Writing to Learn: From WAC Principle to Life Practice

As anyone who has spent much time around the Writing Across the Curriculum program is well aware, those working in WAC have a near religious devotion to the inclusion of low-stakes informal writing assignments in every curriculum. These exploratory writing exercises which we call “writing to learn” include activities such as journaling, free-writing, and reflective in-class writing. Following WAC philosophy, “Writing to Learn” helps develop the students’ critical thinking skills and fosters a deeper engagement in thought surrounding the course content.[1] While writing to learn has proven to be a very successful tool in the classroom, its benefits carry over into non-academic settings.

I recently took a graduate level course taught by a former WAC fellow. One of the requirements for the course was to join the website 750words.com and develop a daily writing habit by writing at least 750 words five days out of the week. There were no guidelines beyond the simple stipulation- 750 words, 5 days a week. We were required to generate a monthly report through the site which stated the days on which we wrote and the word count for each day. The words themselves remained private.

I admit, I was resistant to the idea at first. What could I possible have to say that would take up 750 words everyday; however, it didn’t matter what I was writing—it only mattered that I wrote. So I began. On some days I was inspired by the course reading for one of the classes that I was taking and I used my time and 750 words developing my thoughts on the readings. Some days I developed research problems; or thought through other course material that I was struggling with. But some days I was stuck. There were days that I didn’t want to write, days that I could barely get out of bed. But I forced myself to sit down in front of the computer. On these days I wrote about not wanting to write. I wrote about the barrage of personal problems that blocked me from wanting to get work done. Often I would pose a question to myself and write until I was able to answer my question.

Over the course of the semester, I found that the days I began with my freewriting were vastly more productive than those which didn’t begin with writing. The morning writing helped me jump-start my brain in the morning, work through problems that I was having, and organize my day. It allowed me to get all the mental junk out of the way so that I could focus on the day’s tasks with more focus and clarity. By the end of the semester I had been converted and to this day continue to use writing as a way to start my productive days and to work through problems.

As we encourage students to utilize various writing techniques and tools in our classrooms, it can be helpful to point out that these exercises are not merely classroom tricks or ways to take up their time. Writing is an integral part of thinking and organizing. We should help our students see that a writing practice can extend beyond the educational setting and help them live fuller and more


[1] For more information on the philosophy behind “writing to learn”, as well as example activities, see John Bean’s Engaging Ideas chapters 2 and 7.

The Pedagogical Value of Failure

Failure and rejection are nothing new to academics. We are constantly pushed to re-assess our research and our teaching to determine what did not work and how we might change our approach to do better the next time. But it’s easy to forget this, in part because of the value that our meritocratic society places on success and the shame often associated with failure. “Failure is not an option” is a phrase that should be taken figuratively as a motivator, not literally as a deterrent. Yet many, in academia and beyond, see failure as a deterring force.

This is part of the reason why I was glad to see so many colleagues sharing this article from last week’s Washington Post. Ignore for a moment the headline, which was likely written to get clicks and not by the author, and its Schadenfreude-laced implication that it “feels good” to read about a successful person’s failures.  And while there are huge problems with this sort of article specifically because, as a tenure-track professor at a school like Princeton the author is more secure in airing his failures than would be an adjunct professor scratching to get by, that is not the subject of this post.

The real value in this article, I believe, is that it reminds us that failure is an integral part of the academic process. We are asked to “revise and resubmit” our articles for peer-reviewed journals, we apply for dozens of grants, we apply for dozens of jobs when on the job market. If we’re lucky, we get one of those grants, one of those jobs, that article eventually gets accepted and published. But it’s only through the sometimes painful act of failing that we make our writing better, that our grant proposals become clearer, that we get better at interviewing and writing cover letters.

Which brings me to teaching. At WAC, we encourage faculty to scaffold their assignments, to make assignment prompts clear, to institute peer review, to assign more low-stakes writing, to comment less but with more thought on papers, to integrate active learning activities into the classroom. But what happens when the students’ work doesn’t improve? What happens when we have all these new structures in place but students fail to listen, to pay attention, to turn in those low-stakes assignments? What then?

In short, what do we do when our WAC pedagogy fails?

Recently, I heard an NPR story about grit, the buzzwordy idea that passion and perseverance are needed to attain your goals. Passion does not just mean excitement, it means “continuing engagement with a pursuit.” And perseverance, of course, means sticking with it, even when met with initial failure.

So be passionate about writing pedagogy. We know that it works, we have the research to support this. As teachers, we should continue to think about and foster the writing tools that we have developed. We should understand that the more we try to refine our assignments, the better off our students will be, and the better their writing will be (which, in turn, will make our lives easier come grading time). We should engage with the literature out there: find out if your field has a pedagogy journal (most do, either in print or online), and peruse journals on writing pedagogy such as College Composition and Communication or the WAC Journal.

And persevere. As the end of the semester approaches, consider doing some free-writing yourself about the effectiveness of your assignments this semester. What had the best results? What had the worst results?  Why do you think you got the results that you did? Moving forward, tweak your assignments. See the places where your students got tripped up and try to address them at the root of the problem — in the assignment itself, in the structure of the syllabus. Did peer review fail? Perhaps it is an issue with the structure of the peer review, rather than the process itself. Did students fail to hand in scaffolded segments of an assignment on time? Consider incentivizing the work in a different way, or framing the importance of these assignments differently.

To borrow another motivational phrase from the world of sports, “never give up.” Don’t be afraid to fail, embrace it, and use it to improve and ultimately succeed.

Midterm Reflection and Low-stakes Writing

With midterms over, or nearly over, and spring break on the horizon, many of us are taking stock of student performance. In a perfect world we would all look at our grade books or spreadsheets and see that all of our students were right on track. In reality, this is a time when some are left wondering, why are midterm scores are lower than expected? That gap between expectation and performance is an important one to explore, and one of the ways to do so is through low-stakes writing.

Self-assessment has a long history in higher education. Scholars, like the prolific David Boud, and journals, such as Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, have been devoted to the topic since the 1970s. Studies on and strategies for student self-assessment abound, and the above links provide a starting point for those who are interested in exploring the topic. One WAC-friendly approach is low-stakes writing. Low-stakes writing is short, reflective writing. It is also writing that is ungraded or graded simply, using something like a check system or a limited point scale (a five-point scale is common), so that is doesn’t feel like a burden to students or to instructors.

There are a number of ways that you might structure low-stakes midterm self-evaluations. They can be take-home, in-class, or online. They can focus on the midterm exam or assignment, or consider the course up to the point of writing. In any case, prompts should encourage students to think about themselves as learners and set both you and your students up to be more effective in the coming weeks of the semester. Low-stakes writing suggestions include questions about the midterm:

Was the format of the midterm what you expected? What about the content? Was there anything about the midterm that surprised you?

Course content:

  • Are there any concepts that you still do not understand at this point of semester? What areas of course content do you feel particularly strong in? What areas do you need to work on?

Personal performance:

  • Did the grade you received on the midterm match your expectations? Do you know where you stand, grade-wise, in this class? Are you content with your grade thus far? Do you know what you need to do if you want your grade to improve?

Study habits:

  • How do you prepare for class meetings, generally? How did you prepare for the midterm? Is there anything that you would change about your study habits?

No matter what you ask, low-stakes writing assignments like these can be a great way to facilitate communication between you and your students.

A different approach to low-stakes writing is suggested by an article on student anxiety over exams, published in Science in 2011 (Science is available through a number of different databases at City Tech’s library). In “Writing About Testing Worries Boosts Exam Performance in the Classroom” Gerardo Ramirez and Sian L. Beilock discuss two laboratory studies and two randomized field experiments that support the hypothesis that writing about text anxiety can help alleviate its impact on performance. The studies show that students facing high-pressure exam situations, which midterms and finals certainly can be, may perform better if they have the opportunity to write about their concerns pre-exam. This is because, as Ramirez and Beilock explain, performance anxieties disrupt the ability of the working memory to focus on the task at hand. They discovered that getting some of the negative thoughts out in writing before an exam allowed those who suffered from high test anxiety to perform as well as those who did not.

While it may be too late to try this kind of low-stakes writing for the midterm exam, there are still ways to incorporate the insights from this article. You could devote ten minutes to writing-the-fear-away before the final exam. But you don’t have to wait until May to use Ramirez and Beilock’s advice. Their idea to try writing to lower test anxiety was based on the idea of therapeutic writing, which is used over a span of time to help manage negative thoughts and feelings. A classroom application of this concept might be to periodically give students free-writing time to write out all of their concerns related to the class. (If you are concerned about student privacy, these could be uncollected assignments that are graded on the basis of time on-task.) Allowing students to get out all of the “I got a bad grade on the midterm and now I’m afraid I’ll flunk the class” and “I didn’t come to class a lot at the beginning of the semester and now I think the professor doesn’t like me” thoughts might take some of the air out of them. It might even get students thinking about ways to counter them with positive action like developing a study plan or making an appointment to meet with you during office hours.

Low-stakes writing, whatever form it takes, can find a place in any discipline, any classroom. As you look toward the second part of the semester, consider if there are ways that you can use low-stakes writing to meet your course goals. You get further information here or by contacting a WAC fellow.