Thursday, August 7, 2014

What writing does

Michael Wesch | Flickr
Writing is important for many reasons. It helps us communicate with others. It's a skill that is widely applicable across careers. It's also an important academic skill. It facilitates thinking. It helps us organize our thoughts so that "the vague and abstract become clear and concrete" (Krashen, 2004). It helps us move easily among facts, inferences, and opinions without getting confused. It promotes our ability to ask worthwhile questions, to explain something complex to others, to reflect, to learn.

There is considerable evidence that writing is critical for learning across content areas, including those not traditionally associated with language-based skills. In mathematics learning environments, for instance, students who have opportunities to write, as well as listen, speak, and read, receive "a dual benefit of communicating to learn mathematics and learning to communicate mathematically." Writing facilitates reasoning, reflection, and meta-cognition which are all critical for profound, conceptual learning (Pugalee, 2004). It also enables students to explain their reasoning rather than just produce a correct answer.

There is more. A recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology showed that writing can also alleviate students' anxiety about mathematics. Anxiety, separate from math skill-level, is associated with student performance. Writing, specifically expressive writing, can help reduce student anxiety.

Expressive writing is informal and exploratory. The researchers in this study define it as a "technique that encourages individuals to write freely about their thoughts and feelings" about something that is causing them stress. Citing research that showed expressive writing can increase the availability of working memory by relieving anxiety regarding school life in general as well as high-stakes testing situations, the researchers hypothesized that high math-anxious individuals, who perform much worse than low math-anxious individuals in solving complex math problems, would perform comparably after a single session of expressive writing.

They were right, at least in this study.

After just seven minutes of writing "as openly as possible" about their "thoughts and feelings regarding the math problems" they were about to perform, high math-anxious individuals did not significantly differ from low math-anxious individuals in their performance solving complex math problems. Furthermore, high math-anxious individuals who participated in the expressive writing exercise out performed other high math-anxious individuals who did not.

The researchers suggest that expressive writing "lessens the likelihood that math-related worries will capture attention" when students are working to solve complex math problems, thus freeing up working memory for more of the transitory information students need to apply to problem solving. The researchers also offer the possibility that expressive writing helps students "distance themselves from their immediate sources of stress."
  • Pugalee, D. (2004) A comparison of verbal and written descriptions of students' problem-solving processes. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 55(27-47)
  • Krashen, S. (2004). The Power of Reading: Insights from the Research (2nd ed.), Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited
  • Park, D., Ramirez, G. & Beilock, S. (2014) The role of expressive writing in math anxiety. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 20(2), 103-111.

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