University of Wisconsin–Madison

In-Class Writing

From John Bean’s Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2011), 131-133

Perhaps the easiest way to use exploratory writing is to set aside five minutes or so during a class period for silent, uninterrupted writing in response to a thinking or learning task. Students can write at their desks while the teacher writes at the chalkboard, on an overhead transparency, or in a notebook. (Teachers who are willing to write with their students are powerful role models.) Here are four suggestions for using in-class writing.

  1. Writing at the Beginning of Class to Probe a Subject

Give students a question that reviews previous material or stimulates interest in what’s coming. Review tasks can be open-ended and exploratory (“What questions do you want to ask about last night’s readings?”) or precise and specific (“What does it mean when we say that a certain market is ‘efficient’?”). Or use a question to prime the pump for the day’s discussion (“How does Plato’s allegory of the cave make you look at knowledge in a new way?”). In-class writing gives students a chance to gather and focus their thoughts and, when shared, gives the teacher an opportunity to see students’ thinking processes. Teachers can ask one or two students to read their responses, or they can collect a random sampling of responses to read after class. Since students are always eager to hear what the teacher has written, you might occasionally share your own in-class writing.

  1. Writing During Class to Refocus a Lagging Discussion or Cool Off a Heated One

When students run out of things to say or when the discussion gets so heated that everyone wants to talk at once, suspend the discussion and ask for several minutes of writing.

  1. Writing During Class to Ask Questions or Express Confusion

When lecturing on tough material, stop for a few minutes and ask students to respond to a writing prompt like this: “If you have understood my lecture so far, summarize my main points in your own words. If you are currently confused about something, please explain to me what is puzzling you; ask me the questions you need answered.” You will find it an illuminating check on your teaching to collect a representative sample of responses to see how well students are understanding your presentations.

  1. Writing at the End of Class to Sum Up a Lecture or Discussion

Give students several minutes at the end of class to sum up the day’s lecture or discussion and to prepare questions to ask at the beginning of the next class period. (Some teachers take roll by having students write out a question during the last two minutes of class and submit it on a signed slip of paper.) A popular version of this strategy is the “minute paper” as reported by Angelo and Cross (Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers, 1993, pp. 148-153). At the end of class, the professor asks two questions: (1) “What is the most significant thing you learned today?” and (2) “What question is uppermost in your mind at the conclusion of this class session?” In another variation, the professor asks, “What is the muddiest point in the material I have just covered?” (Tobias, “Writing to Learn Science and Mathematics” in Connolly and Vilardi [eds.] Writing to Learn Mathematics and Science, 1989, pp. 53-54).