Writing-to-learn in science

Studies have shown that writing contributes to learning, but researchers do not know how this occurs. Perry D. Klein, University of Western Ontario, recently carried out a writing-to-learn science study with 70 upper-elementary students in grades four, six and eight. These students completed one of two science experiments concerning either buoyancy or the balance beam. They then gave oral explanations of the phenomena, and finally wrote journal-style notes while thinking out loud about the experiment. Without any training in writing-to-learn strategies,fifteen of these students constructed more complex explanations during writing than they expressed immediately after completing the experiment. Klein concludes that these students made gains in their scientific understanding during the writing exercise.

Many educators claim that writing enables students to understand difficult content, to think critically and even to construct new knowledge. Recently, studies have shown that writing has positive effects on students’ recall and comprehension of texts and lectures.  How writing contributes to learning is not well understood,however, and results of writing-to-learn studies have been mixed. Several hypotheses have been suggested for the beneficial effect of writing on learning.

Writing or speaking about new knowledge may help make new ideas explicit and easier to remember, and may help students build connections between new ideas.

Informal writing contributes to science learning

Klein began with fourth-grade students because it is at this age that children begin to write fluently. He believed that before fourth grade, the mechanical demands of handwriting and spelling would substantially constrain the quality of students’ writing. In this
study, Klein examined how an informal journal-writing exercise increased learning of elementary science. He chose journal-style writing because most elementary students are very familiar and comfortable with it regardless of their skill level.

Each student participated in one of two structured experiments that demonstrated an important science concept. Students experimenting with buoyancy tested a variety of objects to draw conclusions about why objects float or sink. Other students learned about the forces (weight and distance) acting on a balance beam. All students were given paper to record their predictions and then to record and explain their results. After the experiment, researchers asked students “What makes objects float or sink?” or “What do you think makes the beam tilt one direction or the other or balance?” Then each student was asked to write about the experiment, answering the same question and explaining why they think this is so. As they wrote, researchers asked them to “please talk aloud about what you are doing, what you are thinking.”

Researchers prompted students to keep talking if they fell silent. Afterward researchers asked, “Now that you have finished writing about the experiment, what do you think makes objects float (or makes the beam tip one way or another or balance)?” An audiotape of students’ explanations was made throughout the process. Students who explained at one level immediately after the experiment and at a higher level after writing were considered to have made gains in scientific understanding during writing. The children’s oral descriptions and their writing were analyzed to find out what factors appeared to contribute to helping some children increase their understanding of science concepts.

Three factors predict learning during writing

Klein discovered several things that occurred while children wrote about their experiments. While there were some differences in results between the two experiments, generally the same factors contributed to students’ gains in understanding. Three factors significantly
predicted learning during writing: brainstorming, reviewing the experimental results and reviewing what they had written.

Another factor, the quantity of text produced marginally predicted learning during writing. Searching experimental results and searching what they had written usually included explicit statements about looking for new ideas. Both these strategies led to gains in understanding. However, not all students who used brainstorming demonstrated increased understanding. Students who generated substantially more ideas than they wrote down made gains. This suggests that being selective about ideas was part of the process that led to increased scientific knowledge.

Elementary students are ready to write to learn

Elementary students are capable of writing to learn, and the strategies that contribute to it are independent of one another but are additive in their effects. Using one of these strategies appears critical to writing to learn. Not one student in this study made learning
gains without using one of these strategies. Reviewing experimental results or what they had written seemed to enable students to generate more ideas. It appears, Klein suggests, that writing contributes to learning partially by prompting students to review sources of information. This may be especially true for young students.

Despite their moderate cognitive and writing skills, a significant proportion of these upper-elementary students were able to learn from writing with little assistance and no training in writing-to-learn strategies. These results suggest that learning through writing could be an appropriate activity for elementary school. Research is now needed concerning the effects of teaching writing strategies on students’ abilities to learn through writing.

“Elementary Students’ Strategies for Writing-to-Learn in Science” Cognition and Instruction Volume 18, Number 3, Fall 2000 Pp. 317-348.

Published in ERN November 2000 Volume 13 Number 8

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