October 9th, 2008

Bean on Exploratory Writing


Over the past several days I’ve been re-reading John Bean’s book, Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. Now, there’s a book I really wish I’d written. At this point it’s a classic, widely referenced, and one of the few books I regularly hear faculty recommending to each other.

In a chapter that begins by making the case for informal, exploratory (and generally ungraded) writing activities, Bean offers 25 ideas for incorporating this kind writing in a course. He begins with four ways to use writing during a class session.

At the beginning of class—when students can write in responses to a question that reviews what happened previously in class or to a query designed to stimulate interest in today’s topic.

During class to refocus a discussion that’s dragging or cool down one that’s become too heated—when students run out of things to say, they can write about what’s transpired, identifying and elaborating on the most important point, the most confusing issue, or the point about which they most disagree. If the exchange has become heated, let there be silence and have student express in writing what they are feeling, seeing, or hearing.

During class to ask questions—especially when the instructor asks if there are any questions and there are none. Given a few moments students can be challenged to write a question—one they’d like answered, one that addresses confusing content, or the one that next needs to be asked. Bean recommends the following prompt: “If you have understood my lecture so far, summarize my main points in your own words. If you are currently confused about something, please explain to me what is puzzling you; ask me the questions you need answered.” (p. 105)

At the end of class—when it’s time to summarize and students will benefit from doing the summary. Here too, they might write questions, ones that can be asked for review at the beginning of the next period or the ones they think might show up on the next exam.

Why take time to let students do this kind of writing? “The evidence from both research and instructor testimony seems irrefutable: exploratory writing, focusing on the process rather than the product of thinking, deepens most students’ engagement with course material while enhancing learning and development critical thinking.” (p. 118)

—Maryellen Weimer