The role of writing in students’ learning

In our last meeting, I would like to discuss the role of writing in students’ learning. To me, two aspects in student writing are worth considering. The first is the pedagogical goals of writing assignments. The second is how to grade them to the end of helping students write better and think more critically. Having taught all levels of History courses (1000 and 3000), including the Junior Composition “Historical Research & Writing,” I continue to struggle with encouraging deep learning through writing and an effective and responsible way of providing truly useful feedback. A constant source of frustration is that students tend to ignore my comments and feedback that could further their learning. Or, if they have read my comments, few have sought clarification or additional advice on strategies for improvement. Some react quite strongly to my feedback on the technicalities of writing. In a humanities discipline like History, writing is an essential vehicle of both low- and high-level learning, from summarizing and explaining to analyzing and synthesizing. Writing is at once a major tool of assessment of learning and a means for students to demonstrate learning outcomes. A pedagogically sound evaluation of student writing has to come full circle by providing constructive feedback not only on the content, but also on the technical aspects of writing—citation style, syntax, punctuation, and structure—all of which contribute to effective communication. And effective communication, both written and verbal, is an essential competency in most white-collar jobs. Especially at a time when the value of a liberal arts education, and the humanities in particular, is severely challenged, one of the claims for the legitimacy of the History major is that it cultivates excellent writing and critical thinking skills. However, in my experience, students in History classes, non-majors in particular, do not consider the instruction of writing critical to their learning. “This is not an English class!” I end up compromising on my grading, shortening the length of writing assignments, and evaluating student writing based primarily on the content, which oftentimes is conveyed with unclear or incomplete sentences. I will present an evolution of my writing assignments at different levels of courses, the rationale behind some of the assignments, my grading strategies, as well as ways of incentivizing students to write better. Here are a few topics I’d like to discuss with the group:

  1. Not all disciplines or subjects are writing-intensive or require much expository writing. But students write in one form or another for all classes. What types of writing do your students engage in in your field? How do these writing exercises contribute to the students’ 1) overall understanding of the subject, 2) analytical or critical thinking skills (or the application of concepts), and 3) written communication?
  2. If your courses are fairly heavy in writing, what learning objectives do your assignments serve? What are your methods of grading these assignments?
  3. How do you motivate students to take seriously your feedback on their written works?

Here are a few short articles for food for thought:

  1. Writing objectives using Bloom’s taxonomy–the correlation between writing and different levels of learning:
  2. Ten tips for effective and efficient grading:
  3. A strategy for grading student writing:
  4. A cynical view on student writing:
Finally, for your entertainment:



One thought on “The role of writing in students’ learning

  1. Chris Griffin says:

    I also receive, “This is not an English class!” However, seeing as science literally depends on the written word for funding and publication, I feel writing is relevant. I’ve been in a year-long discussion about the usage of first person in science.
    This is quite exciting!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: