It is important for the university through its instructors, particularly
in introductory courses, to teach its students to critically examine their
view of the world. Students frequently hold views different from or alternative
to those to which they will be exposed in their courses. This discovery
about students has roots in Piaget’s early studies of the way children
explain natural phenomena (1929). Moreover, as Pintrich, Marx and Boyle
(1993) point out, the modern theory of conceptual change assumes that
bringing about changes in an individual student is analogous to the nature
of change in scientific paradigms proposed by philosophers of science,
particularly Kuhn and Lakatos. A good discussion of this idea is found
in Duschl and Gitomer (1991).
With these theoretical underpinnings, conceptual change models have
become the norm for research on learning in physical and social science
and mathematics. Thus, for example, in the in-depth analyses of student
attitudes in physics undertaken by Halloun and Hestenes (1985a, 1985b)
it is shown that students enter introductory courses with viewpoints differing
significantly from paradigms that will be taught them; and, as they progress
through the courses, these same students go to great lengths to maintain
their original viewpoints. What is required is for students to understand
the conceptual framework underlying the course. Helping students to do
this involves initiating a growth process which can easily span the entire
How do we produce conceptual change? These sorts of insights are arrived
at in a learning environment that encourages an interplay of learning
models: “In order for reflection to occur, the oral and written
forms of language must pass back and forth between persons who both speak
and listen or read and write-sharing, expanding and reflecting on each
other’s experiences” (Belenkey, 1986). Writing to learn, with
its emphasis on free writing and peer feedback, can be a large part of
our technique in teaching our students these vital conceptual skills.
As James Britton frames the problem: “In every kind of writing,
defining the nature of the operation, devising ways of tackling it, and
explaining its meaning and implication to oneself are essential stages
that the mind engages” (Britton, Burgess, Martin, McLeod, &
Rosen, 1975 p. 90).
Writing in courses allows students to mediate their own “knowledge”
with the new knowledge which the course presents to them. Writing to learn
and learning to write allows exploration of the student’s own doubts,
gaps in knowledge, and gropings for the answer. Prewriting, drafting,
and rewriting are integral to any successful piece of writing; what is
so often not taken into account is that we never can “get it right”
the first time that we put pen to paper.
The Process of Writing.
Peter Elbow (1973) explains the process in this way: “Just write
and keep writing…It will probably come in waves. After a flurry,
stop and take a brief rest. But don’t stop too long. Don’t
think about what you are writing or what you have written or else you
will overload the circuit again” (p. 61).
As Elbow demonstrates, writing is a recursive process, one that goes
backward and forward and backward again, from jotting down initial conceptions
to drafting the work to generating new ideas and new formats. When students
are writing within their discipline, opportunities to discuss work with
instructors and peers, and occasions to re-evaluate and rewrite their
initial work are crucial to the success of the project and to the development
of students’ sense of themselves as both writers and members of
their disciplinary communities. In many ways, this parallels the process
of reflection in which a writer engages when confronted with the referees’
comments on an article submitted for publication.
Elbow rejects the notion that a writer must move from the beginning
of a piece of writing to the end in a linear fashion. Instead, he looks
at writing as holistic. One goes through successive drafts of a piece
of writing, moving from an imprecise picture through progressively complex,
lucid, unified, and coherent interpretations. Out of the interaction of
the various components of the piece, the student achieves a convincing
piece of work (pp. 29–30).
The student is looking, throughout this process of writing, for the unfolding
of a focus or a theme. The student reaches for that point at which chaos
gives way to a centred focus: “What this means in practice is that
in a piece of writing you must force yourself to keep getting some center
of gravity or summing-up to occur. Let the early ones be terrible. They
will distort your material by exaggerating some aspects and ignoring others”
(Elbow, 1973, p. 36).
Adapting Writing to Learn.
Writing to learn, a technique which is not new and has proven adaptable
to different learning styles and situations, is adaptable to all disciplines.
It is a method that ensures students’ awareness of the concepts
underlying the topics being discussed and discourages the viewing of material
as an agglomeration of disembodied facts and formulae to be learned.
Before the class students freewrite in their journals about material
in order to be able to analyze it not only by developing questions, but
also by answering these questions before the class. They might be asked
to analyze a text covered in class, to connect it to other reading they
have done and to their own experience, and to formulate a possible general
statement from these writings. Students can also produce a presummary
of the material to be covered in the next class, based on the ideas they
develop in their reading of course material and their freewriting as well
as write a postsummary based on the concepts they have come to understand
after the week’s classes. In smaller, higher level courses, the
full recursive and interactive approach to writing can be employed by
means of a course dossier in which students develop an overview of the
course with the assistance of two student reviewers. They can address
such questions as what the main concepts of this course are, how they
fit together, and what the implications of these concepts are for the
development of the general principles of the discipline? (For more details
see Kalman and Kalman, 1996.)
Exciting as the idea of writing to learn may be, one of the concerns
expressed by teachers in all faculties is the need for a balance between
our desire to enhance teaching effectiveness by using techniques other
than the lecture and our responsibility to cover obligatory course material.
Yet writing to learn activities can be incorporated within the course
structure without losing a significant amount of teaching time. As little
as ten minutes of class time on a regular basis will add significantly
to the students’ ability to assimilate and think critically about
the concepts introduced in class. Some writing can be incorporated into
the course in the form of outside assignments, such as journals.
By expending some time in writing to learn techniques both inside and
outside the classroom, we actually save time. The interval spent answering
students’ questions will be more meaningful as the students write
their way into a more sophisticated understanding of the course material.
Writing will often avert the “dead space” of fear, those times
when students’ anxiety blocks their ability to think in an exam
situation, to produce a reasoned and competently written paper, or to
solve problems efficiently and creatively. Writing to learn reduces the
paralysis of apprehension and leads students into the discovery of their
own questions and solutions.
With this technique we can circumvent the attempt by students to regurgitate
lecture material and can discourage them from simply manipulating the
prevailing models and formulae of their disciplines. It enables students
to achieve necessary critical thinking skills as well. With writing to
learn, students can write their way into an understanding of difficult
concepts which they have not grasped before.
Britton, J., Burgess, T., Martin, N., McLeod, A., & Rosen, H. (1975).
Development of writing abilities [11–18]. London: McMillan.
Belenkey, M. F., Clinchy, B. M., Golberger, L. R, & Tarule, J.
M. (1986). Women’s ways of knowing: The development of self,
voice and mind. New York: Basic Books.
Duschl, R. A., & Gitomer, D. H. (1991). Epistemological perspectives
on conceptual change: Implications for educational practice. Journal
of Research in Science Teaching, 28, pp. 839–858.
Elbow, P. (1973). Writing without teachers. Oxford: Oxford
Halloun, I. A., & Hestenes, D. (1985a). The initial knowledge state
of college physics students. American Journal of Physics, 53, pp. 1043–1055.
Halloun, I. A., & Hestenes, D. (1985b). “Common sense concepts
about motion.” American Journal of Physics, 53, pp. 1043–1055.
Kalman, J., & Kalman, C. (1996). Writing to learn. American
Journal of Physics, 64, pp. 954–955.
Piaget, J. (1929). The child’s conception of the world. New
York: Harcourt Brace.
Pintrich, P. R., Marx, R. W., & Boyle, R. A. (1973). Beyond cold
conceptual change: The role of motivational beliefs and classroom contextual
factors in the process of conceptual change. Review of Educational
Research, 63, pp. 167–199.
Judith Kalman is an instructor in Composition
at Concordia University in Montreal. Calvin S. Kalman is Professor in
the Department of Physics and a member of the Center for the Study of
Classroom Processes at Concordia University in Montreal.
This article is reproduced with permission from Teaching
Excellence, a member service of the Professional and Organizational Development
Network in Higher Education.