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Informal Writing Assignments

“Write to Learn”

“Write to Learn” assignments are used in many disciplines to keep students writing frequently and informally.

Incorporating short writing assignments in a college classroom can provide many benefits for students, including giving students more writing practice and helping students explore ideas.  For faculty, one of the main benefits of using “write to learn” assignments is that you don’t have to grade them in conventional ways and yet they help students think about and learn the course content.

For effective “write to learn” assignments, consider the following guidelines:

  • Assign short writing assignments in class (3-10 minutes).
  • Ask students to write a word, a sentence, question, or a paragraph in response to class discussion or homework.
  • Elicit multiple responses throughout a class period via brief written responses.


Freewriting is perhaps the simplest way to encourage students to write with ease. Students may have encountered freewriting before and may have different associations with the process than you, the instructor, do, so if you encourage freewriting in your class, be sure to clarify what you mean by freewriting and the purpose of the freewriting activity before you begin!

One-Minute Papers

One-minute papers typically include a specific prompt that must be responded to efficiently. Also, teachers can use one-minute papers to gauge the effectiveness of a particular lesson or discussion.


Microthemes are condensed writing activities that actually require significant thought before writing (distinguishing it from the freewrite). Because of their size—usually fitting onto a notecard—it is quick to grade, and is less intimidating to the student.


Many educators are moving away from the term “journals” and are beginning to call them logbooks or notebooks. The logbook encourages students to keep responses to readings, lectures, experiments, or class discussions. Creating a dialectical logbook ensures that students will both recall and reflect.  This page on logbooks offers specific examples of a few different ways to envision the dialectical notebook.


Have students ask a question, hypothesize possible answers, then ask new questions based upon information gained through lecture or reading.  May be used during single lectures or across a series of lectures, may be done individually in class or assigned for homework, may form the basis for small group discussion or individual presentations.

Scenario Prompts using “Small Genres”

Create short scenarios related to course material for students to respond to in “small genres” such as letters, editorials, memos, short “plays,” etc.

Sample Scenario Prompt: You have been invited to address the City Council meeting to advocate for the issue of [insert issue] and must provide the Council members with a handout offering a short summary of your main points and three bullet items, with brief explanations, of your supporting reasons.

Student-designed Assessment

Have students prepare examination questions which may be used on quizzes, midterms, and finals.  Here, the instructor will gain some insight as to whether the students have grasped the main concepts for a topic.  Also, the students will more carefully evaluate their notes, since it is their own exam they are composing. The PDF about student-designed assessment available here (page 9, #38).

Writing Out of the Day (WOOD)

Students will be asked at the end of each class period to summarize what was learned that day.  The instructor will also write along with the students.  The class will read their summaries to each other and rewrite anything they might have missed in their summary as a homework assignment. The PDF about Writing Out of the Day available here (page 16, #79).

Semester-Long Project/ Exam Preparation Journals

This method provides strong intrinsic motivation for exploratory writing and uses course exams to drive a maximum amount of learning.  To use the method, the teacher, early in the course, gives out a list of essay questions from which midterm and final exam questions will be drawn.  Students are instructed to devote a section of their journals to each question.  Then students gradually work out answers to the questions as course material builds and develops.  Some teachers allow students to use their preparation journals during the exams.

John Bean, Engaging Ideas:  The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 2001), 109.