The “Write” Way to Learn

My work allows me to speak with a lot of students and teachers. When I ask high school students whether they prefer being evaluated through a test or writing a paper, most students prefer writing. When I ask these same students whether studying for a test or writing an essay builds a deeper understanding of a subject, most repeat their previous answer.

Although I’ve never taken an exam in any of my jobs, writing is a staple in my career and countless other professions. So why is writing so difficult to implement in middle and high schools, and why is test taking expanding? More importantly, if education is about preparing students for career readiness, how can this trend be reversed?

There are several answers. First, traditional exams that overwhelmingly consist of multiple choice and short answer questions provide quick returns. Test results allow for easy comparisons between students and cater to a system built largely on covering the material, assessment, reporting results, and moving on. Another reason testing continues to expand - at the expense of a deeper focus on writing - is time. Thoroughly reviewing and offering feedback on written work takes large amounts of time. Grading tests requires far less.

Although my tone may suggest otherwise, I am not completely anti-testing. There are benefits to the practices that go into studying for exams. Our growing testing culture has created an abundance of study guides that help students fine-tune their memorization skills, but are they providing rich and memorable learning experiences? And when taking the personal health into account, exams and especially high-stakes tests, are major anxiety inducers for many students.

Writing is also not just about writing. In most writing projects, writing is usually the last step after researching, creating outlines, drafting, and revising – all skills that many professionals routinely utilize. The revision process is the learning process. Whereas a wrong answer is held against you on an exam, to become a good writer students are first required to make mistakes, as that’s the only way to see how their writing can improve.

Many schools have been slow to effectively prepare students for the writing challenges of college and many professions. In today’s competitive job market and college admissions environment, the cover letter and college essay have never been more vital. For organizational leaders, like myself, who review letters of interest from prospective employees and interns, every potential interview rests on the quality of the applicant’s writing.

I wouldn’t have to highlight any of this if there weren’t real challenges to incorporating writing throughout the curriculum. Writing can be a frustrating, difficult, slow, and individual process. The frustration works both ways. Teachers have to work with far too many students who are below appropriate writing levels for their grade. Students, many of whom enjoy writing in their own time, see their work returned covered in red pen, but often short on ways to address their mistakes. However, I have some strategies for implementing and improving the teaching and learning of writing in our schools.

First, schools need to reconsider the false notion that writing should be limited to just English Language Arts classes. Writing needs to be part of the entire learning experience and not perceived as a content-specific activity. Many of my social studies teacher colleagues regularly incorporate writing initiatives into their curriculum, but writing needs to be embedded in all courses.

Second, teachers need to learn to teach writing - at some level - in addition to mastering their own content material. Unfortunately, courses that train subject-area educators to incorporate and teach writing are not required, or even offered, in most teacher training and certification programs. This needs to change.

Finally, writing does not always need to be a five-paragraph essay. Although longer projects with lessons on subject-based research are irreplaceable in a student’s education, smaller and more consistent writing initiatives should become a staple in all grade levels. This practice allows teachers to routinely gauge where strengths are developing and weaknesses remain.

The idea that writing is the foundation of learning and not just an important skill to be mastered in one or two classes is beginning to take root. Though challenging at first, methods and programs that train educators to effectively incorporate writing instruction will follow. Encouraging our culture of testing to refocus more on writing is a policy worth pursuing – for our students’ understanding of what they’re learning now and for their ability to thrive in college and the workforce ahead.

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