To describe writing to learn as a theory

To recommend different writing activities that foster learning 


Instructors can use writing activities in any discipline to encourage student understanding. When students write to learn they become more comfortable with the language of a discipline, how concepts interact and how to develop well-supported arguments (Bean, 2011; Zinnser, 2013). Writing to learn essentially builds what are considered critical thinking skills such as being able to question, gather, assess and interpret information, think through alternative scenarios and coming to conclusions. Writing to learn can also build confidence in student writing because it is a low stakes entry point to figuring out material as opposed to higher stakes assessments like research papers. Students can play with format and voice as they work through material in a way that encourages creativity along with giving them an opportunity to be part of academic conversations. Writing to learn activities can be used for a variety of reasons like preparing students for a class discussion or an exam, having them articulate what they will do before solving a problem or serve as a precursor to a larger writing project. Below are a few recommended writing to learn activities. 


Start class with a free write – students can be asked to simply write for 5 to 7 minutes regarding a class concept. Free writes are typically ungraded (though they can be used by instructors to gain a sense of what students are thinking) and students are allowed to do them in any form they feel is constructive (e.g. bullet points). 

Create word problems using class concepts – students can create word problems for an exam and have each other critique and answer the problems. It may be worthwhile to discuss a taxonomy with students so that they get a sense of some of the verbs that encourage higher order thinking. 

Journal – students can keep a reflective journal throughout the course that can ask them to do the following: document frustrations with readings or problem solving, discuss their understanding of the material (e.g. I think I know this but I do not know that), synthesize what peers have said in a classroom discussion, document progress and ideas for a larger paper, etc. 

They Say/I Say – This simple activity encourages students to reconstruct the main arguments of any text and then to add in their own opinion. 

Yes,no,ok but… – Use these prompts to help students interact with a class text. 

Plant a Naysayer in Your Text – Have students create a narrative of counter claims and critiques of any of the course concepts currently being studied in the class. 

So what? – At the end of a student summary or any writing assignment simply ask the students to answer the question “so what?” 


Bean, J. C. (2011). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. John Wiley & Sons.

Zinsser, W. K. (1988). Writing to learn. Harper Collins Publishers.