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Informal exploratory writing: three activities you can try with your students

Studies have shown there is a strong correlation between the amount of writing a learner completes and their attainment (Arum and Roksa, 2011). John Bean, in his book ‘Engaging Ideas’ (2011), outlines a number of methods to increase the amount of informal writing your students undertake. He groups these under the theme of ‘thinking pieces’, and he highlights a number of benefits. He believes thinking pieces:

  • Promote critical thinking.
  • Change the way students approach reading – with an increase in writing down their thoughts it forces them to consider alternative and opposite arguments to the piece they are reading.
  • Produce higher levels of class preparation and richer discussions in class. Similar to the point above, if informal exploratory writing is done at the point of reading, students are more prepared with arguments and counter-points in discussion classes.
  • Are enjoyable to read, and make a nice change for markers from the normality of essays
  • Help to get to know your students better as you can see how their arguments are formed and where their beliefs lie.
  • Help assess learning problems along the way. Like any increase in formative work, the teacher can see any gaps in learning at an earlier point and assess whether this is the case for others in the cohort.

Bean describes 22 different exploratory writing tasks, which you can find in his ‘Engaging Ideas’ book; we have selected three to share in this blog.

Bio-poems

This task is easier to apply to some disciplines rather than others (philosophers, historians and politicians come to mind first) and is designed to make students think about the personal dimensions of a subject being studied in a course. A bio-poem is semi-structured and goes as follows:

  • Line 1: First name of the character
  • Line 2: Four traits that describe the character
  • Line 3: Relative of (brother of, sister of, etc)
  • Line 4: Lover of (list three things or people)
  • Line 5: Who feels (three items)
  • Line 6: Who needs (three items)
  • Line 7: Who fears (three items)
  • Line 8: Who gives (three items)
  • Line 9: Who would like to (three items)
  • Line 10: Resident of
  • Line 11: Last name

(Gere, 1985:222)

Not only does this make the subject more human and therefore more memorable, but it also provides a great revision tool when it comes to exams. If this is done as a task before the class, each person’s poem can be discussed to see differences they have found in their perception of the subject.

Writing dialogues between two different theorists/ arguments

This task asks students to write an ‘meeting of the minds’ piece (Bean, 2011:136), where they conjure a script between two theorists arguing different sides (e.g. Hobbes and Locke arguing over the responsibility in a state). This encourages the students to truly consider each side of the argument and also prepares them for discussion in class. This can be done as an individual task or in small groups, and suits many disciplines.

Writing during class to ask questions or express concerns.

Less creative than our other two suggestions, this piece asks students to ‘freewrite’ during a break in the class. You could ask students to summarise the lecture so far, or write down any puzzlements or questions they have. At the end of the freewriting time (which should be a maximum of five minutes), ask a couple of students to feedback. Not only do student practice writing, but it also means you can get real time feedback and allows students to ask questions part way through the lecture.

References

Bean, J., 2011. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking and Active Learning in the Classroom. Jossey Bass, United States of America.

Gere, A. R. (ed.), 1985. Roots in the Sawdust: Writing to Learn Across the Disciplines. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English.

Arum, R. and Roksa, J., 2011. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

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