Writing-to-learn in Teaching STEM for Understanding


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source: http://leverageedu.com

Overview and Purpose

Emphasizing writing skills, rather than focusing on content, is one thing, but writing to support scientific concepts and promote understanding is another.

This course, while applicable to all disciplines, intends to guide STEM educators into understanding and appreciating the influence of writing on learning gains and students' conceptual understanding. The course will therefore delve into the following topics:

  • What is writing to learn and how does it differ from or overlap with learning to write?
  • What are the benefits and potential challenges of writing-to-learn strategies?
  • How can educators successfully facilitate conceptual understanding through incorporating writing-to-learn activities and strategies?

Needs Assessment

Intent: Participants will explore and acknowledge writing as an invaluable tool that enables and facilitates conceptual change, especially as a metacognitive process promoting ongoing reflection, self-expression, and deep thinking. Realizing its numerous benefits, participants will seek out various writing-to-learn strategies and activities to apply habitually and as they deem suitable to accommodate learning needs of students.

Instructional problem and relevant literature:

Paulo Freire’s (1968) ‘Banking’ concept compares teachers to bank clerks who ‘deposit’ information into students rather than tapping into students’ prior knowledge or encouraging them to understand the ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ of different concepts. Conceptual change defies that and advocates for the building of knowledge and meaning making, rather than mere, meek consumption where the teacher acts as the purveyor of knowledge. Hence, it does not seek to nullify students’ existing knowledge, but rather, leverage it as the cornerstone to guide them to attain deeper thought processes. This is because students’ preconceived, ingrained notions and conceptions are often incongruent with the scientific information they are presented with in school, thus necessitating re-evaluating and re-structuring of knowledge for successful conceptual change to take place (Mason, 2000).

To guide students towards conceptual change, robust research has delineated the significance of engaging students’ interests and beliefs and reflecting on them, encouraging them to pose their questions and explanations, posit their personal theories, and articulate their doubts recurrently throughout their inquiry. This is where writing comes into play, where employing adequate writing-to-learn strategies that stimulate the learner’s awareness and recognition of their unique thought processes, can be the springboard to bridge the gap (or build the ladder) between prior ideas and new conceptions.

Performance Objectives

By the end of this course:

  • The participant will demonstrate appreciation and understanding of writing-to-learn as a metacognitive process by recognizing its benefits as it pertains to fostering lifelong learning and building essential metacognitive and communication skills.
  • The participant will explain the association between writing and conceptual understanding by referring to evidence-based research.
  • The participant will successfully contrast writing-to-learn and learning to write activities by outlining the distinct characteristics of each writing activity.
  • The participant will examine examples of writing-to-learn exercises and strategies that guide conceptual change teaching.
  • The participant will apply and design writing-to-learn activities and strategies in the classroom that are concomitant with their lesson plan and desired understandings, given the evidence-based resources and tools they will be provided with throughout the mini-course.

Course Units

This mini-course includes the following units. Click the title of a unit to go to its page.

Unit 1.1: Introduction to Writing to Learn

In this first module, we will outline the foundations of writing to learn, what it entails, and start exploring it as a unique tool and strategy that facilitates and cultivates conceptual change and inquiry-based learning. The participant will be able to:

  • Recognize the centrality of writing as a tool and process in active learning.
  • Distinguish writing-to-learn from learning-to-write activities.

Unit 1.2: Writing and Conceptual Change

  • Describe the role of writing in improving understanding of scientific concepts.
  • Discuss the benefits and potential drawbacks and/or misconceptions associated with writing-to-learn.

Unit 1.3: Strategies for Implementation

  • Evaluate the various forms and strategies/activities of writing-to-learn presented in this unit.
  • Exemplify ways to incorporate writing-to-learn strategies in the classroom.  


Knipper, K. J., & Duggan, T. J. (2006). Writing to learn across the curriculum: Tools for comprehension in content area classes. The Reading Teacher, 59(5), 462–470. https://doi.org/10.1598/rt.59.5.5

Freire, P. (1968, 3rd edition 1996). Pedagogy of the oppressed, London: Penguin Books.

Hewson, Peter. (1992). Conceptual change in science teaching and teacher education.

MASON, L., & BOSCOLO, P. (2000). Writing and conceptual change. What changes? Instructional Science, 28(3), 199–226. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23371334

Moon, A., Gere, A. R., & Shultz, G. V. (2018). Writing in the stem classroom: Faculty conceptions of writing and its role in the undergraduate classroom. Science Education, 102(5), 1007–1028. https://doi.org/10.1002/sce.21454