Learning by Writing

“To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test.” So read a headline in The New York Times. I’m a sucker for scientific studies on how to learn, even if I’m skeptical about testing, so I clicked on the story.

The study, by Jeffrey D. Karpicke and Janell R. Blunt, found that people remembered material they studied the best when they read it, closed the book, wrote a free-form essay about what they had learned, and then repeated the process.

The authors, who are psychologists, call this “retrieval testing.” I call it writing.

It makes sense to me. There’s nothing like trying to describe something to someone else to show you what you know and what you don’t. If you can’t write it down clearly, you don’t understand it, whether we’re talking about black holes or the alternative reality that currently lives inside your head.

Writers who do a lot of research will benefit from this information. Say you’re doing a steampunk story (Note: The Shadow Conspiracy II is now available!) and you want to use Sir Humphrey Davy’s creation of the mine safety lamp as a basis for your story. You read up on Davy’s work (there’s a good account in Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder), close the book, write down what you remember, and then repeat the process. If Karpicke and Blunt are right, you will probably remember enough about Davy’s work to incorporate it into your story.

It does seem to me that this research presents a good argument for moving away from multiple choice tests and going back to the good old essay test. Of course, I loved essay tests when I was in school, because even if you didn’t know much about a subject, if you wrote down everything you could think of, you might get partial credit. (Okay, that’s probably not a good argument for learning by writing, though I suspect it helps one develop writing skills.)

But formal testing isn’t the only way to use this. Students might benefit if, at the end of a class discussion, the teacher had them spend five minutes writing down what they had learned. In fact, maybe that’s what I ought to start doing when I go to hear lectures.

I’d like to see researchers devise another writing-based experiment to see how it affects learning. How about having students read a book and write a book report that explains the key concepts in it, using the book as they write? This would require more than free form memory; students would need to explain the ideas clearly. Obviously, it would have to go farther than the “This was a really good book” book reports that usually indicate the student didn’t actually read the book.

I wonder if a test on that material a month later would show that they students mastered the material. I bet it would.

ChangelingMy novella Changeling is now available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story. And it’s not about faeries.

My story “New Lives” is in the lastest Book View Cafe ebook anthology, The Shadow Conspiracy II.

My 51 flash fictions and a few other stories are still available for free on Nancy Jane’s Bookshelf, and anthologies containing some of my stories are available through Powell’s.


About Nancy Jane Moore

Nancy Jane Moore's science fiction novel, The Weave, is now available in print and ebook versions from Aqueduct Press. Some of her short stories are now appearing as reprints on Curious Fictions. She is a founding member of Book View Cafe. Her BVC ebooks can be found here. She also has short stories and essays in most of the BVC anthologies. In addition to writing fiction, Nancy Jane, who has a fourth degree black belt in Aikido, teaches empowerment self defense. She is at work on a self defense book that emphasizes non-fighting skills.


Learning by Writing — 4 Comments

  1. A lot of work has been done on the different styles of learning. Writers are inevitably very word-oriented. But when I teach a knitting class, I get the people who cannot learn from reading about it, nor watching endless YouTube videos of knitting, nor even getting email advice. If they could do that, they would have, and would not be paying good money for a knitting class. These are people who have to be SHOWN. But it is perfectly viable way to learn, and once shown they can knit fine.

  2. I’m with you, Nancy, on the importance of writing after I’ve learned something. I think that’s why the details of nonfiction pieces I’ve written stay clear in my mind for years. I interview people, read appropriate research, and then write it all down to explain it to someone else.

    But I also think Brenda has a great point. I see the difference in learning style between me and my son. I’m verbal, he’s visual and hands on. Perhaps the key is to read and/or see, listen and then do something with the information you’ve absorbed, no matter how you’ve taken it in, or how you translate it. For me, I’ve got to either write something down or explain it someone verbally. For my son, he has to make something, do something with his hands.

  3. For me, it depends on what I’m learning. For knitting, I need to have someone show me and then do it myself. Aikido works the same way. Then I just need to do it a lot, so that it becomes innate. Just watching without doing doesn’t help me much at all: I need to try what I’m seeing, partly because I don’t always see it well the first time.

    But that’s for learning something that is a physical activity. For understanding the ideas presented in books, or the ideas I get from lectures and stuff, writing it down really helps me focus on it.

    So I think how to learn tends to depend on what it is you’re trying to learn, as well as on different learning skills.

    One thing the study found that I didn’t mention was that doing a graphic representation of a chapter didn’t work as well as just closing the book and writing down what you remember.

  4. I’ve noted that writing down a Bright Idea often cements it into memory so I don’t need the note, regardless of source.