Not All Writing Leads to More Learning

Not All Writing Leads to More Learning

By Yana Weinstein

I love learning. (Duh! What academic doesn’t?!). I also love writing, so right now, I’m combining those passions by taking a class called The Academic Woman's Writing Roadmap taught by Cathy Mazak. The class is not about writing technique per se, but about all of the mechanics and planning that surround writing. We started this week with an exercise designed to determine WHY each of us writes. The idea is simple: keep asking yourself “why” questions (aka, elaborative interrogation!) about your writing, until you dig down to a reason that really resonates with you. My series of why questions ended with the following statement: I write because I want to inspire a love and passion for learning.

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

But another reason – one that didn’t come out through the elaborative interrogation process – is that I sometimes write to learn things myself. This involves me setting myself the goal of writing a paper (and submitting it for publication) on something I don’t really know very much about. For example, in the past few years I’d become interested in mind-wandering (the phenomenon of thinking about something other than the task at hand), but I didn’t know enough about how it was being measured to conduct my own studies on the topic, so I decided to learn about the field by conducting a systematic review of the methodology. It was a lot of work, and it took me down some unexpected paths, including finding a very interesting project called Flexible Measures by Malte Eason, who is visualizing the methodological inconsistencies in various behavioral tasks. And, I now have a publication in a decent journal to show for this learning experience (1). Another example is that a few years back I wrote a textbook about programming, because I wanted to learn to program (thankfully, I had that aim in mind, because if selling books had been my aim, it would have been a huge waste of time!).

It turns out that this “writing to learn” thing is not just something random that I do – there’s actually a whole literature based on this technique (2), which I learned recently when reading the excellent book by How to Write a Lot – a must for any academic who wants to increase their writing output. However, just because there is a literature does not mean that the literature is conclusive in its findings. Far from it – while some studies find a benefit of writing for academic achievement (3), others don’t. For example, in a surprising yet convincing set of 5 studies, summarizing was consistently found to be no better than re-reading. The authors of this study seem to have tried everything to give summarizing a chance – manipulating the length of the text, the availability of the text while students wrote the summaries, and the type and timing of the test; nothing helped (4).

In a new paper, Arnold and colleagues tried to address some of the inconsistencies in the writing-to-learn literature (5). They focus on the fact that writing can take many forms – so, for example, note-taking is not the same as writing an essay, and as such you would not expect the same impact on learning from these two writing activities. In this experiment, 100 undergraduate students performed one of those four tasks on two different astronomy passages. Here are the four tasks that the authors used in their experiment, and the useful mechanisms thought to be involved in each one.

Highlighting: none

Note-taking: writing

Recall: writing + retrieval practice

Essay: writing + retrieval practice + elaboration/re-organization

The students then came back two days later and took two tests: a multiple-choice test with fact and inference questions, and a problem-solving test in which they were required to explain the reasons for their answers. The graph below shows performance the multiple-choice test for each writing condition, plotted against time spent on the task (the data from the problem-solving task showed a similar pattern). Note that this is not the way the authors reported the results in their paper; they focused on learning, providing the study time only in a footnote; for a similar representation, see this blog post about my studies on the effect of generating and answering quiz questions on learning (6).

Figure based on data in Arnold et al. (2017)

Figure based on data in Arnold et al. (2017)

The differences between techniques were not very striking, but a separation emerged between the two activities that required retrieval (recall and essay, shown in the graph in blue) and the two activities that did not (note-taking and highlighting). The authors concluded that writing in and of itself (i.e., going from highlighting to note-taking) was not enough to boost learning. In addition, the elaboration and/or re-organization benefits of essay-writing did not seem to offer an advantage to learning, compared to just typing out the passage from memory (retrieval practice). An important thing to note is that note-taking took much longer than highlighting, and essay-writing took much longer than the retrieval practice activity. This additional time was essentially wasted, since no learning gains were made from the additional study time.

So, what can we conclude from this study about writing-to-learn? I think there are three main points to take away:

  1. Not all writing tasks are equally useful; those that require retrieval practice are more effective than those that don’t.
  2. If choosing between highlighting and writing notes based on information in front of them, students may as well choose highlighting, since it takes less time and leads to similar amounts of learning.
  3. Writing exercises can take a long time, particularly if you’re asking students to reorganize information into an essay during study, and this additional time spend studying might not lead to additional learning.


(1) Weinstein, Y. (in press). Mind-wandering, how do I measure thee with probes? Let me count the ways. Behavior Research Methods.

(2) Zinsser, W. (1988). Writing to learn. New York: Harper and Rowe. 

(3) Boscolo, P., & Mason, L. (2001). Writing to learn, writing to transfer. In Writing as a learning tool (pp. 83-104). Springer Netherlands.

(4) Spirgel, A. S., & Delaney, P. F. (2016). Does writing summaries improve memory for text? Educational Psychology Review, 28, 171–196.

(5) Arnold, K. M., Umanath, S., Thio, K., Reilly, W. B., McDaniel, M. A., & Marsh, E. J. (2017). Understanding the cognitive processes involved in writing to learn. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.

(6) Weinstein, Y., Nunes, L. D., & Karpicke, J. D. (2016). On the placement of practice questions during study. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 22, 72-84.