Deepen Conceptual Understanding through Writing-to-Learn

A Focus On Process Fosters Learning

What is it?

From lab reports and SOAP notes to press releases and trial briefs, writing is one of the key ways through which students engage in the practices of our disciplines and professions. We therefore often design writing assignments so students can learn and practice these discipline- and profession-specific skills. Writing activities that encourage students to focus on processing course material without also creating a formal product are equally important for our students’ learning. In the words of William Zinsser, “Writing is how we think our way into a subject and make it our own” (1988, p. 16).

What’s the evidence?

Writing activities that focus on processing course material—an approach called writing-to-learn—can be used in any discipline, from ecology (Balgopal et al., 2013) to accounting (Grimm, 2015). This type of activity supports learning in several ways. When students represent course concepts and ideas in their own words, they are engaging with the material in a deeper and more sophisticated way than simple memorization would require (Chi et al., 1994). Writing-to-learn activities also give students the opportunity to make connections between course concepts or between a course concept and a real-life application; this can help students develop a more expert-like organization of the course material (Ambrose et al., 2010).

Writing-to-learn activities typically require five (or fewer) minutes of class time, are ungraded or worth very few points, do not require individual feedback, and focus on a particular concept or idea. Therefore, instructors can quickly collect targeted information on the conceptual understanding of the class as a whole. This information can then be used to inform subsequent classes—for example, explaining a concept in a different way if students are struggling, or moving more quickly if students demonstrate a strong grasp of the material—without waiting to gather this information from the next set of quizzes or homework.


Consider asking your students to write and submit ungraded “minute papers” at the end of a class session (Angelo & Cross, 1993). In this activity, students spend one minute responding to two questions: (1) “What was the most important thing you learned during this class?” and (2) “What important question remains unanswered?” Their responses can give you insight into where their understanding does and does not align with your own, helping you identify what concepts to address and reinforce.


Chi, M.T.H., DeLeeuw, N., Chiu, M.-H., & LaVancher, C. (1994) Eliciting self-explanations improves understanding. Cognitive Science, 18, 439-477.

Grimm, S.D. (2015). Learning logs: Incorporating writing-to-Learn assignments into accounting courses. Issues in Accounting Education, 30(2), 79-104.

Zinsser, W. (1993). Writing to learn. New York, NY: Harper Collins.