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November 21, 2002

HOW TO TEACH: Using writing to promote learning

One of the oldest adages in education is: Write what you know. But a Pitt associate professor advocates a twist: Also write to learn what you know before you even know it.

"What students are asked to do across the curriculum is what I would call 'performative writing': writing to demonstrate what knowledge you've acquired when you've performed your lab experiment, your research, your note-taking in class, your reading of the textbook," said James Seitz, director of composition in Pitt's English department. "It's writing of the kind that takes place after the learning is over. You've learned something, now report on it."

Performative writing is both useful and necessary, Seitz acknowledges. "First as faculty we need a way to evaluate student work, and second, it's good practice as a form of literacy, that is, articulating for the instructor what your knowledge is."

On the other hand, performative writing overshadows what Seitz calls inquiry writing, that is, writing as a process in which "you come to know what you know during the course of writing it down," he said.

"Very few students understand how to use writing as a way of thinking through something. You can sit down and write about it before you even feel certain about what you think, because writing in fact can help you discover what you think about something," Seitz said. "It's the form of writing that we desperately need more of, not just here at Pitt, but in higher education in general."

Seitz typically sets aside 5-10 minutes at the beginning or end of class for inquiry writing, whether he's teaching composition, literature or critical thinking.

"If I'm teaching a poem, for example, and I think there is an ambiguous place in the text that I want to get students to try to discover and discuss, instead of an open question, like 'What did you think of the poem?' which leads to 'I liked it,' or comments like that, I'll take them straight to that line. I'll ask, 'Consider this line in this poem. What do you think the poet is trying to say right here, and what is he saying here in relation to the rest of the poem? Let's take 5 minutes and write about that."

This simple exercise forces students to write something and to undergo the process of thinking for themselves.

"I see three benefits in writing to learn, in using writing to work through difficulty," Seitz told a group at the Nov. 15 Teaching Excellence Fair.

"First, you involve everyone. Unlike classroom discussion, which can be dominated by one or a few students, everyone has to do this. It also keeps students from relying on peers to do their thinking for them. I like to do what I can to democratize classroom participation. This [assignment] also lets me call on a student who may be shy: 'We all just wrote on this, tell me what you wrote.'"

Second, he said, the exercise gives teachers insight into where their students are in relation to a particular subject. "Why come from a class saying to yourself, 'I think they got it'? Make them tell you. Ask them, 'What did you learn? What are you still not sure of?'" Seitz said. This guides the instructor's class preparation.

"Third, it's excellent preparation for writing more formal papers. I've become convinced that the quality of inquiry reflects directly on your ability to report," Seitz maintained.

The English professor said inquiry writing is valuable for all disciplines. "I think more faculty would be attracted to it if they thought of it as a low investment of their time. You can set aside 5-10 minutes of class time, and you don't have to correct a lot of grammar or even grade them. You can do it for your own benefit, to get a sense of where your class is, what have they digested, what are they trying to think through, what haven't they figured out yet."

Seitz said he subscribes to portfolio grading, that is, grading students cumulatively at the end of each month for class participation, tests, formal papers and inquiry writing assignments.

"Students get into the spirit of inquiry writing fairly quickly, but early on they don't know how to push themselves into deeper thinking, which is what they learn to do."

A strong proponent of writing across the curriculum strategies, Seitz and colleagues have developed a new web site devoted to the philosophy (

–Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 35 Issue 7

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