March 12, 2015

Writing to Learn in the Science Classroom

by Heather Falconer

Education in the United States, particularly in the K through 12 arena, has been a hotbed of public debate in the last decade, heating up more recently in controversies surrounding Common Core. While few would argue that critical thinking skills need to be a focus in education, how one goes about teaching critical thinking has as many answers as a porcupine has quills. What does it mean to “think critically”? Do we have to stop teaching content in order to teach process? What role does interdisciplinary methodology play?

For nearly half a century, the Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) movement has been showing just how effective interdisciplinary methodology can be. By employing writing activities within the classroom, students are made aware of the multitude ways in which writing is used in their lives – both within and outside of their education.  As Lee Odell has articulated, “writing can help both students and teachers better understand the ways of knowing that are important in a particular academic context.”[1] It is both a means of articulating existing ideas and a “process of formulating those ideas, constructing meaning, discovering what one wishes to say.” This process of discovery is “guided, in part, by the ways of knowing – thinking strategies that can be made conscious and can influence a writer’s (or reader’s) reflection on the subject matter at hand.”

One of our crucial roles as educators is that we teach our students how to make meaning in the world. Not just in their discipline, but in everyday situations. Too many students approach learning as a practice of memorization, not application, which means that they do not always know how to learn autonomously. This is true both in terms of motivation – learning information or writing to satisfy a teacher or requirement instead of learning for knowledge’s sake – as well as in practical actions (e.g. where to find appropriate resources to learn about a subject that interests them). This contributes to misconceptions regarding the creation of knowledge, particularly in empirical fields.

Writing-to-learn (WTL) activities can greatly enhance student learning and do not have to take up much classroom time, any grading time, or detract from content. In fact, as has been shown in numerous studies, WTL activities increase content knowledge retention and application. Utilizing WTL activities can also help build metacognitive awareness in students by helping them realize how they approach problem solving and reasoning.

But what does it look like? Drawing on some of the resources listed at the end of this post, here are some example WTL activities:

  • Microthemes: A very effective tool for use in a STEM classroom is the microtheme. These tend to be short writing assignments (500 words or less) that students can do either in class or as a short homework assignment. Some microtheme examples include: asking students to write a 200 word synopsis of a journal article; providing students with a contradictory proposition (e.g. “Random diversification (is/is not) more reliable than selective diversification”) and having them choose an angle and defend it; or providing students with a dataset and asking them to uncover a thesis or general statement that gives meaning to the data.[2]
  • Five-Minute-Essays: Set aside the last 5 minutes of your class period for students to freewrite (write without stopping) on what they have learned in class that day and what questions and concerns they still have. Collect the responses and review them before the next class so that any misconceptions and questions can be addressed first-thing.
  • Dialogic Journals: Ask student to keep a journal (that is ungraded) in which they interact with the material they are learning in class. This includes writing questions and thoughts as they read, applying concepts to their own lives, and/or responding to a prompt that the instructor provides.
  • Poems: This is for the daring educators. Asking students to write a creative piece, like a poem, on the subject matter you are teaching can yield quite interesting results!

The examples above are just a tiny sampling of the activities that instructors from many different disciplines have created and implemented in their classrooms. If you are interested in learning more about WTL, or writing in the disciplines, the resources listed below are a great place to begin:

Bean, John. Engaging Ideas, 2nd ed. Jossey Bass, 2011.

Connolly and Vilardi, eds. Writing to Learn in Mathematics and Science. Teachers College Press, 1989.

Herrington and Moran, eds. Genre Across the Curriculum. Utah State UP, 2005.

Melzer, Dan. Assignments Across the Curriculum. Utah State UP, 2014.

Ruggles, A. (Ed.). Roots in the Sawdust: Writing to Learn Across the Disciplines. WAC Clearinghouse Landmark Publications in Writing Studies, 2012: Originally Published in Print, 1985, by National Council of Teachers of English, Urbana, Illinois.

Russell, David R. Writing in the academic disciplines, 1870-1990: A curricular history, 2nd ed.. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002.

Soliday, M. Everyday Genres: Writing Assignments Across the Disciplines. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2011.

Sorcinelli, M. D. and P. Elbow. Writing to learn: strategies for assigning and responding to writing across the disciplines. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass, 1997.

Zawacki  and Rogers, eds. Writing Across the Curriculum: A Critical Sourcebook. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012.


[1] Odell, Lee. “Context-specific Ways of Knowing and the Evaluation of Writing.” Writing, Teaching, and Learning in the Disciplines. Eds. A.Herrington and C. Moran. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1992: 81.

[2] Bean, John C., Dean Drenkk, and F.D. Lee. “Microtheme Strategies for Developing Congnitive Skills.” Writing Assignments Across the Curriculum. Eds. T. M. Zawacki and P. M. Rogers. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012.

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Written by

Heather Falconer holds undergraduate degrees in Graphic Arts and Environmental Science, as well as an MFA in Writing and an MLitt in Literature. She is currently completing her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition, with an emphasis on rhetoric in/and/of science. Heather has worked internationally in academic publishing as both an author and editor, and has taught a wide range of topics – from research writing to marine biology – in the public and private educational sectors.

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