Informal, “Low-Stakes,” Exploratory Writing Activities

Studies have shown that the best way to improve student writing is for the student to write as much as possible. If all of the writing is done in the form of high-stakes, graded assignments, this burdens the instructor and student alike with many time-consuming assignments. Particularly if the class is large, professors tend to respond by assigning less writing. Although graded assignments are necessary and valuable, it is possible to increase the amount of writing that takes place in the class in ways that are less stressful for the students and greatly improve their critical and thinking skills, and demand less of the professor’s time than high-stakes assignments do.

One of the most valuable forms of writing is exploratory, thinking-on-paper writing to discover, develop, and clarify ideas. Exploratory writing is typically unorganized and tentative, moving off in unanticipated directions as new ideas, complications, and questions strike the writer in the process of thinking and creating. Examples of exploratory writing include journals, notebooks, marginal notes in books, reading logs, diaries, daybooks, letters to colleagues, notes dashed off on pieces of paper, early drafts of essays, and “free-writing.” (Free-writing means to write without stopping and without the second-guessing, judgment, and self-criticism that can block the flow of creative thought. As such it is a valuable way to allow thoughts and ideas to flow freely, and to develop ideas.) Exploratory writing takes practice, but once mastered, it is a powerful tool for focusing the mind on a problem and stimulating thought.

Many professors assume that assigning exploratory writing takes up a lot of class time and the instructor’s personal time. This is so, however, only if the teacher feels compelled to read everything students write, which can be compared to a piano teacher who listens to tapes of students’ home practice sessions. Ideally, requiring exploratory writing should not take any of the teacher’s time because exploratory writing is writing for oneself with the intention of stimulating creativity or deepening and focusing thought. Students should do it for the same reason professional writers do – its intrinsic satisfaction. In reality, though, most students need some teacher supervision to remain motivated, and teachers need to read some of their students’ exploratory writing in order to coach their thinking processes. The trick is to read some of it, not all of it.

Examples of exploratory writing assignments

  • In-Class Writing • Perhaps the easiest way to use exploratory writing is to set aside five minutes or so during a class period for silent, uninterrupted writing in response to a thinking or learning task. Students can write at their desks at the beginning of a class period while the teacher writes on the board (perhaps an assignment or material for the day’s class), takes attendance, or prepares materials for the class (such as recordings, “smart classroom” or television presentations, etc.). Teachers who are willing to write with their students are powerful role models. Examples of such writing assignments are a review question, a question intended to synthesize materials covered, or a question intended to stimulate thought and interest in the day’s class topic. A class can also be interrupted for a brief period of in-class writing if the students run out of things to say, if the discussion gets so heated that everyone wants to talk at once, or if the material is difficult and a writing question can help the students to articulate what they have understood so far. Writing can also be used at the end of class to help the students sum up and assimilate a lecture or discussion.
  • Journals • Journals can be assigned in a variety of ways:
    • Open-Ended Journals   Students are asked to write a certain number of pages per week or a certain length of time per week about any aspect of the course. This is perhaps the most common way to assign journals. Sometimes called “learning logs,” such journals leave students free to write about the course in any number of ways. Students might choose to summarize lectures, to agree or disagree with a point made by someone in class, to raise questions that may be addressed to the professor or the class later on, to apply some aspect of the course to personal experience, to make connections between different strands of the course, to express excitement at encountering new ideas, or for any other purpose. The journal becomes a kind of record of the student’s intellectual journey through the course. The instructor could collect the journals for review periodically, once or twice a semester, or not at all.
    • Semistructured Journals   Although they give students nearly as much freedom as open-ended journals, semistructured journals provide guidance in helping student writers think of things to say. For example, a teacher might ask students to begin each entry by summarizing an important idea that they have learned since the previous entry, either from class or from reading, and then to respond to questions given by the professor. Many teachers develop their own sets of general or specific questions to guide students’ journal entries.
    • Guided Journals   In a guided journal, students respond to content-specific questions developed by the instructor. By designing tasks that require wrestling with important course material, the teacher guides students’ out-of-class study time. Teachers usually ask students to write three or four times a week for fifteen minutes each time, but give students only one or two questions per week and ask for more elaborated responses.
  • Double-Entry Notebooks • On the right-hand pages of a standard spiral notebook, students are asked to make copious lecture and reading notes on the theory that putting course material into one’s own words enhances learning. Then, on the left-hand pages, students are to create an interactive commentary on the material – posing questions, raising doubts, making connections, seeing opposing views, linking course material with personal experience, expressing confusion, and so forth.
  • Reading Journals or Reading Logs • In this type of journal, students focus specifically on course readings so that the writing helps students comprehend and respond to reading material. If the professor chooses to collect the journals periodically and review them (though not necessarily making any corrections), this can be a way to be sure that the students are doing the readings, and also gain perspectives on how students are responding to the reading assignments. Double-entry notebook format, as described above, can be used for the reading journals.
  • Informal Preparation for Research Papers • Many student research papers can be described as first drafts that involve little or no advance critical thinking and preparation and revision. Various kinds of low-stakes writing, not necessarily graded, can help students to learn the process of writing in stages:
    1. Thesis Statement Writing   (see Writing Thesis Statements). The students can be asked to write and hand in just one sentence. The trick, however, is that the sentence must be a thesis statement: a one-sentence summary of an essay’s argument. Writing a well-conceived thesis statement requires a great deal of thinking, and entails well-developed ideas that may be concentrated into a good generalization through effective use of embedded clauses.
    2. Making an outline   (see Outlining website). This can be done in more or less detail; students may be required to come up with focused ideas and supporting data to flesh out the outline. Citations may also be required, which give the professor the opportunity to respond to the research that has been done and recommend consulting other or further sources.
    3. Turning in a rough draft   The class can turn in a rough draft of a paper that the professor will not necessarily correct or grade, but can evaluate in general terms to guide the student in the revision process. This requires the students to do at least two versions of the paper, which will virtually guarantee a better result than turning in a single paper at the end of the term.

Other kinds of low-stakes writing include the use of discussion board in Blackboard, class blogs, and email networks in which a teacher poses a question through email and asks students to respond and make comments (possibly through a discussion board or blog). Another valuable type of exploratory writing is the “reflection paper” in which a student reflects on an aspect of the class or subject matter or their general response to what they are learning and what it means to them. If a student writes a reflection paper about their performance in class after giving a presentation or teaching demonstration, they might write about how they could improve and how they would change the lesson or presentation the next time they gave it.

Teachers who fear that requiring exploratory writing will increase their workloads inordinately should realize that many options are available, including some that take almost no instructor time. Examples:

  1. Uncollected in-class freewriting (no out-of-class instructor time required)
  2. Occasionally collected in-class freewriting;
  3. Journals that are uncorrected, evaluated as pass/fail, or graded minus/check/plus;
  4. Weekly thought letters (usually enjoyable to read: often interesting, and the teacher does not red-pencil them).

The evidence from both research and instructor testimony seems irrefutable: exploratory writing, focusing on the process rather than the product of thinking, deepens most students’ engagement with course material while enhancing learning and developing critical thinking. Most teachers who try exploratory writing in their courses testify that they would never go back to their old way of teaching. The payoff of exploratory writing and low-stakes assignments is students’ enhanced preparation for class, richer class discussions, and better final-product writing. From in-class freewrites to reflective thought letters to systematic journals, exploratory writing can help most students become more active and engaged learners. Today, most students are familiar with exploratory writing as a way of learning, having been taught about freewriting or idea mapping in their high school or college writing classes. Many have kept journals, learning logs, or written blogs for courses outside of English. However, since teachers have a wide range of expectations about exploratory writing and have different goals for incorporating it into their courses, it is a good idea to explain to students what you expect when you assign exploratory writing.

  • Source: John C. Bean, Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001), Chapter 6.
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