University of Minnesota
interdisciplinary studies of writing
center for writing

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Publications abstract: Using Intensive Writing-to-Learn as a Means of Reducing Limitations on Learning in Large Classes

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Ruth Thomas, Associate Professor, Vo-Tech Education
Debbykay Peterson, Research Assistant

This project seeks to explore the feasibility and effectiveness of shifting from teaching with a heavy reliance on dialogue toward emphasizing intensive writing-to-learn activities as class size increases. In order for learning that is deep and lasting to occur, students must have opportunities to be engaged in thinking about and with the concepts they are learning and to connect them to what is already familiar and to what is of personal interest and import. Dialogue is a medium through which this kind of processing of ideas can occur. Meaningful dialogue is more easily incorporated in smaller classes than in larger ones. Because writing-to-learn, like dialogue, provides the opportunity to be engaged in thinking about and with the concepts that are being learned and to connect students to what is already familiar and to what is of personal interest and import, and because writing can be done with varying degrees of independence, it has potential to serve functions in large classes similar to those which dialogue serves well in smaller classes.

The purpose of this project is to explore the incorporation of intensive writing-to-learn in a course that is too large for in-class dialogue to be the central medium for thinking. More specifically, this project explores intensive writing-to-learn as a medium in a large class for making students' own thoughts front and center, for using content as hypotheses to be examined and critiqued, for actively involving students in the learning process, for confronting students with views that contradict their own, for ensuring deep processing of concepts, for personalizing learning in a way that can foster students' self-understanding and personal growth, and for getting students to accept responsibility for directing their own learning.

Six writing-to-learn approaches were identified that were consistent with the above purpose. Guidelines for each approach were developed. The 72 students in an upper division child psychology course on relationships and development were given the opportunity to choose one approach that they would use throughout the course. The reason for asking students to continue to use the same approach was to facilitate comparison of the students' work across time. Seven writing assignments were required in addition to an essay final examination. Students were also given the opportunity to do an eighth assignment as extra credit, which most of them did. Students' writing was responded to each week in a style that was intended to reflect a teacher-as-collaborator role in which respectfulness, acceptance, understanding, empathy, invitations to elaborate, and requests for clarification characterized the responses. With the students' permission, their writing assignments were duplicated for later analysis.

Analysis is designed to reveal the degree to which each of the following are reflected in the writing assignments: depth and insight, a questioning and critical stance toward content, a stance of being responsible for and directing one's own thinking and learning, confronting and wrestling with and coming to terms with views that are contradictory, deep processing of concepts, new understandings that reflect a revision of prior views in a synthesis of new information and prior knowledge, and reflection of feelings.

Implications of this project concern the depth of learning that can be accomplished in large classes, relationships between the nature of various writing-to-learn approaches and learning outcomes, and practical concerns regarding the use of writing-to-learn in large enrollment classes.