Sample Lessons
Sample Lessons

Writing to Learn and Learning to Write

Click the links below to find explanations and examples that will help you design writing assignments.

Writing to Learn Activities and Assignments

The centerpiece of "writing to learn" is the journal, described below.  For more examples of  "writing to learn,"  see Colorado State's "What Is Writing to Learn?" 

WAC Journals

What are journals?

  • a collection of periodic entries
  • normally, unedited writing ("freewriting")
  • reflective writing (personal thoughts, analyses/syntheses/evaluations, applications of concepts) = WRITING TO LEARN !
  • sometimes extemporaneous in-class writing
  • often in the form of a reading response log, personal lab or field notebook, electronic journal

Why should you ask students to maintain a journal?

Journals encourage regular attendance, active participation, close and critical reading, careful listening, analysis and synthesis of sources, and the collection of ideas for a paper.

1. To ensure that students read, listen, and observe carefully,

  • announce ahead of time (in class or in your syllabus) that students may have to freewrite a response to a lesson, field trip, media event, computer simulation, art form or performance during the last 5 minutes or after school, OR ask students to take detailed notes during a lab, clinical, field, or workplace experience, telling them ahead of time that they will have to submit those notes and a response.
  • ask students to define a term or free-associate with a concept BEFORE reading, listening, or observing.
  • have students respond line by line or over time.

2. To help students make sense of lessons, readings, and experiences,

  • ask students to write their notes and outline or summarize their readings.
  • ask students to outline their responses to possible exam questions.
  • ask students to define a term AFTER reading or attending class, using their own words.
  • ask students to explain a concept to a lay audience.
  • ask students to construct a dialogue between authors or between an author and themselves.
  • ask students to role-play in prose or poetry.
  • ask students to write guided imagery.
  • ask students to make personal connections to the material.

3. To encourage students to think critically and talk thoughtfully about the subject matter,

  • ask students to pose questions in their journal entries or in-class writing.
  • ask students to construct or explain analogies.
  • ask students to formulate word problems or exam questions according to your guidelines.

4. To enable the students and you to monitor their learning,

  • ask students to evaluate their progress.
  • ask students to write about their reasoning.
  • ask students to write about their confusion or curiosity.
  • ask students to evaluate your lessons.

5. To generate and collect ideas for a formal paper,

  • ask students to freewrite about a research topic.
  • have students accumulate responses in a journal.

How often should you collect journals?

  • a few weekly
  • all biweekly or quarterly
  • just during one unit of the course
  • ongoing electronic journal
  • never (Some lab instructors never collect students’ lab notebooks, but encourage students to keep detailed notes by allowing them to consult the notebooks during lab tests.)

What should you respond to?

  • Respond to each entry, a body of entries, or only a particular entry that begs for a response.
  • Read aloud one or two provocative or model entries from a couple of journals during class and return the rest of the journals with check marks but without comments.

How should you respond?

  • Write a comment beside the text or inside the cover of the journal, or use your e-mail Reply option—Do NOT mark the entry.
  • Express appreciation, clarify a thought, restate ideas, add a personal reflection, encourage a student to pursue an idea, challenge a student to solve a problem.
  • Focus on content, but mention a pattern of errors in a summary comment and challenge the student to find the errors.

© 1999 Teresa Redd

Remember, however, that students don't have to do their reflective writing in journal form.  They can do occasional assignments inside or outside class. 

Learning to Write Activities and Assignments

Here are some suggestions for formal writing assignments--assignments that show students how to communicate with readers inside and outside of your discipline.  To improve students' writing skills, encourage students to do the following:

  • analyze and imitate professional and student examples
  • adapt their writing to varied audiences
  • complete assignments in stages (e.g., plans, drafts, revisions)
  • collaborate with other students
  • write within a narrow word limit

Also, consider these tips from Essex Community College's Writing Across the Curriculum Handbook:

  • Provide a context for your assignment through the work in the classroom that precedes it or that goes along with it.
  • Devote class time to explaining the assignment.
    • Go over the key words you used in your assignment and make sure that your students  have the same understanding of them as you do.
    • Ask your students to explain, orally or in writing, what they will have to do in order to complete the assignment.
    • Discuss the audience for the assignment:  Who is the audience?  What does the audience want and need to know?  What are the audience's needs and expectations?
    • Use a model paper or papers if you believe that it is best to do so.  You may want to use good and bad models.
    • Provide hints about processes and strategies for developing the paper.  One of the following methods may help you achieve this objective:
      • Have a successful student from a previous semester describe how he or she handled the assignment.
      • Have a successful writer in your field discuss the composing process he or she used in completing a piece of writing that is similar to the one you are requiring from your students.
      • Complete the writing assignment yourself.  While doing so, keep a written record or a record on tape of the composing process you actually used.  Then describe that process to your students.
    • Describe the traits of successful papers you have graded in the past.  Note:   Make a list of these traits for each type of assignment you give.
  • Determine what skills are necessary for the successful completion of the assignment and then decide if the skills need to be taught or reviewed.
  • Encourage writing as a process.
    • Suggest or provide activities that will help your students to come up with ideas for the assignment.
    • Set up checkpoints--e.g., thesis, outline or written plan, part of an early draft.
    • Encourage revising through activities such as preliminary reviews of parts of the paper, conferences, or peer review.
    • Urge your students to visit the Writing Center while they are working on the various stages of preparing their papers.

Collect other ideas for "learn to write" lessons from Colorado State's "What Is Writing in the Disciplines?"  To help non-native speakers learn to write better, see the University of Minnesota's English as a  Second Language Resource.

Types of Writing

There's no need to limit students to writing essays, research papers, and lab reports.  Sometimes they can learn as much or more from experimenting with other genres (and they may find other genres more enjoyable).  Consider the following types of writing:

answer to a question brochure
definition poster, advertisement
description news release
list news story or feature story
notes multimedia presentation
questions review of book, work of art, performance
word problem public service announcement
analogy consumer report or product evaluation
thesis sentence instructional manual
outline technical or scientific report
web, chart, diagram case analysis
timed in-class freewrite research paper
"I-Search" report essay exam
journal abstract
contemplative essay summary
personal letter review of literature
laboratory or field notebook progress report
materials and method plan proposal
rough draft annotated bibliography or discography
character sketch or biography briefing paper
narrative letter to the editor or open letter
dialogue editorial
play response or rebuttal
poem business letter
script for video or radio resume
guided imagery memorandum
web homepage e-mail
magazine article  

 *adapted from Barbara Walvoord’s Helping Students Write Well, New York: MLA, 1988, 8.



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