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Essay writing and math class might seem like oil and water, two things that don’t mix easily. But there’s increasing evidence that students who are asked to write about what they are learning master the material better —  even in number-filled subjects like math and science.

Education experts call it “writing to learn,” in contrast to “learning to write,” which is usually taught in an English class. The theory is decades old. The act of writing clarifies thoughts and improves understanding, similar to talking over an idea with a friend. Even the inability to write a sentence can be a sign of confusion, often prompting a student to dig deeper. Putting pencil to paper also creates and reinforces memory, helping a student to recall information later during a test.  

Many experiments have documented the power of writing outside of English classes but others haven’t found it to be so beneficial. Some skeptics wonder if minutes spent writing takes precious class time away from learning topics the traditional way by, for instance, reading, listening, taking notes, and completing worksheets and projects. Steve Graham, a national expert in writing research at Arizona State University, along with two researchers at the University of Utah, decided to review all the studies and found that the writing-to-learn theory is solid. 

“As predicted, writing about content reliably enhanced learning,” the authors wrote. 

Learning gains from writing were nearly identical in math, science and social studies. (For each subject, students gained about 0.3 of a standard deviation, on average, which is a statistical unit that’s hard to translate, but it’s generally considered a medium boost.) In other words, writing tends to be moderately helpful regardless of what subject you’re learning. 

The study, “The Effects of Writing on Learning in Science, Social Studies, and Mathematics: A Meta-Analysis,” was published in the April 2020 issue of the peer-reviewed journal, Review of Educational Research.

The authors combed the research literature for all the studies they could find on writing outside of English class and found 56 high-quality experiments involving more than 6,000 students from elementary to high school. Some of the underlying studies were small, involving as few as 20 students, but others were larger, involving hundreds. 

In each case, students were assigned writing work during their math, science or social studies classes and compared to students who weren’t given writing assignments. Gains were measured by giving students math, science and social studies tests before and after the writing intervention. Both the writers and the non-writers were given the same amount of instructional time and exposure to class content. 

Despite the average benefit found across the 56 studies, individual studies came to wildly different conclusions. At the high end, one study found that writing was extremely beneficial, more than double the average learning improvement. Yet nearly one in five of the studies found that writing was harmful; students who were given writing assignments learned less than students who were taught traditionally.

The negative finding for 18 percent of the studies troubled the researchers. But they couldn’t find an easy explanation for why writing works so well sometimes and horribly other times. The researchers checked to see if certain categories of writing assignments backfired but didn’t find that to be the case. Writing summaries, research reports, arguments, self-reflective journal entries and even narrative stories all seemed to work most of the time. The researchers wondered if some teachers aren’t designing good writing activities for their students and they advised schools to monitor student progress to avoid this known but puzzling pitfall. 

There were some clues that argumentative or persuasive writing might be the most powerful in boosting knowledge but only seven studies in the meta-analysis used this type of assignment. Journal entries were the most popular type of writing assignment, especially in math classes.

The intent here isn’t to boost writing skills but rather math, science and social studies content knowledge. Indeed, teachers often don’t give any writing feedback on these assignments and react only to the ideas that the student is presenting. Some writing-to-learn advocates actively discourage any comment on punctuation, spelling or grammar so as not to demoralize kids who don’t enjoy writing  

At the same time, more writing assignments would also be welcome for writing’s sake. “This is one to increase how much writing students engage in for real purposes at school,” Graham explained by email, rather than a writing assignment that feels pointless. 

Even in English classes, U.S. schools have long emphasized reading at the expense of writing, Graham has documented. Maybe we need a math argument to bring writing back.

This story about writing to learn was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jill Barshay is a staff writer and editor who writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data. She taught algebra to ninth graders for the 2013-14 school year. In school,...

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