The Benefits of Freewriting: Making Learning Live

We are all saddled with anxieties about language. The art and science of writing within and outside of our fields makes students of us all. And yet, as instructors we naturally feel that we must impart our intellectual authority and credibility to students. The negotiation of this juggling act between proficiency and humility is not just an inherent difficulty of teaching, but also a powerful point of kinship with our students, who must likewise learn the fine Socratic art of humility (“The one thing I know is that I know nothing”) on the job. In this essential sense, then, teachers and students are both engaged in impersonating imperfect and incoherent roles that do not quite fit, like Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. The purpose of this post is to suggest that the regular use of low-stakes freewriting activities in the classroom can enhance students’ outcomes and attitudes towards course material by dramatically shaking up the student-teacher dynamic. Freewriting transforms the stifling prescriptive-normative atmosphere that can take hold of a classroom’s narrative—which evokes Paulo Freire’s banking model of learning, whereby students are reduced to passive recipients of their instructors’ lessons—into dynamic code-switching between teaching and learning. In this way, freewriting can empower students to become active and creative learners, participants, and teachers in their own right.

The education activism landscape has changed considerably since the iconoclastic reformer John Holt championed the pedagogical benefit of “private papers” and “non-stops” in the 1960s, but Holt’s exhortative message to use freeform writing in the classroom to rouse both teachers and students out of preordained roles of passive detachment remains as vitally urgent today as it was during the early days of modern education reform.  What does it mean to write freely in the classroom and how can regular freewriting exercises help students identify with teachers and vice versa? We all know that the discipline-specific constraints of formal writing assignments are indispensable to helping students meet course objectives and achieve technical proficiency in any given field of study. However, frequent low-stakes freeform writing activities—such as maintaining a course diary or journal, for example—can give students agency in their own learning process by creating a classroom that is driven by dynamically open and responsive dialogue between students and instructors. Research has continually demonstrated that there is nothing more directly beneficial to the effectiveness of instruction than reorienting students’ attitudes and perceptions of themselves as active learners. Thus an instructor in a STEM field who creatively “staggers” lectures and textbook coursework with brief freeform reaction papers can facilitate student’s acquisition of desired skills by strengthening their intellectual autonomy. Freewriting serves to transform learning and teaching from a passive to a concrete and personal experience: each lecture, each assignment, and each teacher-student interaction becomes a unique pedagogical event. Comparative studies have shown that students who are regularly encouraged to critically reflect on their own individual process of learning terms and concepts are much more likely to continue to inquisitively explore beyond the prescribed confines of the text and the classroom—precisely because they feel that they have a creative stake in plotting their own path through higher-level conceptual problems and contradictions.

Imagine a student who retains a positive, lasting impression of a course more than a decade removed from his undergraduate years—in short, what every instructor (perhaps quixotically, but no less ardently) hopes for at the start of each academic semester. In particular, what our student recalls in such a positive light is one of his former professor’s idiosyncrasies—not a harsh attendance policy, or a peculiar manner of rhetorically teasing out points of discussion, but rather a quirk of the course structure itself—viz., a “requirement” to keep a completely freeform student diary chronicling one’s experience in the course from the very first day of class through the final exam. And, what’s more, the instructor, for her part, maintained her own diary during the course and shared it with students throughout the semester, unguardedly relating her unfolding experience of teaching the course material and of learning from the students themselves. Long after the terms and concepts should have faded from his memory, this student is able to vividly recollect much of the course material just by harking back to his journal entries.

The student, I will confide, is myself. And while my ill-fated pre-med studies ended abruptly with Calculus I a year later (much to the chagrin of my parents), I can attest to the value of implementing freewriting in a STEM course as the reason why I am still able to remember much more of Introductory Biology for Science Majors than I should be able to as a liberal arts Ph.D. candidate. What does all of this suggest about freewriting? Perhaps that frequent freeform writing activities unfettered by the strictures of grades can serve as a heuristic tool that spurs critical thinking and, in turn, organically leads to retention of course material.