November 9th, 2010

Writing Promotes Learning


Once again I’m trying to clean out my collection of articles on teaching and learning. I’ve been collecting for years and have hundreds … yes, hundreds. Now that everything is available online there is no reason to keep the many stacks and boxes that have filled my office to overflowing. The problem, of course, is that I run into all these wonderful articles that I have forgotten about. If I toss them, will I ever encounter them again? So much good material is so rarely referenced.

Here’s the essence of one I found yesterday. Would you believe that even very short, ungraded free writing assignments promote learning course material? And by short, I do mean very short—five minutes on a topic per week, that’s 45 minutes a semester. That much writing improved performance on factual and conceptual multiple-choice items.

Improved compared to what? The study explored two different treatments experienced by 978 undergraduates in 32 sections of an introductory psychology course. In both treatments students either thought or wrote about topics that “centered on expressing opinions about current controversies in the field, applying course content to everyday experiences and choosing and supporting a position after presentation of competing viewpoints.” (p. 173) In one treatment, students were instructed to think about the topic for five minutes, and in the second they were asked to write about it for five minutes. A 10-minute discussion of the topic followed both treatments. Students took multiple-choice exams after each of the three main content sections, and those exams contained some questions (factual and conceptual) about the thinking/writing topics.

“Just five minutes of writing on a topic per week … produced significantly higher scores on test items than did the same amount of time spent thinking.” (p. 174)

How did they get students to write for five minutes? They offered one point per free write. And students who attended the recitation on the days they were asked to think about the topic got one point for being there.

“This research demonstrates that a technique within reach of most course instructors can produce significant improvement in students’ performance.” (p. 175) These are results worth remembering.

Reference: Drabick. D. A., Weisberg, R., Paul, L., and Bubier, J. (2007). Keeping it short and sweet: Brief, ungraded writing assignments facilitate learning. Teaching of Psychology, 34 (3), 172-176.