Informal Writing Assignments: Promoting Learning Through Writing

The Writing Across the Curriculum movement has successfully introduced faculty across disciplines to a variety of writing, including very informal writing that faculty do not necessarily read or grade. The advocacy for this kind of informal writing rests on the old premise that practice makes perfect—that as long as students are writing something, their writing will likely improve.

But informal writing garners benefits beyond this accidental improvement of writing skills. Writing promotes thinking—it clarifies ideas, generates reasons, and crystallizes arguments. A faculty team of sociologists decided to try to maximize that writing-thinking connection, saying, “To ensure that our students learn to write, we must do more than assign it; we must teach it with explicit purpose.” (p. 180). They wanted more than the accidental benefits derived whenever students are writing. Specifically, they aspired to create prompts for their students’ informal writing that would (1) make their expectations for students clearer and more specific; (2) be more useful and accurate; and (3) result in more thoughtful and effective analysis and arguments in other work students submitted.

They framed their efforts to enhance thinking through writing around a model of concentric thinking that involves prioritization, translation, and making analogies—what they call “PTA.” The model “suggests that students must be able to prioritize material from their reading and discussions . . . before they can translate difficult passages into their own words. Additionally, they must be able to both prioritize and translate in order to say that one issue, situation, or problem has relevance to another—that is, to draw analogies.” (p. 181)

Here’s how the actual assignment works: Students are given a blue book on the first day of class (and more if they need them as the course progresses). For the first 10 minutes of each class, students respond to a teacher-provided prompt. Occasionally, they answer these prompts out of class. These informal journal writings are collected several times during the semester. Early on, students are not graded, but they are asked questions and given comments. This writing is graded at the end of the course. It is counted as part of their participation grade, which also includes attendance and participation in discussion.

Perhaps most interesting is the aspect of this assignment where students are challenged to look at all the responses they have written across the course. In their final informal writing exercise, they respond to these four prompts: (1) They circle the strongest response written to one of the prompts and briefly say why it is the strongest; (2) They circle the response that was hardest to answer and again briefly explain why; (3) They circle the response that does the best job of stating their values and beliefs, and then they discuss how those values and beliefs have affected their ability to understand course content; and (4) They look at the responses written during the first couple of weeks of the course and compare them to those written at the end of the course, and describe changes they see in the responses and in how they now understand issues.

The article provides an example of a carefully constructed assignment that gives informal writing a larger meaning and purpose. The authors conclude, “By teaching students a process for connecting content and thought, we model for them a process of lifelong learning that will serve them throughout their professional lives. And in our classrooms, we are able to shift our own thinking: We are no longer ‘teaching writing’ but, rather, ‘promoting learning through writing.’ While subtle, the difference is profound.” (p. 187)

Reference: Hudd, S.S., Smart, R.A., and Delohery, A.W. (2011). “My understanding has grown, my perspective has switched: Linking informal writing to learning goals.” Teaching Sociology, 39 (2), 179-189.

Reprinted from Informal Writing and Thinking The Teaching Professor, 25.9 (2011): 6.