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Developing Students’ Thinking by Writing

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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I believe that one of the reasons students have a difficult time writing is that they spend so much time thinking about what to write before they write as opposed to simply writing what they think; the writing facilitates their thinking— their writing is thinking. 


The posting below looks at writing itself as a thinking process and how this idea can be used in a variety of courses. It is by Neil Haave, associate professor of biology, University of Alberta, Augustana Campus, and is from the National Teaching and Learning Forum, Volume 25, Number 1, December 2015 2015. It is #77 in a series of selected excerpts from the NT&LF reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [ ] The on-line edition of the Forum - like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. Copyright ©John Wiley & Sons, Professional and Trade Subscription Content, One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200, San Francisco, CA 94104-4594. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Developing Students’ Thinking by Writing

In 2003 I attended a conference of the Association of Lutheran College Faculties and remember participating in one particular session in which the presenter asserted that writing is thinking. I had never thought of writing that way. Until then I had always thought of writing as simply conveying an idea or information to another person: a means of transmitting or recording an argument.

However, that conversation and the activities in which we participated convinced me that there was something to this sense of writing as a way of thinking. My understanding of writing as thinking has since become further embedded in me, strengthened by the results of daily (well... that is my goal at least) writing and also the practice of free-writing by students in class. I believe that one of the reasons students have a difficult time writing is that they spend so much time thinking about what to write before they write as opposed to simply writing what they think; the writing facilitates their thinking— their writing is thinking.

This was recently driven home for me again while re-reading my student course evaluations for AUBIO 411 - History and Theory of Biology. This course is the capstone course of the biology major at Augustana and is a writing intensive course—students are required to bring a written reflection on the assigned reading for each class. These typically result in a two-page double-spaced typed response to the reading once or twice a week for the term. Students initially resist but eventually take it in stride once they realize that I enforce the expectation. This idea of daily writing is from a critical thinking seminar I attended many years ago that was led by Richard Paul (Paul and Elder 2000). What was interesting was that I read these student evaluations in a very different light this year. In past years I read their complaints about the writing portfolio assignment being too difficult as complaints about the amount of writing they had to do. This time, however, I realized that what they were really complaining about was the difficulty they were having in cognitively processing the assigned readings in the history and philosophy of biology. If writing is thinking and the writing is difficult, then that means that they are being cognitively challenged. I was pleased, but also realized that perhaps their complaint about the workload was not about the two page weekly assignment, but rather the reading assignment and the requirement to think about it.

Cognitive Theory

Part of the reason I began to think about their writing complaints in a different light was due to reading an interesting article which discusses how writing integrates with cognition and indeed facilitates thinking (Menary 2007). Menary argues that the act of writing, the act of manipulating sentences, integrates the different parts of our thinking such that a new structured thought emerges while writing. This results because writing forces the interaction of neurons involved in the thought process with the physical act of writing. This is the point of view of cognitive integration which involves neural, bodily, and environmental (manipulative) processes. In contrast, neural internalists assume that cognition is solely the result of brain functions without input from the whole body or surrounding environment. This view of neural internalism, I think, suggests that minds are really disembodied brains that do not receive or process external inputs (proprioception, audition, sight, limb movement, environmental design). This is something that, as a biologist, doesn’t make sense to me: brains do not exist in a context that is separate from a body that mediates the surrounding environment (ever tried to think clearly while truly ill?).

By placing thoughts in the structure of a sentence, we produce vehicles of thought that then may be manipulated on the page or screen (Menary 2007). The act of manipulating the thought vehicles (sentences) is a way of manipulating our thinking by integrating different ideas—it produces thinking: Writing is thinking. Thus writing is not just about enhancing memory and recording thoughts—it is not simply the recording and transmission of information, though it does play that additional role. Rather, when writing sentences, creating new sentences and moving the contained phrases and container sentences around in new structures, the writer is actively thinking, bringing ideas together in new ways that illuminate each other in a manner unknown until that moment.

Writing is but one script for thinking: other scripts exist (Menary 2007). For example, calculus, algebra, computing science, chemistry, and music are all codes for thinking. (Actually I wonder if music, painting, and drawing could be considered a cognitive script. Can these arts encode thoughts? I am sure artists would assert that their art encodes senses and emotions—they are emotive scripts. But can visual and aural art encode thinking?) All of these scripts are cognitive vehicles that extend our cognitive capabilities beyond what is possible with only neural vehicles. By externalizing thoughts/cognition, these scripts enable the possibility of their manipulation in ways not possible when thinking is solely internal.

Writing thus integrates the bodily, neural, and manipulative process and in so doing enables thinking by facilitating the integration and restructuring of different thoughts (Menary 2007). The bodily act of writing externalizes our thoughts, and the imposed structure (the written word) provides a vehicle by which those thoughts may be reorganized into new thinking, a new way of seeing the thoughts or a new way of organizing thoughts. This occurs with the manipulation of the environment: the pen in hand, the fingers on key- board, manipulate the written word into new patterns, into new thoughts. The brain, body and keyboard (pen and paper) are coupled to produce thinking: “...writing is thought in action” (Menary 2007).

In the Classroom

This provides a sound theoretical basis for considering writing as thinking. How can this approach be implemented in the classroom? One example reports that writing assignments can be used to learn science and not only writing (Greenstein 2013). Greenstein’s argument is that by having students write in their own words what they have been taught (e.g., to explain to a non-scientist), they then have to construct meaning from the jargon used in their textbook or during lecture. Writing causes students to consider what they think. Sharing that with someone else, a peer student for example, checks their ability to articulate their understanding of the topic at hand. We learn best when we teach. It doesn’t matter whether or not these assignments are marked because it is the act of writing that is important, not the grade—it is the act of thinking through writing that deepens the learning (Greenstein 2013). Students are engaging in the material because writing is thinking.

Menary thus constructs a sound argument that writing is thinking and Greenstein applies this to improving student learning because if writing is thinking, then writing deepens students’ learning because it enables active engagement (thought) with the course material. And if Menary is correct, the act of writing to think will enable  integration of students’ learning.

A recent article provides evidence that writing does in fact improve student learning outcomes (Linton, et al. 2014). In this study students discussed an in-class problem with their peers, then wrote their  understanding of the problem, and then re-addressed the problem. Student learning outcomes improved with the writing as measured by exam results in comparison to student groups that did not write and/or did not discuss. Others have found the writing on its own does not improve student learning outcomes, rather, that it needs feedback and guidance such that students understand how to use writing as a learning tool (Moore 1993). This is similar to Paul’s approach in which he uses writing to think and learn: He has students discuss their peers’ writing and then the instructor guides and models the thinking he is trying to develop in his students (Paul and Elder 2000).

Thus, we have a theory of writing as thinking, methods to implement writing to think in our courses, and evidence showing that writing with feedback and guidance can improve student learning outcomes. Assuming that student learning outcomes are associated with improved thinking, it would seem that writing to develop our students thinking makes good pedagogical sense.

The next time I teach my history and theory of biology course I am going to be more sensitive to the cognitive load that the articles place on students and not treat each article as if they were each equally easy (or difficult) to read and consider. I will continue to assign a writing dossier entry for each paper they read but perhaps not assign a new one for each and every class. More generally, I am going to have students reconsider how they take notes in class. If writing is thinking, then the notes they take are their thinking during class and should not simply be a transcription of what is said in class (Weimer 2013). Although there is evidence that note-taking with pen and paper produces better learning outcomes than with a laptop (Mueller and Oppenheimer 2014), it should make no difference as it is the words, phrases, and sentences that are the vehicles which move our thoughts into new structures, patterns, and ideas (Menary 2007). It is the level of engagement in our classes and courses which dictates whether our students will be successful in their education (Prince 2004), not whether their preferred mode of thinking utilizes a pen or keyboard.


Neil Haave 
Associate Professor of Biology
University of Alberta, Augustana Campus 4901 – 46 Avenue
Camrose, AB T4V 2R3


Greenstein, G. 2013. “Writing Is Thinking: Using Writing to Teach Science.” Astronomy Education Review 12 (1). Retrieved from

Menary, R. 2007. “Writing as Thinking.” Language Sciences 29 (5): 621–632. doi:10.1016/j.langsci.2007.01.005

Moore, R. 1993. “Does Writing about Science Improve Learning about Science?” Journalof College Science Teaching 22 (4): 212–217.

Mueller, P. A., and D. M. Oppenheimer. 2014. “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand over Laptop Note Taking.” Psychological Science 25 (6): 1159–1168. doi:10.1177/0956797614524581

Pangle, W. M., K. H. Wyatt, K. N. Powell,
and R. E. Sherwood. 2014. “Identifying Key Features of Effective Active Learning: The Effects of Writing and Peer Discussion.” CBE- Life Sciences Education 13 (3): 469–477. doi:10.1187/cbe.13-12-0242

Paul, R., and L. Elder. 2000. “Critical Thinking: Teaching Students the Logic of Writing.” Journal of Developmental Education 23 (3): 36–37.

Prince, M. 2004. “Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research.” Journal of Engineering Education 93 (3): 223–231. doi:10.1002/j.2168-9830.2004.tb00809.x

Weimer, M. 2013. “How to Help Students Improve Their Note-Taking Skills.” The Teaching Professor 27 (6): 7. Retrieved from teaching-and-learning/help-students- improve-note-taking-skills/