According to cognitive research, people learn best when they: 1) Make subject matter personal and place it in the context of their lives. 2) Connect new information with old, placing it in the context of what they already know. 3) Verbalize it, restating new information in their own words.
The sort of writing that most facilitates learning is informal, relatively unstructured, and has an emphasis more on what is said (the new ideas and concepts being struggled with) than how it is said (correct spelling, grammar and usage). These things are important, but to what extent depends on the purpose of the writing. When students are writing to learn their attention should be on ideas more than on "correctness." If they later seek to convey this information to others, then correctness becomes important.
- Students may be hesitant to show a lack of knowledge in writing, yet this ability to be tentative is essential to building new knowledge. Remember to encourage, rather than discourage whenever possible. Pose questions and offer suggestions that will help them form correct concepts.
- Encourage students to write to themselves for themselves or to you as a facilitator of learning rather than a judge. Don't be dismayed by the surface appearance of what they write; in "writing to learn" the ideas and thought are most important.
- Make assignments clear and realistic. Know exactly what you expect students to get out of an assignment, how you expect it done, and let the students know, too. Write the assignment yourself, whenever possible, to make sure it works. If you grade writing-to-learn assignments, share your grading criteria with the students.
- Use writing-to-learn to serve your ends, to teach and reinforce your subject.