Writing and thinking are closely intertwined, and we can help students develop their ability to think within a discipline not only by assigning formal papers, but also by having them write informally, and frequently, in and out of class. These informal assignments don’t need individual responses and don’t need to be time consuming for either faculty or students, but they can provide training in specific disciplinary ways of thinking, offer room for students to explore new and difficult material, and serve as a platform for richer class discussions.
Ideas for in-class writing:
Have students write brief responses to discussion questions before the discussion begins.
While class discussion might be dominated by a few talkative students, writing forces all the students to articulate an answer for themselves. The process of articulating and documenting this response will help them engage with, and remember, their thinking process, and it allows slower students or those less sure of their wording to participate more fully in the discussion afterwards.
Have students define new terms and complex disciplinary concepts in writing, with examples.
This exercise takes only a few minutes of class time, and the ensuing discussion can help students come to a fuller understanding of the nuances of a new concept. If you collect the written definitions, you’ll be able to see what students don’t yet fully grasp, as well.
Give students a few minutes at the end of class to write a brief record of what they found significant about the material discussed in class; what insights it raised for them, and at least one question that they still have about the material. You can ask them to email the question to you after class, or you can ask them to share their questions on a class blog, or even to form a tentative answer there or to try to answer a classmate’s question. Asking students to articulate and share questions, rather than only more formal or polished responses, keeps them focused on the process of inquiry.
Ideas for informal before or after class writing:
Ask students to “flow chart” the logic of a reading, or to map its claims and reasoning.
A flowchart [link] can be a useful visual shorthand for students that helps them to break down and engage the smaller claims and logical connections of a particular reading, as well as to learn to recognize the common argument structures of readings in the field. A claims map [link] works similarly, but is more abstract because it separates the underlying logical structure of the ideas from the order in which the ideas appear in the reading.
Ask students to choose a significant (but short) passage from a reading and paraphrase it, then discuss its significance to the reading as a whole.
While paraphrase may seem simplistic, many students actually struggle to place new concepts or technical material into their own words, and when students find this difficult, it can often lead to inaccurate summary, over-reliance on sources, and even forms of plagiarism. Students need to literally “come to terms” with the material–that is, they need to be able to accurately reflect the meaning in language of their own. On a more advanced level, helping students begin to see the nuances in different paraphrases often leads them to critical insights and to begin to develop their own stance on or more formal argument with the source.
Have students write a description of their thinking process in solving a problem or interpreting results of an experiment.
When students have to narrate the steps they’ve taken in questioning, hypothesizing about, reasoning through, and solving a problem, they become more aware of the methods they’re following. We all make many intuitive leaps as we work through problems, and while these are often great sources of insight, they can also be sources of logical error, faulty assumptions, or misinterpretation. Writing a narrative of the process can help reveal those assumptions and misinterpretations, as well.