multiple interactive technologies, for example blogs, Wikis, eJournals, discussion forums, computer mediated communication (Jonassen, D. 1995) etc. It is these technology tools that expand the options for the learner, to engage in writing that can be collaborative and social which lends itself to a constructivist learning theory.

Writing to Learn

Writing to Learn can improve a student’s thinking skills, but the type of writing becomes important. Not all writing activities will produce learning. Jonassen, Duffy, Scardamalia and others have advocated a constructivist approach to learning which seem to be well suited to how writing can be a tool for learning. The process of actively writing requires the student to draw upon previous knowledge in order to describe or explain a new concept in their own words. The connections made during this process are by their nature knowledge building. The interpretations and reflections on the material being written about engage the student, and start a meta-cognitive process. This is all predicated on the student actively writing, and not just coping out information. A common writing tool that engages the student in a reflective, meta-cognitive state is journal writing. It is the nature of journal writing that is a personal writing tool. The student is writing mainly for themselves in a journal, which is inherently different than writing a formal paper for a different audience. For example, asking a student to respond to information questions, where all they need to do is recopy text may help increase knowledge, but most likely will not develop understanding or make meaningful connections to prior knowledge.

The role of a teacher in a constructivist environment is to facilitate the extension of the students’ zone of proximal development, providing appropriate guidance and scaffolding scaffolding. Many authors have written on this theme, some have described this process in the technological environment, one such noteworthy author, David Jonassen, and wrote in terms of a constructivist learning environment (CLE). The goal in this environment is to assist learners in developing their meta-cognitive abilities, and to create meaningful learning. Writing to learn would be a tool that is suited to these goals. This would entail writing in such a way as to reflect upon, and to make connections with current knowledge and understandings. Under the assumption that writing is mainly a personal activity, then the activity of writing to learn must be individualized. That is to say that the activity cannot be too prescriptive. For example, setting the guidelines for a writing to learn activity that dictates what information the writing should contain, and setting the format may only produce a regurgitation of information and not represent any significant knowledge construction.

Types of Writing

There are many types of writing that may be useful to the students. Since not all students have the same preferred writing style, and different writing styles are suited to different types of learning and reflection, it is a good idea to have a variety of writing activities. The following is a limited list of possible types of writing: • In-Class Writing • Journals • Think Pieces • Essays • Term Papers • Portfolios • Private writing • Shared writing • Peer feedback • Expository • Scientific • Interpretive • Social

Fundamentals of Writing: Supporting the Teacher

Galbraith and Rijlaarsdam point out that in the last 35 years the writing process model has changed drastically from activities of "translating preconceived ideas" (Galbraith, D., and Rijlaarsdam, G. 1999. pp 94) to what we see now which focuses on the "construction and evaluation of ideas" (Galbraith, D., and Rijlaarsdam, G. 1999. pp 94). The broad process of writing does continue to include fundamental components such as grammatical and linguistic requirements.

The following points are used to direct students through the writing process and to support them in building effective writing skills:

A. Determine the purpose of the writing (to communicate an idea, to solve a problem) (a goal can be to learn to communicate ideas effectively and clearly to show understanding of concepts and ideas).

B. It is important to engage students in topics that they are unfamiliar with in order to challenge them in reflection of their knowledge and in accessing resources. Teachers should offer support in the way of prompts or as Galbraith and Rijlaarsdam call it, "procedural facilitation" (Galbraith, D., and Rijlaarsdam, G. 1999. pp 96).

C. Support the students in recognizing that the writing process is not just one intact process but rather, it encompasses other tasks and skills that need to be distinguished individually. These tasks include: planning, translation and modification.

D. Provide authentic problems and goals for which the students can apply their knowledge to, that contribute to the current and on-going discourse (rather than abstract concepts that are foreign and dissociative to students) (Galbraith, D., and Rijlaarsdam, G. 1999. pp 99).

There are two models that will be presented here that suggest ways that individuals participate in the writing process. Knowledge telling vs. knowledge transforming (Bereiter, P.J., and Scardamalia, M. 1988. pp 262). Those with limited skills participate in knowledge telling, whereby they use past knowledge in conjunction with the writing objectives to formulate a response, little interpretation and integration have been accomplished. Knowledge transforming is when the writer has the ability to organize and incorporate more elaborate ideas and concepts with past knowledge to problem solve and interpret concepts and ideas in writing. Galbraith and Rijlaarsdam refer to knowledge telling as an amateur writer's approach vs. the adult approach of knowledge transforming (Galbraith, D., and Rijlaarsdam, G. 1999. pp 95).

File:Writing 1.jpg
Public Domain Pictures 2012


Writing to Learn Strategies

• Micro-themes • Multi-modal writing • Drill-type writing • Journal writing

Educators in different fields prefer to use different strategies of teaching and learning based on the subject matter. The following writing to learn strategies are briefly explained and may be used within the appropriate context; Bangart-Drowns et al. (2004) explain that writing and learning are valued and conceptualized differently in a variety of contexts and this may have significant effects on the way one processes information. Based on the writer’s interest in the topic, the duration and regularity of the tasks and the objective of the tasks, writing to learn can be a very effective way for individuals to retain information, interpret it appropriately and synthesize the content (Bangert-Drowns et al. 2004. pp 30).

Micro-themes can be utilized by an Educator to foster student learning and long-term retention, as well as improvement of overall writing skills. Micro-themes consist of choosing subtopics/units within the course, and assigning short writing tasks to be completed in-class within a limited time period (Stewart et al. 2010). These writing exercises require the student to reflect on what they learned in the lesson, interpret the information and integrate the information in relation to other concepts that have been taught. In the link provided above, micro-themes are further explained, alongside an example that shows how to create a writing task based on a micro-theme.

Multi-modal writing tasks are designed to allow students to incorporate diverse modes of communication such as text, graphs, diagrams, pictures, equations and charts to provide a comprehensive depiction of the topics being studied. This strategy is often employed within science courses and can be used in science fairs and presentations. The multi-modal writing task provides a unique experience for each student to highlight their learning style and choose a topic of interest that will engage them. This Multi-Modal Essay is a great example of how utilizing different modes to represent information can convey concepts learned; in this case it is not a science based course but rather a literature course focusing on urban legends.

Thumbnail Screenshot - Youtube Multi-Modal Essay 2009

Drill-type writing is a strategy employed by teachers of second languages such as TESOL. Drill-type writing is a form of controlled writing; some common forms of controlled writing include copying, dictation, and answering questions based on coursework (Rojas, P. 1968). This strategy of writing to learn seeks to avoid the student making mistakes; it fosters right practice and immediate correction so the student does not continue to repeat the same mistakes.

Journal writing allows an individual to comprehend, grow and clarify concepts through the writing process. Journal writing is a more personal, expressive and exploratory form of writing that can be integrated into all disciplines of Education (Bazerman et al. 2005. pp 57). Journals can be open ended, with little structure or the opposite where the teacher poses questions and students are required to answer and reflect.

Using Technology in Writing To Learn

There are a variety of educational technological tools that provide the student with the opportunity to write to learn. There are automated programs to give student instant feedback on their writing. The pilot project LightSide recognizes patterns in words, phrases and grammar and provides students with feedback on his or her writing. This is a nonaggressive and unbiased approach so the learner can further develop his or her writing.

Writing to Learn can also be a collaborative process with peers and teacher support. Programs like Google Drive allow students to write and learn collaboratively, while the teacher can also monitor and assist in the process.

Students can also share their work with a wider audience using educational and safe blogs. The site allows students the opportunity to share their writing with others and receive feedback. By students sharing their work in a large medium, this will allow them the opportunity to write meaningful and their most paramount work. Having the student’s writing published can provide to be a strong motivational tool.

Student’s can write to learn on a tablet. This creates another medium for the learner to further develop his or her writing skills. Using the iPad students will be able to use a variety of apps in adding multimedia to enhance and deepen their learning. By writing on a tablet student will be able to share, research, read and add to others work more easily.

Using technology to write to learn takes the process from a one-dimensional to a multidimensional learning experience.

Common Challenges of Using Writing to Learn

Incorporating writing to learn strategies into the classroom or education program does have its challenges: time constraints, scheduling and organization of class time, both student and teacher attitudes towards writing, and evaluation and feedback methods (Baker et al. 2008).

Some teachers may find that time constraints, alongside the large quantities of material that needs to be taught does not provide for enough time for writing exercises to be completed in-class. In addition, these time constraints cause rushing, lack of attention to detail, and unequal information retention by students. Class time is seen as valuable and to be used for instruction, whereas after hours is seen to be generous with time devoted for homework, and therefore a lot of writing assignments are left for homework.

Writing assignments can be very daunting for students who already struggle with limited foundational skills or who have little confidence in their abilities; students are left with little motivation to participate in writing tasks (Bangert-Drowns et al. 2004, pp 33). Therefore not being provided time to actively participate in writing exercises, evaluation and support from Teachers can further hinder the learner. Students require modeling, direction and clarity when being given a writing task. Teachers need to incorporate writing tasks as a routine into their schedule and put time aside to plan for these lessons. Teachers must also determine what concepts are of value for students to interpret and synthesize.

Evaluation and feedback can be provided by teachers to students in different ways but is often seen as a challenge to incorporating writing to learn strategies within the classroom, especially for courses that do not teach writing. This challenge comes from the lengthy process that is involved in writing; it takes modeling, revision, practice and feedback (Baker et al. 2008). Some teachers do not feel comfortable enough to assign writing as they do not feel comfortable modeling or assessing the task.

Not Just Writing To Learn In Prose: Mind Mapping

Writing to learn does not have to only come in the form of prose. Instead of students writing in complete prose to learn, students are encouraged to Mind Map their thinking, questioning or ideas. Mind Mapping is a graphical tool that incorporates words, images, numbers and colour. Mind Mapping can be more beneficial than Journal writing because it is personal to the learner and follows the personalized systemic thought process of the learner. Imagery can be a powerful learning tool as shown in Picture Superiority Effect:

By developing a Mind Map the learner is writing what is meaningful and artistic to the learner. Student’s can begin to learn Mind Mapping strategies by watching their teacher demonstrate the technique on any given lesson. By mapping out their ideas students can begin to see a connection between their ideas appear before their eyes.

Overcoming the Challenges of Writing to Learn

Time Constraints alongside large quantities of material to teach is challenging; develop lessons in advance, although this is very time consuming initially, once the lessons are prepared they can be used the following year. As a teacher, flexibility is important, making last minute changes such as rescheduling or changing the schedule to incorporate the writing activity may be necessary (Baker et al. 2008).

Attitudes and motivations towards writing from both the teacher and student perspective can be a challenge; utilize the resources within your school (such as English teachers) to support you in creating your writing activities if you feel it is outside of your comfort level. Provide students with clear directions and your expectations of the writing task so that they understand and feel confident in the task.

Assessment and feedback can be a challenge for the teacher to complete and collect; support the students throughout the writing task, walk around, provide feedback, gauge where the student is at in understanding the assignment and their ability to problem-solve. Perhaps if the assessment component is too time consuming for you (the teacher) to complete on a regular basis, folders located in the classroom for each student can hold all of their writing work until the end of the course, when you have time to read through and evaluate the student's progress.

File:Teacher Helping Students.jpg 2012


Assessment of writing should include a both content review and writing process skills (Baker et al. 2008. pp 107). The assessment can be formative in nature that is meant to be “for” learning and not “of” learning as in summative assessment. The purpose of the formative assessment would be to guide the student to write in a manner that questions their knowledge and affords the students the freedom to create connections to other held knowledge.

Formative assessment occurs over a period of time and includes varies forms of evaluation to prompt and support revision in the writing process and understanding of content.

Summative Assessment generally occurs after a certain duration or amount of work, which is than assessed formally as a whole to determine the ability and knowledge of the student overall.

Students need to feel comfortable and safe when writing a composition. Educators can begin creating a safe environment for students by introducing low-risk assessment assignments (Personal Journal Entries) before high-risk assessment (Final Essay.) Students should begin writing to learn in the primary years of education. If a student is exposed to writing to learn at a young age, this process will be less of a hurdle in years to come.

BC Government to Literacy

The following is an example for the British Columbia Government’s commitment (exerted from Literacy Your B.C. Government is committed to helping British Columbia become the most literate jurisdiction in North America. From young students to adult learners, we’re investing in our Province’s future by developing programs to encourage literacy. What your B.C. Government is doing for Literacy:

  • The Province developed an All Day Kindergarten Program
  • The Province developed ReadNow BC, a cross-government literacy action plan to address the literacy needs of British Columbians.
  • Your B.C. Government has invested over $140 million in new literacy initiatives since 2001.
  • $20 million has been invested in literacy innovation grants to support Boards of Education with local literacy programs.
  • Government is investing in early literacy with 400 StrongStart BC early learning centres around the province.
  • The Province distributes books annually to every new kindergarten student to encourage reading.
  • Your B.C. Government made basic adult education tuition free.

Writing to Learn - Multimodalities


Baker, W., Barstack, D.C., Hull, E., Goodman, B., Kook, J., Kraft, K., Ramakrishna, P., Roberts, E., Shaw, J., Weaver, D., and Lang, M. (2008). Writing-to-learn in the inquiry-science classroom: effective strategies from middle school science and writing teachers. The Clearing House. (81)3, 105-108.

Bangert-Drowns, R., Hurley, M., and Wilkinson, B. (2004). The effects of school-based writing-to-learn interventions on Academic Achievement: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research 74(29), 28-58. doi: 10.3102/00346543074001029

Bazerman, C., Little, J., Bethel, L., Chavkin, T., Fouquette, D., and Garufis, J. (2005). Reference Guide to Writing Across the Curriculum: Writing to Learn Chapter 5. Retrieved from:,+Writing+to+learn,+Reference+Guide+to+Writing+across&source=bl&ots=0lWYlZgtY-&sig=Cqo9xAAq0cAwhnRampdKSl2cZHc&hl=en&sa=X&ei=FOY_T6f_K-bf0QHE-NCpBw&sqi=2&ved=0CCwQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q&f=false

Bereiter, P.J., and Scardamalia, M. 1988. Cognitive operations in constructing main points in written composition. Journal of Memory and Language. (27)3, 261-278. Retrieved from:;jsessionid=DC2A83FF2CFB0D74F2FC7ED4D8185E86?QueryType=articles

Bolter, D. (2001). Writing space: computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Galbraith, D., and Rijlaarsdam, G. 1999. Effective strategies for the teaching and learning of writing. Learning and Instruction. (9), 93-108. Retrieved from:

Heick, T. (2013). TeachThought. In Writing To Learn. Retrieved March 1, 2014, from

Jonassen, D. (1999). Designing constructivist learning environments. In C.M. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional-design theories and models: Volume II (pp 215-239). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

PiCon. (2012). LightSide. In Improving Student Writing. Retrieved March 1, 2014, from

Pinola, M. (September 19, 2013). How To Use Mind Maps To Unleash Your Brain's Creativity and Potential. In Producivity . Retrieved March 1, 2014, from

Rojas, P. (1968). Writing to Learn. TESOL Quarterly. (2)2, 127-129. Retrieved from:

Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (1994). Computer support for knowledge – building communities. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 3(3), 265-283

Stewart, T., Myers, A., and Culley, M. (2010). Enahanced learning and retention through "writing to learn" in the psychology classroom. Teaching of Psychology. (37)1, 46-49. doi: 10.1080/00986280903425813

Classroom Resources

Using technology to write to learn as a collaborative process: Google Drive

Using technology to write to learn on student safe blog site: Kidblog

Using Multimedia and higher learning strategies to write to learn: Studysync

Publish Student’s Writing: Zoho Writer Issuu iBooks

Writing to Learn Activities:

Mindmapping Software:

ETEC 510 Wiki Main Page

BC Government Literacy Page

Emig, J. (1977). Writing as a mode of learning. College Composition and Communication, (28)2, 122–128. Retrieved from: Writing as a mode of learning. where students can create an account, create charts, graphs, graphic images, relationship charts, family trees, etc... for multi-modal writing tasks

Drawing and Painting Online: Slimber - where students can create graphic images, save them as files on their computer and print or add to projects