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Supporting Online Learning with Writing-to-Learn Activities

by Amy Cicchino

Publication Details

 OLOR Series:  OLOR Effective Practices
 Author(s):  Amy Cicchino
 Original Publication Date:  15 August 2020



Writing-to-Learn assignments are short response activities that encourage critical thinking and active learning. While writing-to-learn assignments must be connected to a course’s outcomes, these activities are low-stakes opportunities for students to engage with course content outside of high-stakes assignments. However, a writing prompt is not writing-to-learn just because it is low-stakes. Writing-to-learn prompts use writing as a tool for learning through activities that encourage students to explore ideas, refine thoughts, and apply new knowledge. This article will describe writing-to-learn activities from hybrid professional writing courses and online, asynchronous introductory composition courses. However, writing-to-lean can be used in any course, even courses outside of writing studies. This practice addresses OLI Principle 3, which states that when appropriate, “reading, alphabetic writing, and multimodal composition theories from traditional instructional settings” should “migrate and/or adapt” to online learning environments.

Resource Contents

1. Overview

[1] Writing-to-Learn assignments are short response activities that encourage critical thinking and active learning. While writing-to-learn assignments must be connected to a course’s outcomes, these activities are low-stakes opportunities for students to engage with course content outside of high-stakes assignments. However, a writing prompt is not writing-to-learn just because it is low-stakes. Writing-to-learn prompts use writing as a tool for learning through activities that encourage students to explore ideas, refine thoughts, and apply new knowledge.

[2] Many instructors already use writing-to-learn activities in their face-to-face courses; this is one pedagogical theory that can be adapted for online courses, whether self-paced, synchronous, or asynchronous, with little adjustment. For online courses especially, writing-to-learn offers a way to observe student learning and encourage course engagement without demanding the instructor learn a new platform or technology. For example, in designing my weekly online course activities, I might create a discussion board post that asks students to apply concepts from a reading to a new situation or practice a writing skill like annotating a source or synthesizing a claim.

[3] In my own online instruction, I use writing-to-learn regularly, generally creating one writing-to-learn activity almost every week that students complete asynchronously. These weekly activities connect me to my students and key me into their learning and progression throughout the semester. When I began teaching online, a major challenge I faced was the inability to observe learning week-to-week, which I often did informally as I circulated the room during a class meeting. Writing-to-learn became a way for me to see how students were grappling with the content in the course. Because writing-to-learn assignments are low-stakes, they receive minimal feedback and are graded for completion or not graded at all. Regardless of the writing-to-learn assignment’s point value, I always review student submissions and use them to identify recurring questions, gaps in learning across a class, or individual students who might benefit from intervention.

[4] Writing-to-learn is a longstanding pedagogical practice especially prevalent in writing across the curriculum (WAC) and writing in the disciplines (WID) theories of learning (Gere, 1985; Stead, 2005; Papadopoulos et al., 2011; Anderson et al., 2015). Because writing-to-learn describes the way writing can be used for different purposes in a course, examples of writing-to-learn activities can be capacious in that writing-to-learn activities can look different from one context to the next. Generally, writing-to-learn activities are open-ended, with different possibilities for correct answers. The goal of writing-to-learn is to have students practice, process, adapt, or apply their newly acquired knowledge in different ways. Gere et al. (2018) suggest this is best done when prompts have a clear rhetorical situation where students can imagine themselves communicating information in the real world in professionally relevant ways.

2. Implementation

[5] Below are sample writing-to-learn prompts in addition to mock student responses. These examples are derived from and designed to recreate real student examples. However, because I did not have permission to use student examples in the contexts of a publication, I chose to recreate writing moves students made in their writing-to-learn responses. There are also sample instructor responses as well as a video that models how to debrief writing-to-learn prompts through online course announcements.

[6] Writing-to-learn activities reinforce course content so that through writing, students come to better understand the knowledge that anchors a course. These prompts vary in length, but they should be manageable to read and respond to in a short window of time. For instance, in my asynchronous first-year writing course, students are expected to spend no more than 20 minutes generating their writing-to-learn responses, and I quickly review each response (devoting about 2 minutes per response). As I read, I note who has completed the response and make a list of common challenges and 2-3 exemplar responses to share with the course.

[7] Writing-to-learn prompts should not just ask students to repeat memorized or learned information. It is important that students understand why they are completing these writing-to-learn activities, how the activities are connected to the larger learning goals in the course, and how each activity connects to students’ overall professional goals. Because they are low-stakes, writing-to-learn activities can sometimes be misinterpreted by students as busywork. For this reason, instructors should justify writing-to-learn to students and use writing-to-learn prompts to create meaningful scaffolding.

[8] Using writing-to-learn as a place to practice and think through concepts creates a safety net for students before they complete high-stakes writing assignments. In my conversations with students, I frame these weekly activities as opportunities to apply their learning to a variety of audiences and contexts. I also reinforce that if they attempt and fail one of these assignments, there is little impact to their grade, but if they misunderstand a key concept in a major assignment, there is a significant impact to their grade. Put differently, writing-to-learn offers students a place where they can try and fail (prompting an intervention) or get things right and refine their understanding.

[9] When creating writing-to-learn prompts, I use clear, direct scenarios: a situation with a specific audience and purpose. A scenario requires students to enter a particular context and adapt what they’ve learned to create a fitting response to a situation. They also must reflect on how their communication techniques take into account this audience and purpose. Each of the prompts below would be posted to students as an assignment or in a discussion board on our course LMS site. I have also asked students to share their responses in a collaborative document, like a Google doc.

    • [10] From a FYC course: This week we read about the rhetorical situation. Explain how the rhetorical situation can help your seven-year-old cousin, who is about to strategize with her Boys and Girls Club on their candy campaign. Be sure to address concepts like audience, purpose, and constraints and use language that can be understood by a seven-year-old. How can understanding the rhetorical situation help her increase sales?
    • [11] From a FYC course: We live in a world full of misinformation. Over the holidays as you visit with family, your uncle mentions that he has read conflicting reports about a presidential candidate. He shows you three articles, all of which he found online. One source claims a particular candidate is trustworthy and reliable, another finds the same candidate to have a torrid history of corruption, and the third says the candidate is a liar. How would you advise your uncle vet these articles for reliability, and what do you want him to understand about assessing online news sources?
    • [12] From a Professional Writing course: You see a job ad for a marketing and communications intern with the university’s Student Housing Office. It pays well and offers hands-on experience in content design and technical writing. You apply and receive an interview! You sit down to interview with the Student Housing Communications Director, who is concerned about your ability to create accessible documents for students and their families. She asks you about your expertise and experience creating accessible content. In no more than 500 words, write your response to this interview question. Write as if you are saying this to the Communications Director during your interview with the purpose of locking in a second interview or job offer. 
      In a short reflection following this response, connect what you have said to readings from this Unit on Web Accessibility.
    • [13] From a Professional Writing course: For the past two weeks, you’ve been reading excerpts from The Non-Designer’s Design Book. Create one visualization (infographic, meme, PPT slide) that teaches someone one important concept about visual design that you took from the readings. Design the visualization to be displayed in the Digital Media and Resource Lab (in the physical location or on their website). In addition to communicating correct information about design, the visual should model strong design. Submit this visual as an assignment with a short paragraph that explains why you focused on the concept that you did and why your design is effective according to the reading.

[14] When designing these prompts, I try to create situations that allow students to make decisions about how they respond: choices about which concept to focus on, choices about how to display their learning, and/or choices about determining what an effective response to this situation might look like. Students then share responses with me through an assignment or with the class through a discussion board or shared collaborative document (like a Google doc).

[15] It is important to note, when I ask students to put a response onto a discussion board, I am sure to include my expectations for their peer-to-peer interaction, such as when they need to publish their original post and when they need to reply. I do this to give students the time to read and process their peer’s posts which deters the milquetoast responses like, “I agree with what Alina said, especially when they said [repeat’s post language above]. That is also true for me.” Instead, I ask students to build on each other’s responses by further applying the concept being discussed. Because our discussion is meant to be informal, I do not focus on grammar or so-called perfect writing when reviewing the discussion threads: I look at content.

[16] For example, if I asked students to complete the first prompt and post their response to a discussion board, I might ask peers to reply by creating one strategy for selling candy that accounts for the rhetorical situation described by the poster. An example of these prompts and example responses are below (Praxis Snapshot 1).

Praxis Snapshot  1: Sample Prompt and Response

Prompt: This week we read about the rhetorical situation. Explain how the rhetorical situation can help your seven-year-old cousin, who is about to strategize with her Boys and Girls Club on their candy campaign. Be sure to address concepts like audience, purpose, and constraints and use language that can be understood by a seven-year-old. How can understanding the rhetorical situation help her increase sales? Please complete this post by Wednesday end-of-day.

In reply to one post, read the rhetorical situation your colleague described. In response, develop one strategy for selling candy that fits the rhetorical situation. Please complete this post by Sunday end-of-day.

Student Response: Tasha [the writer’s cousin], think about how to accomplish your purpose, which is selling candy so your club can do something fun with the money. First figure out your audience. This is not everyone. Everyone is not interested in candy or supporting clubs. If you know where you’re selling candy, that can help you think about your audience. Like if you’re selling candy outside of Publix, your audience is hungry shoppers who actually stop to talk to the kids selling things out in front of the store. These are typically older people or people with families. So you want to think about what you can say to these older people to convince them to buy candy from you instead of the candy inside the store which is cheaper and honestly just as good. But you’re limited by things. You don’t have a lot of money. And if the weather is bad, no one is going to the store. But you can control when you are outside of the store, so think about a day when the store is the most busy and the weather is good. Be able to say what makes your candy worth buying over candy inside the store.

Peer’s Reply: The strategy I would give to Tasha is this. Make posters that explain what you will do with the money to convince the Publix shoppers it’s worth it to spend more money on your club’s candy. If you want to take a camping trip with the money, you can write the location and even print out photos that show the things you’ll do on your trip. You could write things on the poster like Help us go to Everglades Park or Help Us Donate to Tallahassee Animal Rescue or something more general like Empower Kids. Also you could make something small and cheap (like thank you notes or bookmarks) that you could give to anyone who buys the candy. That will make the people stopping feel like spending more money on candy is worth it because it is candy for a cause. ​

[17] As an instructor, I would grade this kind of response on completion, but I would also pull out exemplars to show the class in our weekly video announcement. If I were to reply to some of my students’ posts, I would focus my feedback by raising questions, offering praise, or pointing out moments of confusion that I had as a reader. I would avoid evaluative language and instead create dialectic responses that engage the student in conversation about the concepts.

[18] Below are responses that I wrote as a reply to students’ posts on our course discussion board when I delivered this prompt in a first-year writing course (Praxis Snapshot 2).

Praxis Snapshot 2: Sample Discussion Board Responses

[Excerpts from discussion responses]

[...] Being able to communicate the purpose and why that should matter to your audience is very important in effective rhetoric! I especially appreciate [Peer who also replied to this post]’s suggestion that you craft your rhetoric to connect why the organization needs the money to your audience’s motives for wanting to spend money at this moment. Remember, rhetoric can also be embodied—think about how to design the space to rhetorically appeal to the audience. Like, where should they set up their table in relation to the entrance? Where should the kids sit/stand? Where should the signs be placed? Rhetorical design touches these details, too! Remember that constraints come in many forms as you are brainstorming for the constraints part of the rhetorical genre analysis!


While I think you started to scratch the surface about the constraints, or limitations, of the audience, I wanted you to unpack these more. Remember, limitations can come from anywhere: limited resources, limited interest, limitations in technology, limitations in labor/time. It’s not enough to just say there are limitations—what are those limitations and how do they impact the rhetorical purpose of the communicator? As you think about constraints in the context of your rhetorical genre analysis, consider all of the different sources for limitations.


Whoa, I do not love identifying with the “old” audience you pointed to, [Student’s Name], but this strategy would probably get me to stop and spend money! If you remember from the Dirk reading, there are conventions associated with these common forms of communication. It feels to me like you are playing into those conventions pretty well with posters and themes of spending money to support community kids! Can you think of an unconventional rhetorical move you might make to stand out from all the other kids fundraising outside of stores? ​

[19] As you can see, the responses are conversational, and I try to really focus on reacting to each student’s ideas. I don’t respond to every post like this; about a third of my students in the discussion board forum for this prompt received a response while all got recognition in the gradebook that they completed the activity. In addition to responding to student work, I make note of students whose responses suggest they are confused by the key terms. If these students have other indicators of struggling in the course, I email them an invitation to join me in office hours where we can review the key rhetorical concepts again.

[20] I also address the activity in our weekly course announcement videos. I have included an example video (Video 1) that discusses my goals for these videos as well as how I organize them around particular rhetorical moves. I always begin and end these videos by connecting the writing-to-learn activity to other work in the class. This example assignment occurs in week three of the course and builds on key terms from two readings and a group activity wherein students define the terms using text from the readings. Having practice in applying the terms will help them prepare for their first essay, which is a rhetorical genre analysis. Next, I speak to general strengths and weaknesses that I observed across the class’ responses. After discussing what I observed generally, I unpack 1-3 exemplar student responses to praise good student work and model a strong response to the other students. I identify a few elements of the response that I felt were strong and offer advice as this student moves into developing their first draft. Finally, I explain how all students should move from this opportunity to practice to their next step in the course (in this case, developing a first draft of their rhetorical genre analysis).

Video 1: Responding to Writing-to-Learn Prompts

[21] Although writing-to-learn is a pedagogical strategy that does not require instructors to learn new technologies, it incentivizes students to engage with readings, review the key concepts, and apply concepts to a new situation. Students who have the ability to practice applying these concepts have a greater likelihood of using them correctly on high-stakes assignments, like major essays or exams. Furthermore, writing-to-learn can be designed to more explicitly scaffold high-stakes assignments by having students begin developing parts of the assignment in the contexts of a low-stakes activity. To help students practice revising inquiry-based research questions, for example, you can have them read practice applying a narrative framework (characters, setting, conflict, etc.) to a first draft of their research question. While this prompt would help them practice applying knowledge in a low-stakes setting, it also leads to a research question that is more specific and developed, which could be used in a research essay assignment.

[22] Once you are comfortable with writing-to-learn, you can begin to utilize the affordances of online learning. For instance, you can embrace multimodality in student responses. Instead of asking students to type on a discussion board, you can ask them to make short videos using TikTok, FlipGrid, or their phone’s video app. Or, embrace the possibilities that come with asynchronous learning: ask students to respond to a writing-to-learn scenario twice—before they complete a reading and after with a reflection on how the reading affected their interpretation of the situation.

3. Conclusion

[23] Writing-to-learn activities are as low-tech as you want them to be. They can easily be delivered to students using a discussion board or LMS assignment. If you want to create opportunities for multimodal responses, be sure you are using platforms that work across devices or allow students the choice as to which platform they will use to create a response. If your school does not subscribe to an LMS with a discussion board feature, this activity could easily be done using a collaborative space like Google docs or a social media classroom app like Edmoto.

[24] Want to Learn More about Writing-to-Learn?

4. References

Anderson, P., Anson, C., Gonyea, R., & Paine, C. (2015). The contributions of writing to learning and development: Results from a large-scale multi-institutional study. Research in the Teaching of English, 50 (2), 199–235.

Gere, A. R. (Ed.). (1985). Roots in the sawdust: Writing to learn across the disciplines. National Council of Teachers of English.

Gere, A.; Knutson, A.; Limlamai, N.; McCarty, R., & Wilson, E., (2018.) A tale of two prompts: New perspectives on writing-to-learn assignments. The WAC Journal. 29, 147–188. https://wac.colostate.edu/docs/journal/vol29/gere.pdf

Papadopoulos, P., Demetriadis, S., Stamelos, I., & Tsoukalas, I. (2011). The value of writing-to-learn when using question prompts to support web-based learning in ill-structured domains. Educational Technology Research and Development, 59(1), 71–90.

Stead, D.R. (2005). A review of the one-minute paper. Active Learning in Higher Education: The Journal of the Institute for Learning and Teaching, 6(2), 118–131.

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