by MK Keran, Assistant Director of Writing Across the Curriculum
Brainstorming for writing assignments is the practice of generating ideas in a low-stakes environment, often to inform areas for further consideration, larger learning goals, and future projects. When educators ask students to brainstorm, they encourage students to defer self-judgment and freely share ideas that come to mind, which promotes problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity.
Instructors can use various brainstorming tools in their classes, including freewriting, idea mapping, storyboarding, observing, and collaborative thinking. Setting aside class time for brainstorming activities emphasizes writing as a process and encourages students to think critically about assignment topics even before the start of the drafting process. Giving students time to brainstorm during class also gives instructors the opportunity to address student questions about the prompt, potential topics, required research, and final structure.
One common tool for brainstorming is freewriting, which is writing in a “stream of consciousness,” or jotting down everything that comes to mind without stopping to revise or erase.
For an example, consider how Holly Berkowitz, a Teaching Assistant and Primary Instructor from the Interdisciplinary Theater Studies Program, uses freewriting paired with peer-to-peer conversation in her Introduction to Theatre and Drama section. She assigns a freewriting activity to help students generate ideas about a play they have just read and to inform an in-class writing assignment. She gives students time in class to write down any thoughts that come to mind. Following the freewrite, students share their work with a peer, who circles potential topics for a larger paper. Berkowitz says she finds incorporating brainstorming activities into classes important because it “allows for ideas to be discussed, changed, … and [it] sort of decouples the act of thinking about your topic from the act of writing your paper.” Berkowitz shares that having low-stakes check-ins with classmates sets “the expectation that not only writing but also thinking can be a collaborative act, which is a useful primer for more intensive peer review activities.”
Like free writing, idea mapping (sometimes called mind mapping) asks students to quickly put on paper ideas connected to a specific topic or set of questions. While freewriting typically involves writing sentences and paragraphs in a stream-of-consciousness style, idea mapping asks students to visually demonstrate relationships among various concepts by identifying keywords, drawing images, and/or connecting words and images with lines, arrows, and circles. Students can generate idea maps individually on a piece of paper, together on a whiteboard or blackboard, or online. Idea mapping helps students organize their thinking on a topic, and also allows them to get more detailed and specific as they generate language related to a question or thesis.
For visual assignments—such as presentations, videos, posters, websites, infographics, or other digital texts—storyboarding can help students graphically and visually organize their ideas. Storyboarding involves sketching a sequence of the images, text, and/or audio that will appear in a piece. This is a practice commonly used by screenwriters, graphic designers, comics creators, and other visual storytellers to record ideas and plan bigger projects. In a classroom setting, storyboarding can offer students a low-stakes way to visualize and get started on larger projects. Instructors might ask students to storyboard, or sketch out, potential information and layouts for a research poster or a class presentation to encourage students to brainstorm both content and form.
Brainstorming can include practices other than writing and drawing in a classroom setting. Observing something and writing about it can help students think outside of the box and give students new experiences.
Sarah Olson, a Teaching Assistant and Primary Instructor in English Literary Studies, uses an observation brainstorming field trip in her English 100 (First-Year Composition) course to support a larger writing assignment. Olson schedules a day for her students to visit the Chazen Art Museum on campus and provides “hand-outs that ask students to find pieces of art that evoke various reactions from them” and write about them. From this observation, students create a narrative based on one of the artworks they observed. Oslon says she appreciates “the way that brainstorming helps create breakthroughs,” and she hopes that by creating both highly-structured and unstructured brainstorming exercises, “students keep asking questions or free-writing responses until they strike at something that’s interesting or until they see an unexpected connection between the things that they’re writing down.”
Collaborative brainstorming can help students engage with each other, with course material, and with ideas in new ways. In addition to observation brainstorming, Olson uses a structured collaborative brainstorming assignment in her classes. She asks students to freewrite a list of potential research topics based on a given assignment prompt and then has students pass their topic lists around the room for classmates to add follow-up questions and thoughts to the brainstorming sheets. Olson says, “I think a successful brainstorming activity encourages students to keep writing and compiling ideas and thoughts without judgment.” In Olson’s group brainstorming activity, students can write and compile these ideas through peer collaboration.
Oslon points out that, in any brainstorming activity, a debriefing activity afterwards can “help students see what they accomplished in their freewriting or accumulation of ideas,” and to see ways in which they can apply their developed brainstorming skills to different contexts.
Brainstorm about Brainstorming in Your Classroom
In addition to freewriting and sharing, idea mapping, storyboarding, observing, and collaborative thinking, students can browse the library stacks, search databases, talk with friends and family outside of class, journal, doodle, record voice memos, explore topics from the perspective of a different discipline, and employ many other strategies to brainstorm. Essentially, brainstorming is a set of idea exploration skills that activate new thoughts for students and new perspectives to classrooms.
When instructors set aside class time for brainstorming activities they are encouraging students to engage critically with the course material and with the writing process.