The Big Misconception about Writing to Learn

By Chrissine Rios, MA, Kaplan University Writing Center

Who’s heard this one before?



“I can’t write.”

In the twenty years that I’ve been tutoring writing, I’ve heard it a bunch.  Even if you’ve been an educator for one year, if you’ve assigned an essay, you’ve likely heard it.  In fact, I’m guilty of saying it!  It’s truly hard to get started sometimes, and that is usually the diagnosis: writer’s block.  Invention strategies like freewriting can help:  Just start writing, and the words will come, right?  The idea is that the very act of writing will help you learn what you have to say, or as put by some more famous writers as quoted on Goodreads:

  • “Writing is thinking on paper”  (William Knowlton Zinsser).
  • “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” (E.M. Forster).
  • “I write to discover what I know”  (Flannery O’Connor).
  • “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means” (Joan Didion).

In my last blog post, I wrote about the importance of encouraging revision in Writing Across the Curriculum courses because revising involves making “decisions . . .that help writers discover what they didn’t know they knew and communicate it to the reader in a way that makes sense and matters” (Rios, 2015).  In short, I was saying that revision evokes critical thinking, and we want our students to think critically, yes?

Writing-to-learn emerged in the 1970s as a model of education in which writing became more than a method to help students communicate effectively; it was also a method that Klien (1999) described as helping students “think critically and to construct new knowledge” (p. 203).  Klein’s research, to be fair, actually exposed the inconclusiveness of the writing-to-learn research as of 1999.  He explored the “hypotheses concerning the role of writing in thinking and learning” during the writing process (Table 1) and found each of them valid but lacking in empirical evidence regarding how writing contributes to the construction of knowledge and when.

In his analysis of the cognitive processes involved with each of the writing-to-learn hypotheses, he even argued that because of the “misconceptions that arise wholly from language,” such as the concept of heating being confused with insulation (“warm sweater”) and fertilizer being confused with photosynthesis (“plant food”), freewriting derived from spontaneous language full of misconceived knowledge “may not lead to the revision of students’ existing conceptions” (p. 219), i.e., learning, unless, however, the freewriting involved reflection and critical thinking, which is where the research is today:

Writing is a tool for critical thinking only when one is thinking critically.

Writing is connected to learning only as much as a person knows how to learn.

It’s not automatic.  Writing words does not equate learning.

As a writing tutor who also taught college composition for years, I can hardly keep myself from deleting that line, for I’ve always believed that writing triggers the same brain synapses as learning.  But according to research since Klein such as that of Fry and Villagomez (2012), “the impact writing has on student learning depends on context” (p. 170) such as how experienced the students are with writing-to-learn, whether or not “the writing task required metacognition,” (p. 170) and whether the students received positive instructor feedback to encourage deeper thinking.

So what does this mean for you?

Assigning an essay and encouraging writing as a process sets the stage for learning, but it does not guarantee learning will happen.  You also have to teach students how to use writing to learn, how to think critically.

When your students come to the Writing Center with complete drafts of assignments from your class, and they know they need to revise, but they do not know how or why, or they come with your assignment instructions knowing they need to write a college-level essay but say, “I can’t write,” the problem may not be their writing but rather, their thinking, and it’s not that students can’t think, either.

The assignment itself needs to prompt critical thought. Also, the students need to know that their goal is to learn, not just write in APA format. They need to be metacognitive and think about their thinking as they are writing. Goodwin (2014) suggests you “introduce students to the language of logic and reason, providing them with an approach to analyze their own and others’ thinking” (para. 13).  You don’t want to tell the student what needs to go in every paragraph, for instance, and assignments that rely too heavily on research or ask students a series of questions to answer with research may also stifle self-aware critical thought.

Consider this:  If students have to research first then write their paper, how different is that from the current traditional education in which writing is considered a two-step process: think first; write second?  Students will report on the research as instructed and put their efforts into writing cohesive and clear sentences instead of questioning or reasoning.  They will essentially write an elaborate summary.  Summary has its merits.  It’s fundamental, in fact.  My kindergartener is learning how to summarize.  It shows your understanding of a text, but it doesn’t require you make something of it.  Just saying.

There’s also a difference between writing that communicates a clear and well supported idea and writing that analyzes, evaluates, reflects on, and/or makes sense of content by forming new relationships between ideas.  Writing can be and do both; academic writing should be both clear and critical.  That’s scholarly discourse.  But both are learned, and especially in the lower-level courses, you may need to decide which is more important at the time, academic style or writing-to-learn, for an essay based in reflection or reasoning that encourages critical thinking might not be tidy or conclusive.  It might expose contradictions and leave them unresolved.  It might explore multiple possibilities instead of focusing on one sustained line of thought. But this too is why reflective journals are assigned along with research papers in many composition courses. You might try it.

The purpose of critical thinking is to construct new meaning, discover new relationships, learn.  Writing is an ideal method for critical thinking because through writing, students can reflect, analyze, evaluate, and reason.  So writing remains an effective way for students to make sense of course content. But the goal of the writing task should not be to report the course content back to you—that banking concept of education didn’t work. Remember Friere’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” (1970)? Students learn better when asked to solve problems.

Will students also write better when the purpose is to solve a problem?

That may depend on what we–you and I (speaking on behalf of the Writing Center)–teach them about writing. Always know that the Writing Center is here to help.


Fry, S. W., & Villagomez, A. (2012). Writing to learn: Benefits and limitations. College Teaching, 60, 170-175. doi: 10.1080/87567555.2012.697081

Goodwin, B. (2014). Research says / teach critical thinking to teach writing. Writing: A Core Skill, 71(7), 78-80. Retrieved from

Klein, P. D. (1999). Reopening inquiry into cognitive processes in writing-to-learn. Educational Psychology Review, 11(3), 203-270.

Rios, C. A. (2015). How to make your students’ writing matter–to them and to you. Retrieved from

Table 1. Adapted from Klein (1999):

Klein 1999

Note: Adapted and intended for individual use only.

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2 Responses

  1. eshartsfield says:

    Reblogged this on Empowered Composition and commented:
    Great reminder that critical thinking requires challenging students to go beyond first thoughts. Real problems are rarely solved on a whim. We must dig deep, explore options, and keep trying until we get to a new understanding that carries the potential to create change.

    • So true! We do have to challenge students to “dig deep.” Reminds me of a William James quote I came upon the other day: “Most people never run far enough on their first wind to find out they’ve got a second.” Thank you for your comment and for reblogging!

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