In-Class Writing Prompts

Educators in higher education are increasingly aware of the need to incorporate writing into their classes since writing has been linked to enhanced student learning and critical thinking (Quitadamo & Kurtz, 2007). Instructors in fields such as sociology, linguistics, and business administration are generally receptive to the idea of involving writing as a crucial component of students’ learning and assessment. However, instructors teaching in STEM fields may encounter difficulties when attempting to integrate writing into their curricula, as their disciplines would normally prioritize the development of technical skills over “softer” skills like writing. Additionally, time constraints, a lack of resources and guides for designing writing activities, and misconceptions about writing as a purely creative pursuit may contribute to resistance among STEM instructors to adopting writing as a regular part of students’ learning. This teaching guide aims to correct these misconceptions and to provide strategies for instructors, especially those teaching STEM courses, for designing effective writing prompts and adopting writing as a form of interactive learning in their classroom.

Designing Effective Writing Prompts

Writing prompts are questions or hints that can serve as a springboard for stimulating students’ various levels of thinking beyond just their linguistic abilities (Ruth & Murphy, 1984). Moreover, instead of adding extra burden to instructors by expecting them to teach writing skills and conduct additional formal assessments, writing prompts can be seamlessly integrated into their existing course content as another technique to help students learn and assess their mastery of the intended content. To achieve this goal, instructors should design effective writing prompts with three key components in mind: learning objective (what to learn), instructional context (where to learn), and associated learning strategies (how to learn).

Learning Objective

The first question instructors must consider is: what are the desired learning outcomes they aim to promote through writing activities? Within higher education, writing activities typically fall into two categories: learning-to-write, which focuses on developing students’ technical skills of writing, and writing-to-learn, which emphasizes the use of writing as a tool for enhancing learning and critical thinking. Particularly in STEM fields, the approach of learning-to-write has received substantial attention attempting to develop students’ scientific writing skills (Bangert-Drowns et al., 2004). In contrast, writing-to-learn, which uses writing to enhance students’ learning, has received relatively little attention. To emphasize the role of writing-to-learn in education, Reynolds et al. (2012) conducted a heuristic review of relevant literature and summarized the learning objectives associated with writing activities into seven categories: (a) content knowledge, (b) conceptual understanding, (c) scientific method, (d) critical thinking, (e) communication, (f) metacognition, and (g) professionalization. Each of these objectives can be achieved by designing writing prompts situated within a specific instructional context and incorporating learning strategies. This heuristic can also help instructors gain clarity about what they want to achieve in writing prompts.

Instructional Context

When it comes to writing activities in higher education, people often associate them with high-stakes tests that converge around a restricted set of formats and themes. However, this view is overly narrow, as writing prompts can be adopted in a variety of instructional contexts beyond formal assessment.

Pre-class Writing. Developing prompts asking students to submit a written response before the start of class can allow students to do a warm-up exercise and preview the upcoming course content. The pre-class writing prompts can be designed to spark students’ interest, activate prior knowledge, and encourage them to predict what they will learn in class. To avoid overburdening students and instructors (e.g., grading), instructors can consider this assignment as a formative assessment, which is informal, low-stakes, and gives students more control over how they want to develop their unique responses to the prompt. In terms of the feedback for students’ writing, instructors can categorize their responses into different discussion points and then bring them into class as conversation starters. Additionally, this pre-class writing activity allows instructors to obtain a sense of which aspects of the subject matter require more time to explain or which portions are more likely to draw students’ attention during class time, and to tailor the course material.

Classroom Writing and Discussion. The use of writing prompts in a brief classroom exercise can promote interactive learning by serving as a means to introduce discussion topics, while also providing students with directions and time to construct their own viewpoints. For example, after showing a short, engaging video related to the class content (e.g., TED talks), instructors can ask students to write freely about the topics for 5-10 minutes, using provided prompts as guidance.

After finishing the writing, students are encouraged to spend time discussing the topic and sharing their thoughts in groups or as a class. This type of classroom writing activity has been shown to allow students to feel more involved and engaged in class (Lieu, 2015), by giving them time to think about and write down their thoughts, as well as creating opportunities to share and listen to others’ new and diverse points of view.                                                                                   

Collaborative Writing. Writing can be a form of collaborative learning where students engage in a shared knowledge domain as “communities of learners” (Brodahl & Hansen, 2014, p. 94). In this approach, they work together to create a unified response to the writing prompt, constantly interacting and negotiating the meanings of the subject matter. To facilitate the efficiency of collaborative writing, educators are increasingly turning to the adoption of online collaborative tools (i.e., Google Docs). Based on prior research (Brodahl & Hansen, 2014), some key recommendations for conducting collaborative writing activities include: (a) limiting the group size to three persons or fewer, (b) being prepared for any technical difficulties that may arise and creating a contingency plan, and (c) establishing clear rules and guidelines for students to work on both individual and group portions of the writing project.

Learning Strategies

Writing prompts can play a significant role in enhancing learning strategies. But first, what exactly are learning strategies? Learning strategies refer to the set of behaviors and thoughts that learners engage in during the learning process, aimed at improving their learning outcomes (Weinstein & Mayer, 1986). Therefore, two main elements define learning strategies: the actions that learners take while learning, and the ways in which these actions aid in their learning. Writing prompts have been conceived of as strategy activators (Reigeluth & Stein, 1983), and they have the potential to simulate students’ various learning strategies and strengthen their domain-specific knowledge, thus leading to more effective learning outcomes and better academic performance.

Organization Strategies. To become an expert in a specific field, learners must cultivate a sophisticated network that connects all critical domain knowledge and organizes it around meaningful principles. It is the responsibility of instructors to guide students in developing skills for organizing information because these skills can significantly impact how well they can apply their knowledge (Ambrose et al., 2010). Writing prompts can be used to direct students to organize learning content into an internal structure, including highlighting central concepts and ideas, identifying their interrelations and arranging them in a coherent way. Instructors can pose questions like the following examples in different disciplines:

  • Write down the headings and subheadings that would facilitate a logical order for the learning contents.
  • Summarize the main themes or topics covered in this learning material, and then group them together based on their similarities or differences.
  • Write down an explanation of how the key ideas or concepts are related to each other.

Elaboration Strategies. In addition to facilitating the development of an internal network, instructors should also guide students to build external connections between the newly acquired information and their existing knowledge, which is the focus of elaboration strategies and also known as the process of “integration” (Mayer, 1996). Writing activities can promote learners’ elaboration strategies, such as prompting students to explain and interpret specific phenomena from their own or alternative perspectives, identify problems or issues that emerge from novel situations, and apply both the presented and prior knowledge to address them. Below are examples of writing prompts that aim to enhance students’ elaboration skills, adapted from Berthold et al. (2007):

  • Describe the examples that either demonstrate, confirm, or conflict with the learning contents.
  • Can you draw any connections between the newly learned contents and your prior knowledge gained from school and everyday experience?
  • Which aspects of the learning material do you find interesting, useful, and convincing, and which do not?

Comprehension-monitoring Strategies. Research has recognized the role of metacognition in encouraging students to take more initiative in learning activities (Paris & Winograd, 1990). Writing prompts can trigger students’ metacognition – the process of “knowing about knowing” (Metcalfe & Shimamura, 1994) – to help them avoid illusions of understanding (Nückles et al., 2010), monitor their own comprehension (Reynolds et al., 2012), and regulate other learning strategies, including the aforementioned strategies of organization and elaboration. For instance, writing prompts can direct students to ask themselves what they don’t understand, why they don’t, and what steps they can take or resources they can seek to bridge the gap in understanding (Berthold et al., 2007). To address this gap, they may employ organization, elaboration, or other strategies. Instructors may consider using the following writing prompts to encourage student reflection on their learning:

  • Which main points from the learning contents have I already understood well, and which ones do I still need clarification on?
  • Which aspects or questions, in my opinion, were not fully addressed in the lecture or textbook? How might these gaps be filled?
  • What additional ways or resources might be helpful in addressing any learning issues I am facing? Who could provide support in this process?

In summary, the use of different types of writing prompts in various contexts can lead to diverse learning strategies and outcomes. A formula for designing an effective writing prompt could be:

Effective Writing Prompts = Learning Objective + Instructional Context + Learning Strategies


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