Learning through writing – Revisiting Case Studies in Motivating the Learner (Part 3)

By Matt Cornock

In this revisit of ‘Inspiring Students: Case Studies in Motivating the Learner’, I take the ideas presented by Calvin S. Kalman in a case study exploring collaborative group work and writing-to-learn approaches.

As with the other posts in this series, I will try to avoid repeating the detail of the case study but instead look at some of the elements of the learning design and how current learning technologies may enhance the learning. In the module presented, Kalman identified the learning objectives as a) to understand how science functions and theories evolve and b) develop critical thinking skills to analyse scientific ideas and methods. The module is not taught to science students, but as an option module for those on non-science programmes who wish to learn about scientific philosophy, as well as a select number of theories, and foregrounds essay writing as a familiar skill the students have developed above other learning approaches.


At the heart of Kalman’s design is a process of free-writing, critique, reflection and re-drafting. Students write their interpretation of a new concept, capturing thoughts freely and not concerning themselves with structure, grammar or spelling, but just exposing their inner thinking of an idea. The idea and students’ understanding develops through the process of writing and when the writing is then shared with a peer. Drawing upon peer feedback, which includes questioning and critiquing of the ideas originally noted, the student then redrafts and builds upon the main themes of their thinking (p.20). The process repeats before a final draft of their understanding is written and submitted for assessment.

There are clear opportunities to develop this learning workflow with supported learning technologies. Within virtual learning environments (VLEs) blog-based tools, journals that can be shared in small groups, and small group forums can be used to post a sequence of writing with scope for feedback to be attached to individual pieces of work. Less formally structured, collaborative documents such as Google Docs or even small websites via Google Sites or WordPress could be used to draft, feedback and redraft before finally publishing a student’s understanding of a topic. What such tools provide is transparency over the development of ideas, showing how an initial understanding is informed and reformed through learning into knowledge. This is particularly useful for an educator to see where students develop their thinking, drawing upon others and building upon ideas. The act of creating a final product that represents all their thinking for the module is also motivating for the student.

Threshold concepts

Kalman provided a further example of practice that helped students through understanding a problem in class; problems with an answer that goes contrary to common sense without a deeper understanding of the subject. In many ways, the sorts of problem Kalman was discussing is known now as a ‘threshold concept’ (Meyer and Land, 2003). Students used freewriting in class to capture their thinking on how to solve the problem, presented their ideas to peers and then through teacher intervention (as Kalman used, a video of the conclusion to the problem scenario) prompt students to revise their ideas informed by the scientific principle. Part of the approach to teaching threshold concepts relies upon students recognising that their understanding before is changed when they understand the concept. With free-writing, which I am thinking may also be substituted with free-discussion, students are making visible both their before and after thinking on a topic. Other practitioners, such as Eric Mazur, use similar peer instruction to show how students thinking changes before and after the explanation of a threshold concept (see Fagan, 2016 for an example of peer instruction in class with clickers based on question and discussion tasks).

Enhancing learning

Considering how learning technologies can support the learning designs of this case study, there are two main elements that enhance learning and motivation. The first is use of technology out of class to facilitate learning-through-writing, obtaining and building upon peer feedback. The second is in class, where technology such as in class polling can be used to demonstrate the impact of students re-evaluating their understanding in their response to questions or problems. If polling and questions aren’t appropriate, then in class technology with students bringing their own devices, such as laptops, can enable ideas to be posted to shared online spaces that can be brought up on the digital projector. For example a shared Google Doc or Padlet virtual pin board would allow contributions from large group lectures to be discussed.

I think what perhaps was not emphasised enough in the case study was the need to establish an environment of trust amongst the group. For students to expose their own free-writing to another student, without fear or judgement, requires a good group dynamic and everyone to buy-into the value of learning through this process. Hence, some of the options of large lecture teaching may be better facilitated with the option for contributions to be posted anonymously. The role of the lecturer would then be to moderate these contributions in a non-judgemental manner, hopefully in the process identify where conceptual blocks may be present. Certainly, I think that is where the strength of Kalman’s approach resides, in being able to surface students’ thought processes and inform them early on during teaching rather than at the end with assessment.


Fagan, J. (2016). ResponseWare, Teaching and Learning Session Pack. Provided for ELDT Show and Tell event. University of York.

Kalman, C.S. (1999). ‘Teaching Science to Non-science Students’, in Fallows, S. and Ahmet, K. (eds.). Inspiring Students: Case Studies in Motivating the Learner. London: Kogan Page. pp. 17-24.

Mazur, E. Work relating to Peer Instruction.

Meyer, J.H.F. and Land, R. (2003). ‘Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (1): linkages to ways of thinking and practising’, in Rust, C. (ed.). Improving Student Learning – ten years on, Oxford: OCSLD.

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