How to Use Writing in Your Classes to Improve Student Learning

How to Use Writing in Your Classes to Improve Student Learning

1. Frequent writing in courses has been shown to improve content retention, critical analysis, literacy, and, not surprisingly, writing outcomes.

Study after study confirms that students who process course material through writing retain that information longer, improve critical thinking skills, and become more nuanced readers and writers. The more writing done in a course, the more the student engages with the material in the course. In a now-classic study by Richard Light published in 2001, he concluded, “The relationship between the amount of writing for a course and students’ level of engagement — whether engagement is measured by time spent on the course, or the intellectual challenge it presents, or students’ level of interest in it — is stronger than the relationship between students’ engagement and any other course characteristic.” A study by instructors of biology at several state universities that compared critical thinking performance of students writing up laboratory results versus those that took traditional quizzes found that analysis, inference, and evaluation skills increased significantly in the writing group, but not in the non-writing group.

If you want your students to meaningfully process what you are teaching, there is no better way than to assign writing prompts that ask them to read assigned materials carefully, find information that will help them think through ideas, and then write about what they have learned or what they think about a particular topic. The results of such assignments need not be perfectly polished papers, or even long assignments; such short writing assignments are the stuff of learning itself. 

2. Instructors typically think they must be English instructors to assign and assess writing, or that teaching writing will come at the expense of teaching content. Neither is true.

In his fifteen-year study of what the best college professors do, Ken Bain (2004) shows that highly effective teachers confront students with “intriguing, beautiful, or important problems, authentic tasks that will challenge them to grapple with ideas, rethink their assumptions, and examine their mental models of reality.” Writing is a process of doing critical thinking and a product that communicates the results of critical thinking. 

The primary function of writing to learn is to order and represent the content of the learning experience to one’s own understanding. As this page will emphasize, using writing to teach criminal justice topics is not the same thing as teaching grammar or syntax. Think of your course as “using” writing, not teaching it. Students will improve their writing skills in various ways, but primarily from practice reading and writing. The more you ask them to do, the better they will become.

3. Low-stakes writing assignments — such as one-minute papers written during class time or reflections on the assigned reading for a class ahead of time — can increase the degree to which students think about, understand, and learn the content of a course, can organize their thinking about a subject, and has been proven to help students retain what they learn. Such assignments need not be “corrected” for grammar or organization, but should be checked and given credit for having been done.

What is low-stakes writing?

Low-stakes writing is short, informal writing—from one paragraph up to two pages in length—that encourages students to develop critical thinking skills by exploring ideas rather than focusing on structure. Low stakes writing is graded for content and analysis, or sometimes effort, rather than for a polished product. Low-stakes writing encourages students to see learning as a process of exploring ideas, rather than repeating “correct answers.”

Why does it work?

As opposed to sitting and listening to a lecture, having to write about ideas forces students to process information actively. Active processing of information forces the brain to translate between mental processing domains, which in turn leads to the formation of distinctive memories and hence to better retention.

Equally, if the assignments are designed well, students’ skills in analysis, inference, and evaluation — critical thinking — can be improved. When writing is used as a tool to restructure knowledge, it improves higher-order thinking.

What are examples of good low-stakes assignments?

The goal of low-stakes writing is not to produce excellent pieces of writing but to increase how much students think about, understand, and learn what we are teaching.


  • free-writing on what the students know or think about the day’s topic
  • one-minute papers at any point to engage everyone in the ideas at stake; can reinvigorate a flagging discussion, or give quiet students time to think and then be called on. Can also be passed around from student to student to model kinds of writing and thinking.
  • answer the question! To find out how well students are understanding the day’s content
  • student-formulated questions to spur critical thinking; understand omissions of knowledge
  • group writing activities so that the writing process is discussed verbally and critique of writing product does not single out one student
  • writing definitions to promote retention and memory



  • one-paragraph or one-page papers can be prepared in advance of class on a proposed question related to course reading so that students must engage with material in advance of class.
  • online discussions around course-related questions can help students analyze and interpret material, clarify similarities and differences, pose opinions, and, when responding to other classmates’ entries, practice additional critical thinking skills as well as a professional demeanor in writing.
  • journals can promote observation and analysis; noting what they are reading and learning; and processing that information in ways specified, such as relating to what they know.


What’s the best way to make low-stakes writing work?

Some students are unaccustomed to turning in writing that will not be graded. It is important to share your goals for what you want students to get out of the activity before they begin. Unless the writing is used for in-class or group discussions, it is probably best to give them credit for having completed the assignment, but not for the quality of the writing itself. The goal is to create new neural networks in your students’ brains. Improved writing is only a side effect.

4. Students learn more from writing regularly throughout a course, and their writing improves with each successive argument.

Neuroscience confirms that repeating an activity, retrieving a memory, and reviewing material in a variety of ways helps build thicker, stronger, more hard-wired connections in the brain. Unless we ask students to write repeatedly, we cannot expect them (a) to be able to write well, and (b) to understand what they are writing about.
Put simply: practice matters. In order to be able to do anything well, we must do it repeatedly. This is no less true in the complicated act of writing. Repetition, trial and error, and dogged commitment are what change habits, build skills, and develop new ways of thinking and writing. This, of course, is the work of college.


5. For longer, high-stakes writing assignments, students should have scaffolded writing assignments that lead to the formal paper, or at least one draft.

Comments on drafts should not be extensive; research shows that students are overwhelmed by voluminous comments and miss the main suggestions. Identify the strength of the piece, plus one or two ways for the writing to be improved, tying comments to evaluation criteria and specific requirements of the assignment.

Research shows that good assignments give students opportunities to receive early feedback on their work, encourage meaning-making, and clearly explain the instructor’s expectations and purpose. A term paper should not be assigned as one big assignment due at the end of the semester. When this happens, all of the opportunities for learning are forsaken. Rather, when assigning a longer paper, ensure that students learn from this process by receiving feedback at least once during the process of writing it, and have a clear sense of the writing goals for the assignment.

REVISION: Build revision into your assignments by setting a draft due date a couple of weeks before a final due date. To ease the paper load, you might reduce the number of pages or papers due in the semester, thus focusing on a series of revisions. You can also emphasize the process of good writing by breaking longer, more complex assignments into their component parts, providing feedback along the way. For example, for a research paper, set a deadline for tentative research questions, an annotated bibliography, a draft, and a final revised version. To save time, you can respond to only the first page or two of each student’s draft, suggesting one or two main ways it can be improved; in this way, you can also identify those students who need more help.

FEEDBACK AND RUBRICS: Professors value different aspects of learning, and this can become frustrating for students who face as many as five different professors each semester, each with his or her own grading emphases. To make your goals clear, and in doing so help your students focus on what you think is most important to learn, provide a clear road map by using a rubric. A rubric not only sets out the key learning goals of an assignment, but also defines scaled levels of achievement linked to appropriate standards. Rubrics can reduce the time spent grading by limiting uncertainty and by allowing instructors to refer to the rubric description associated with a score rather than having to write long comments. When rubrics are given to students with the assignment description, they can help students monitor and assess their progress as they work toward clearly indicated goals. When assignments are scored and returned with the rubric, students can more easily recognize the strengths and weaknesses of their work and direct their efforts accordingly. Click here for a few examples of rubrics. A quick Google search for “samples of college writing rubrics” or “examples of rubric for criminal justice essay” will yield multiple examples on which to base your own rubric. An effective rubric will have distinct, comprehensive, and descriptively articulated elements that make clear the multiple levels of achieved performance possible. Students should learn something just from reading the rubric!

GRAMMAR: In a landmark study in 1963, Braddock, Lloyd-Jones, and Schoer concluded that teaching grammar does not improve writing: “In view of the widespread agreement of research studies based upon many types of students and teachers, the conclusion can be stated in strong and unqualified terms: the teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in composition, even harmful effect on the improvement of writing.” A common mistake instructors make in writing comments on students papers is marking every grammatical error, as if editing the student’s paper. This is not an effective use of your time; studies repeatedly show that students largely ignore such marks. Focus instead on clarity of thought, organization of ideas, and the ideas themselves. 

6. For students with serious writing concerns, help them become self-efficacious by referring them to the Writing Center for assistance and possibly requiring them to attend a number of sessions.

For students whose writing manifests serious and repeated grammatical issues, the best thing is to send them to the Writing Center for one-on-one tutoring. Students will take such a suggestion more seriously if their course grade is tied to attending writing center appointments. Further, internal John Jay College studies have proven that student writing and grades improve by at least 1/3 of a grade if they attend four or more sessions in one semester. This is likely true on any campus, and is just affirmation of point #4 above: practice is the surest way to improve performance.


by Allison Pease