Writing for learning

Effective learning often takes place in environments that are ‘language-rich’; in which, for example, there is plenty of interaction between people and plenty of interaction and translation, too, between types of language – written, spoken, visual… In such environments writing often functions as more than a finished product or end point in learning; it becomes part of on-going conversations in which meanings are made and transacted.

Conversations with oneself: Using writing, for example, to look at something and then go back and look at it again, whether that’s a landscape on a geography field trip or a concept you encountered at the beginning of a course and now might understand differently. Included here could be forms of  journal writing where the student articulates ideas, knowledge, experience, feelings related to study in order to make sense of them; short in-class or homework tasks designed to engage the learner with concepts, processes etc. and to consolidate learning through application, synthesis and rehearsal. 

Conversations with one’s peers:  Writing collaboratively,  or sharing writing through peer review and assessment, editing  someone else’s writing  for a new purpose, collaborative exploration of issues and generating questions through electronic forums.
Conversations with larger and other communities: Understanding, for example, published work not as definitive but as contributing to bigger disciplinary discussions and debates, finding ways to get sources to speak to each other, finding ways to engage with other audiences, using writing to get work done, e.g. to win funding, make recommendations
Thinking about the potential for writing in these three ways can provide a useful framework for thinking about what might be achieved through engaging students in writing, how this might be achieved, and at what stages of their learning. They invite consideration not just of the cognitive and content goals of a learning experience, but also of  how it might contribute to the social and individual development of students, including their understanding of:
  • themselves as learners and communicators,
  • the academic conventions and epistemologies they are working within
  • how these relate to ‘real world’, employment or professional practices
  • the possibilities they have for negotiation and critique.
For a more detailed look at how to do this, read Rethinking a writing task.