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Writing Instruction Support: Designing Writing Assignments

Using Writing to Learn

Using Writing to Learn

  • Write with students.
    Doing the exploratory writing along with students keeps the instructor informed about the tasks assigned, opens up the instructor to discovering new ideas, and sends the message that this writing is worth doing. Writing in the company of students also demystifies it and models writing as a challenging, ongoing process of meaning-making.
  • Create incentives for doing informal writing other than grades.
    Integrate exploratory writing tasks into the normal routine and ongoing projects of a class, so that the writing serves to further discussion and understanding, rather than as something separate and unrelated. For example, using a question from a previous quick write on an essay exam conveys the value of the thinking done in the exploratory piece.
  • Explain the purpose of writing to learn to students before assigning it.
    Anticipate the fact that some students will see informal writing as busy work by telling them that the purpose of this kind of writing is to think on paper, rather than to display their already carefully thought-out ideas. Advise that you will not be paying attention to organization and editing, but rather to the quality and depth of their thinking. Also, emphasize that the informal writing will give you information about which ideas to review/extend, that it's for your benefit, too.
  • Explain the writing task in terms of time or length requirements.
    Some instructors say, "Write for 2-3 minutes," while others say, " Write one full, single-spaced page of 12-point font." Even though the purpose of this kind of writing is the informal exploration of ideas, the assignment still needs to be specific and clearly outlined.
  • For extended kinds of exploratory writing, such as journals or notebooks, provide models.
    Giving students a range of models of other students' informal writing, including effective and less effective samples, demonstrates what you are looking for in a way that simple instructions alone can not.
  • Make the writing to learn "count" for evaluation purposes.
    Since the emphasis of writing to learn is on practicing thinking, instructors should avoid grading it on a regular basis. However, it should have some value in the overall grading scheme. Some instructors assign it a percentage of the overall course grade and then score selected pieces with either a check/plus/minus scale or a 5-point scale. Others require the exploratory writing as part of a larger, graded project so that it counts, but does not receive a separate grade.
  • Keep the promise implicit in writing to learn.
    Treat exploratory writing as thinking-on-paper by not responding to it as if it were formal, revised writing. Students will learn to take chances in their exploratory writing only IF we resist judgment and respond to it as thinking in progress. One effective way of honoring the purpose of exploratory writing is to refuse to read it all, and instead, to sample it, and then to respond to it orally by commenting on common patterns that you noted in the class. Or write quickie, non-judgmental responses that pose questions, note other sources, and comment on interesting ideas. Students don't need to have everything they write read, commented on thoroughly, and graded. They DO need to write to learn.

    * Adapted from "Designing Writing Assignments with Assessment in Mind," a workshop with John Bean, May 1999. 

Using Writing to Think

Using Writing as Thinking

QHQ: Question - Hypothesis -Question

Good (critical) thinking and good (clear) writing involves

  • a process of making finer and finer distinctions
  • a process of posing and answering more refined questions
  • a process of questioning and hypothesizing


1. Question
Ask students to generate-write down--a question they have about a text, a lecture or lab, a class discussion, an experiment-any kind of problematic situation.
2. Hypothesize
Ask them to continue writing (for x number of minutes/x amount of space) working to answer the question they have posed. The idea is to try out as many answers as possible and to come to some sense of a best possible answer, explaining why this hypothesis makes sense.
3. Question
Ask students to read through what they have written and then write down a new question that emerges out of what they have already written.

Repeat laps of QHQ as often as possible/appropriate.


  • Can use with a group, one writer doing the QH parts and then passing on to another writer to write the last Q. Can continue circulating around group.
  • Can make a regular part of every class session.
  • Can take as little as 2-5 minutes.
  • Can be used to record attendance.
  • Can be used for instructor response to whole class orally.
  • Can be done all quarter and entries kept as a record of learning.
  • Can be tied to a formal writing assignment/project, as a way of practicing pieces of thinking along the way to writing a formal piece.
  • Can be used without any formal writing assignment-as a way of assisting students to THINK about the ideas of a course and of giving instructors information on their teaching

    Carmen Werder, Western Washington University


Examples of Low-Stakes Writing Assignments

Click the image below to download the PDF with examples of low-stakes writing assignments.