Using Writing as a Learning Tool

As learning tools, writing exercises are valuable because they help students think critically about course material while encouraging them to grasp, organize, and integrate prior knowledge with new concepts. Furthermore, good communication skills are valuable assets both in and out of the classroom. When instructors provide students with opportunities to organize ideas and improve their ability to articulate those ideas, they contribute to both the education and professional development of their students.

Here are some examples of types of short writing activities to try out in class. They will most likely need to be customized to suit the needs of particular classes across campus. As well, instructors might want to consider various marking options to help ease the paper load. Consider, for instance, randomly or periodically collecting assignments from different students each week, using a check mark and minus sign or pass/fail system to let students know that their work is on the right track, or giving bonus marks for the satisfactory completion of certain assignments. In addition, length guidelines vary with each exercise; for some, a paragraph might suffice, while others could require a few pages of writing.

With planning and forethought, these exercises, which provide short, interesting ways to jump-start learning and engage students with material, can be incorporated into almost any university course.

Writing to encourage active thinking and learning

Critical thinking problems are designed to convert students from passive to active learners who use course concepts to confront problems, gather and analyze data, prepare hypotheses, and formulate arguments. Most writing activities aim to promote the use of active critical thinking strategies on the part of students. To best obtain this goal, try assigning short, focussed problems that require thorough and innovative approaches to course material. When designing these activities, you might find it useful to use terms like formulate, develop, defend, appraise, criticize, judge, argue, determine, evaluate.

Sample activities

  • An instructor has decided that over the course of the term his class will complete five short writing assignments. One student, who is familiar only with the traditional term paper, is unsure why or how the instructor expects her to submit five written assignments. Write a dialogue between the two that comes to a mutually-satisfying resolution. Be sure to explore the student's concerns along with some reasons behind the instructor's decision to incorporate certain writing activities into the course.
  • Support or refute the following argument: "Writing is both a process of doing critical thinking and a product communicating the results of critical thinking; therefore, writing exercises have a place in every university classroom."
  • One of your colleagues comes to you for advice. He is trying to decide whether he should assign several short writing exercises or one or two longer ones. Consider the material being covered in his class, class size and desired learning outcomes. What insights can you offer about which type of assignment would be more appropriate and why?
  • Create your own version of a Centre for Teaching Excellence tips sheet that offers ten ways to incorporate writing exercises into a class of over 100 students. Be sure to explain why these exercises would be efficient and effective learning and teaching tools. Don't forget to include examples.

Writing to explore

The main goals for exploratory writing exercises are to clarify thinking, explore ideas, ask questions, reflect on learning, and search for connections between theory and practice. These exercises are not meant to refine and polish writing skills (at least, not directly). Rather, exploratory writing exercises value process over product. Make clear to students that issues of writing style and structure are secondary in these activities while evidence of in-depth and thoughtful engagement with course material is highly valued. When designing these activities, use terms like discuss, explore, imagine, propose, consider, contemplate, respond, reflect.

Sample activities

  • Write a one page "thought letter" to a colleague at another university who is unfamiliar with the notion that writing can be an effective learning tool. In the letter, you might wish to discuss points that you found particularly useful in the TRACE writing workshop along with any concerns or reservations you might have about integrating these exercises into your classroom.
  • Divide a blank sheet of paper into two columns. Title one column "Workshop exercises" and beneath it list and describe the types of writing activities covered in today's workshop. In the next column, "My mental work and brain exercises," consider the thought processes involved in doing each exercise. What specific challenges did each activity pose and how did you meet these challenges?
  • Imagine that you are the soon-to-be retired CEO of a multi-national corporation. You have decided to say a few words at your retirement dinner about the writing workshop you attended years ago as a graduate student. What insights into effective communication and critical thinking skills did the workshop offer? How have you put these skills to good use in your professional career?

Writing to explain

These activities encourage critical thinking while, at the same time, they promote a thorough understanding of concepts through review and analysis. Exercises like these ask students to take on the role of instructor, making them search for ways to present course concepts so that they are clear and accessible. Not only do writing to explain exercises make students aware of context and audience concerns; they also require students to step outside the course material in order to see it more objectively. Fresh ideas and a deeper understanding often result from such distancing techniques. When designing these exercises, use terms like list, select, describe, define, tell, express, explain, reveal, summarize, identify.

Sample activities

  • Define for your students what "effective writing" means in your discipline.
  • Think of a field of study that is completely different from your own. Now, imagine standing next to an instructor from that field in the Tim Horton's line. "So," your colleague from across campus asks, "how can writing exercises be adapted and used effectively by instructors in diverse faculties?" How do you respond?
  • A colleague in your field is interested in learning more about using writing as an effective learning tool. Explain to this colleague how to run a writing exercise that you plan to use in your classroom.


If you would like support applying these tips to your own teaching, CTE staff members are here to help.  View the CTE Support page to find the most relevant staff member to contact.


  • Bean, J.C. (1996). Engaging Ideas. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Inc.
teaching tips

This Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Using Writing as a Learning Tool. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.