Writing-intensive learning – Session 1

Today I had to go to this training session for the “W” course I’m TAing, Communication 253, at SFU. I was late – waited for 3 buses at the loop for the express up Burnaby Mountain. All summer, there have been buses idling in the bay, with not a student in sight; all of a sudden, it’s “back to school” and there’s a small bus every 6 minutes. The line-up literally went back into the SkyTrain station. Incredible.

What is writing-intensive learning? Good question – and one that has been answered for me as this interesting session, led by the engaging and erudite Kathryn Alexander draws to a close. In a nutshell:

Writing to learn: learning through writing, engaging with disciplinary course content, congnitive emphasis.

Learning to write: learning specific writing skills in disciplinary contexts, improving through increased writing, skills-oriented.

Assumptions about writing and learning: Students tend to
*see writing as communication vs a tool for thinking
*see writing as recording process vs a process of finding out, figuring out what they know and think
*see writing as test of knowlege, not a tool for learning
*don’t see writing as generative e.g. a process through which new ideas are generated

In a “W” course:
1. Students use writing as a way of learning course content, are taught to write in forms and for the purposes typical of their discipline;
2. Examples of writing are used as means of instruction about typical structures, modes of reasoning, styles of address and use of technical language;
3. Students receive feedback, response to their writing based on explicit criteria directed at improving quality of their writing.
4. Revision is built into process of writing for formal assignemtns;
5. At least half course grade is based on writen work

We also discussed things you might not automatically think of, like how a “newcomer” would look at a text e.g. how to read an academic article. For example, what are the functions of the parts of a text – title, abstract, methodology, thesis. Also important, but not obvious, was setting the foci for reading e.g. what should students get from the reading, what is the relevance of the reading ot other course materials, advice on pre-reading preparation (e.g. vocabulary), setting an outcome for reading (synopsis, critical summary, margin notes etc.). Also, the technique of “demonstrated reading” was highlighted as important e.g. modelling how to read a difficult text, time required to get through it etc.

One of the hallmarks of WIL is the one-minute essay, writing that doesn’t count, so it will when it does. This is “exploratory, informal writing [that] emphasizes thinking and invites reflection” (Werder, 2002). Also called quickrites or freewriting, these one-minute essays are supposed to generate ideas and discussion, provide a chance to situate responses in the disciplinary framework of the course, and give feedback on student uptake. It also, obviously, promotes an active classroom dynamic. There are different approaches: “framed” (open ended or structured around an issue) or concept maps (visual representations).

I’ll see how all this pans out in class…

Comments are closed.