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Writing To Promote Learning
Informal Writing Strategies
Informal writing assignments, which are usually short writings, are useful to teachers and students alike: to assess progress, for informal communication, to collect information, and to prepare for longer projects. They permit teachers to confirm students' understanding of assignments and course material, and they are a means whereby instructors can help students realize the idea-generating potential of writing and its value even when it is not graded. In addition, these strategies will assist students in focusing their ideas as they prepare for more formal writing assignments, and they give them the opportunity to practice the sort of single-draft writing expected of them in exam situations.
Many of the more useful informal strategies are written extensions of standard oral and written communication practices. The following strategies increase students' writing opportunities and stimulate class discussion. They also help prepare students for long writings without unduly burdening the instructor because shorter assignments can be evaluated with different strategies from those used for more formal papers.
Brainstorming is frequently an oral strategy. Adding a written component, such as jotting down ideas that arise through brainstorming, will reinforce the concepts being generated. Brainstorming may then be taken an additional step: students can group the ideas and label each group as they move toward reaching a topic for a paper.
Peer response affords students opportunities to receive feedback on their work while learning how to give constructive criticism themselves. If students prepare to give an oral critique by first using writing--either jotted responses to questions or a brief writing--they are likely to be better able to focus their comments and more willing to participate in discussion.
Informal short writings
Informal short wirtings effectively focus a class on a particular topic, help students summarize class work, or cause students to discover where their reasoning breaks down. Students respond to a question or to a prompt from the instructor. Many of these writings need not be graded; instead, the material from them can be used in class discussion.
Journals or logs
Journals provide unique opportunities for students to have a structured way to work with course material. Journal entries may follow a single assignment made at the beginning of the semester or may vary throughout the course by teacher and student preferences. In some fields, journal keeping in the form of research logs, field notebooks, artist notebooks, or laboratory logs provides opportunities for practicing professional management skills.
Outlining often creates anxiety for students. However, if they have the opportunity to outline informally in order to focus on outline functions as well as formally with a focus on form, they may come to value the process as both an organizational tool and an important revision check on drafts.
Paraphrases allow students to explain an argument in their own words, following the line of reasoning and its sequence of ideas. The paraphrase, which is a useful notetaking tool, should give the reader an accurate understanding of the author's position on the topic.
Summaries restate only the author's main ideas, omitting all the examples and evidence used in supporting and illustrating those points. The function of a summary is to represent the scope and emphasis of a relatively large amount of material in an efficient and concise form. A precis is a type of summarizing that insists on an exact reproduction of the logic, organization, and emphasis of the original texts.
Responding to Informal Writing
All writing does not have to be graded. Shorter assignments, such as the ones described above, need not be evaluated as polished products; they simply help students begin to see the value of writing for clarifying and developing their ideas. Out-of-class informal writing can be read for content only: Did students answer the question correctly or understand the main idea of the chapter? The same can be done for in-class short writing: Does it show that students are actually working on the assignment and making progress towards its completion? To check whether students are writing on topic during timed writings, instructors can walk around the room and read over shoulders, ask a few students to read theirs aloud, pick up a few at random each time, or collect all but read them only to see if most students understand the material. Similarly, journals or logs can be checked (a few each day or week) simply to see that work is completed.
Few or no comments need be written on any of these writings; teachers can respond with a simple check, plus, or minus, or with a point system. When students turn in extra credit work, engage in personal response writing, or write in journals, the instructor's response might use + (points), C/NC (credit, no credit), or a letter grade with comments.
Microthemes are short writings on 5" x 8" note cards or papers. The microtheme is brief, but this form requires a small amount of writing after a great deal of thinking. Because microtheme writing is rigorous writing in restricted space, the student must plan carefully to argue successfully.
Microthemes are useful in both large and small classes because they involve limited writing (and, therefore, less grading) while forcing maximum thinking, thus placing responsibility with the student. Refer to Microtheme Strategies for Developing Cognitive Skills by John C. Bean, Dean Drenk, and F.D. Lee (Griffin, C. Williams, ed. New Directions for Teaching and Learning: Teaching Writing in All Disciplines, no. 12, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1982) for an explanation of how microthemes expand cognitive development.
Common Types Of Microthemes
Summary-Writing microthemes ask students to summarize a topic, argument, or theme, a task which helps students understand and state objectively other points of view.
Sample Assignment: Describe Luther's argument for why God's knowledge is necessary rather than contingent.
Thesis-Support microthemes ask students to generate effective support for a thesis the instructor presents. This demands active thinking and possibly research.
Sample Assignment: Individual liberty (is/is not) detrimental to the social order.
Data-Provided microthemes challenge students to generate the controlling idea from given data. This requires that students think logically and abstractly as well as see connections between different facts.
Sample Assignment: [list of ten statements provided about economics] Using all of the data supplied, write a brief essay on the topic, are economic conditions the propelling force of society?
Quandary-Posing microthemes demand that students solve and then explain a puzzle. This type exercises abstract reasoning skills.
Sample Assignment: A couple has been told that their newborn baby died; another couple legally adopts this baby. Three years later, the natural parents discover that their baby lives and has been adopted. They sue for custody. Decide who should raise the baby, and explain your reasoning.
Working with Microthemes
Since many students have operated from the maxim that more is better, they may be reluctant to believe that less is what you are expecting. Establishing the format for microthemes is important. The students need to understand that the size restrictions are not negotiable. Microthemes are typically written on 5" x 8" note cards or half sheets of paper for a computer-generated document.
Obviously, space constraints necessitate focused assignments. This is a chance for students to delve into a single concept or issue. But the narrowness of focus doesn't mean that intellectual rigor is sacrificed. On the contrary, these writings can promote intellectual growth.
Microthemes place responsibility for learning with the student. You can keep it that way when you evaluate the writing by maximizing them as a tool for student learning while minimizing your written responses. Here are some ways people have used microthemes to promote learning while lessening paper load:
For more information on Short Writing Assignments, please see Evaluating Short Writings
Note taking is one of those writing skills often taken for granted by both teachers and students. It shouldn't be. Note taking is a type of writing that promotes learning because it actively involves students in the lecture, reading, or viewing experience.
Students list two purposes for note taking, according to the research of Hartley and Davies: to help later recall and to provide a product for later review (cited in Wilbert J. McKeachie et al. Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath, 1994). Note taking can serve these purposes because note takers are involved in a multi-sensory activity; hands and eyes as well as ears are engaged. Moreover, note taking helps students comprehend and control material because they have to make choices as they decide whether to copy information verbatim or reword it. In this decision-making process, they are selecting an organizational principle that will enhance retention of the information. Moreover, because the notes are in a system of their preference, students may be more likely to review with them. (See Emily Meyer and Louise Z. Smith. The Practical Tutor. New York: Oxford UP, 1987, 240-41.)
Many students, however, have had little training in this very effective study strategy. Consequently, students may end up with notes so disorganized that they are useless. Inexperienced note takers also run the risk of taking overly brief or overly detailed notes, typically because they are not certain how to judge the importance of the material.
Sometimes learning how to take effective notes involves reshaping old habits. Past training may have promoted note taking as simply listening and writing. However, Writers, Inc.(Patrick Sebranek et al. Writers Inc. Burlington, WI: Write Source Ed. Pub. House, 1992), a popular high school and college writing guide, suggests that students need to think of note taking as "listening, thinking, reacting, questioning, summarizing, organizing, listing, labeling, illustrating--and writing." Other past practices may also need adaptation. For instance, many students have to overcome high school bans on note taking in texts. Many entering freshmen have never glossed texts, even though this strategy promotes effective and reflective reading. Outlining is another skill that needs cultivation at the college level. Students have typically been taught to build a structural outline, following the author's or lecturer's argument. They can benefit, however, by also learning to outline thetically, that is, by working from the thesis to reconstruct the reading's or lecture's argument
Even if students know how to organize notes and review with them, they need to know organizational principles of the discipline they are studying as manifested in its texts as well as in its research. Subject area specialists are the best sources for this information. Commercially-prepared notes are used by some instructors, in part because of their apprehension about student note taking skills. McKeachie points out, however, that the nature of such notes will determine the benefit to the student. For those preferring commercially-prepared notes, he recommends skeletal outlines that require substantial student engagement. His contention is supported by research suggesting that detailed notes promote student passivity (See Annis 1981; Kiewra 1989 cited in McKeachie).
Addressing note taking in subject area classes need not disrupt course curricula; for example, teachers might choose to incorporate note taking strategies that meet course goals while, at the same time, teaching effective note taking processes. The following note taking assignments suggest some of these strategies:
The Write Stuff5:1 (Fall 1994)
When you paraphrase, you are explaining your source's argument, following its line of reasoning and its sequence of ideas, in your own words. The paraphrase should give the reader an accurate understanding of the author's position on the topic. The purpose of a paraphrase is to convey the meaning of the original message and, in doing so, to prove that you understand the passage well enough to restate it. Your job is not to prove yourself correct, but to uncover and explain all the facts and arguments involved in the subject.
To paraphrase, first substitute synonyms for the passage's more important terms. These synonyms should be accurate both in denotative and connotative meaning. Fine tune the sentence construction, possibly even adding a phrase here and there to illustrate a point more clearly or show a connection between two ideas.
A summary restates only the author's main ideas, omitting all the examples and evidence used in supporting and illustrating those points. The function of a summary is to represent the scope and emphasis of a relatively large amount of material in an efficient and concise form. To summarize, state the thesis, main arguments and conclusion of the original in your own words. In both the paraphrase and summary, the author's meaning and opinion need to be retained.