Writing = Active Learning

John C. Bean
John C. Bean

I’ve been reading Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom, by John C. Bean (2nd edition, 2011). I wish someone had given me this book while I was in graduate school. Here are a few of the many useful pieces of information that it contains:

  • Data indicates that student engagement in a course correlates to the amount of writing assigned in it. More writing, more engagement.
  • Content coverage vs. writing skills training is a false dichotomy. Students learn better if they think about content in ways other than rote memorization, and writing is a cognitively more demanding form of thinking. When writing, students use important disciplinary concepts while simultaneously practicing methods of inquiry and argumentation (p. 90).
  • More writing does not necessarily lead to more time grading for the instructor. If writing assignments are properly designed then grading time can actually decrease.
  • The end-of-semester research paper is wasted effort except for highly-skilled, upper-level undergraduates who are already familiar with disciplinary conventions (p. 91).
  • Effective writing assignments present students with a contextualized problem — a task — that immediately gives them a role to fulfill, an audience to communicate with, and a format to follow (p. 98).

My one criticism of the book is that it presents critical thinking the way that most academics do — as a single skill. In the book, critical thinking is (so far) not clearly defined or operationalized, perhaps because what academics often refer to as critical thinking is actually a whole set of cognitive processes, some of which are easier to develop than others.