Writing to Learn Workshop

ISLAS Greatest Hits: Writing to Learn Workshop

This workshop will help faculty implement both low and high stakes writing assignments into the curriculum of content-intensive courses. Faculty will learn tools and strategies for designing, responding to, and assessing student writing. Emphasis will be placed on assignments that use writing as a tool for thinking and learning.


Post on Padlet: “What do you hope to get out of today’s workshop?”


The Reading-Writing Connection

Active Reading (Brogan Sullivan, Writing Commons)

Mapping the Territory

An active reader explores what she reads; she approaches the text as though she has entered an unknown territory with the intention of drawing a map. Indeed, the difference between passive reading and active reading is like the difference between watching a nature documentary and hiking through the wilderness. The film, although entertaining, doesn’t require much exertion from the viewer. By contrast, the hiker has to navigate the trail: she must look out for hazards, read trail signs, and make informed decisions, if she hopes to make it back home” (Sullivan).

Active Reading Strategies

  • Retracing Your Steps: Read Every Text (at least) Twice
  • A Two-Way Street: Reading as Conversation
  • Marking the Trail: Annotation
  • Pace Yourself: Know Your Limitations and Eliminate Distractions
  • Use a double-entry format to extend your thinking on a topic or to critique an author’s presentation.

Reading Games: Strategies for Reading Scholarly Sources” (Karen Rosenberg, Writing Spaces)

An examination of the elements of a rhetorical reading strategy—conceptualizing reading as part of an academic conversation . . . . This chapter can also help your students learn to recognize and avoid employing reading strategies that don’t work: reading without grasping content, skimming or skipping text, or latching onto one minor argument without understanding the author’s main point. . . .

Developing Students’ Thinking by Writing” (Neil Haave, Tomorrow’s Professor)

If writing is thinking and the writing is difficult, then that means that they are being cognitively challenged. I was pleased, but also realized that perhaps their complaint about the workload was not about the two page weekly assignment, but rather the reading assignment and the requirement to think about it.

Greenstein’s argument is that by having students write in their own words what they have been taught (e.g., to explain to a non-scientist), they then have to construct meaning from the jargon used in their textbook or during lecture. . . . Sharing that with someone else, a peer student for example, checks their ability to articulate their understanding of the topic at hand.

We learn best when we teach. It doesn’t matter whether or not these assignments are marked because it is the act of writing that is important, not the grade—it is the act of thinking through writing that deepens the learning (Greenstein 2013). 

How to Read a Scholarly Article (AKA an Academic Article)” (Stacey Anderson; feel free to copy and adapt this handout to your own classes!)


Respond to AnswerGarden: “What reading & writing tasks do you assign in your classes?”


Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC)

WAC Clearinghouse (Link to Detailed Table of Contents.) All information below is from this amazing site!

Writing to Learn (WTL) vs. Writing in the Disciplines (WID)

Generally, writing-to-learn activities are short, impromptu or otherwise informal writing tasks that help students think through key concepts or ideas presented in a course. Often, these writing tasks are limited to less than five minutes of class time or are assigned as brief, out-of-class assignments.

If students’ readiness for more involved thought processes is bypassed in favor of jamming more facts and figures into their heads, they will stagnate at the lower levels of thinking. But if students are encouraged to try a variety of thought processes in classes, they can, regardless of their ages, develop considerable mental power. Writing is one of the most effective ways to develop thinking (Syrene Forsman, “Writing to Learn Means Learning to Think” 162).

The second category of WAC is often called Writing in the Disciplines (WID). Writing assignments of this sort are designed to introduce or give students practice with the language conventions of a discipline as well as with specific formats typical of a given discipline.

WID assignments are typically, but not exclusively, formal documents prepared over a few weeks or even months. The final documents adhere to format and style guidelines typical of the professional genres they are helping students learn about. Teachers comment primarily on the substance of these assignments, but teachers also expect students to meet professional standards of layout and proofreading (format and mechanical correctness).

Examples of Writing to Learn Activities

Writing to learn activities can happen frequently or infrequently in your class; some can extend over the entire semester; some can be extended to include a wide variety of writing tasks in different formats and to different audiences. 


Post on Google Slides : “Writing to Learn in Action”


Do I have to be an expert in grammar to assign writing?

Not at all! If you assign write-to-learn tasks, you won’t want to mark any grammatical flaws because the writing is designed to be impromptu and informal. If you assign more polished pieces, especially those that adhere to disciplinary conventions, then we suggest putting the burden of proofreading squarely where it belongs–on the writer.

What makes a good writing assignment?

Good writing assignments always start with a clear goal that the teacher can express, usually on the assignment sheet so that students understand the goal as well.

Good writing assignments also often take shape by thinking backwards. In effect, teachers ask themselves, ‘What do I want to read at the end of this assignment?’ By working from what they anticipate the final product to look like, teachers can give students detailed guidelines about both the writing task and the final written product.

How can I get the most out of peer-review?

How can I handle responding to drafts?

If you give WID assignments, you’ll want to provide students with feedback on organization, methodology, etc., and you can easily do this by drawing on what you know as readers, researchers, and writers in your field.  [E]diting should not be your major concern as you introduce students to the discourse of your academic community. Please see “Do I have to be an expert in grammar to assign writing?” for some tips on not marking mechanical matters.

For commenting on writing-to-learn tasks, please see “Alternatives for Evaluating WTL Assignments.”

Perhaps most important, we encourage all teachers to focus their commenting energies and to consider using a grading sheet designed to match the criteria outlined on your assignment sheet.


Post in Google Folder: “Writing Assignment to Workshop”

Send email to schedule optional faculty consultation with Composition Director!