On the whole, I'm pleased with this strategy and wonder why I've not often observed in-class writing used in college or university classrooms. My guess is that it seems too baby-ish, a bit like high school math class with students sitting quietly solving equations. But I see a lot of advantages to in-class writing, and I'd be interested to know how others use in-class writing and why.
- They're writing. I firmly believe that we don't ask students to write frequently enough. At the university level, there's too much emphasis on 'the big paper'. In a typical philosophy course, students will often write two medium-sized papers and a longer term paper. I'm in favor of longer papers, mind you, but most of my students need to become more comfortable with the process of writing, particularly the beginning of the writing process: conceptualization, organizing ideas, identifying a thesis, etc. Frequent in-class writing helps them become more comfortable and fluent as writers.
- If they're writing, they're thinking. And we want them to think, right?
- Low pressure. Since they don't turn this writing in, it's very low pressure — something that takes the pressure off those students who are graphophobes and helps them focus on the writing task rather than on the evaluation of their writing.
- Discussion is more fruitful. I suspect one reason students often don't participate in discussion is the sense of being on the spot, of having to respond immediately (and intelligently!) to an argument or idea. I often follow the in-class writing with discussion, and it's usually more lucid, engaged, and thoughtful than the norm. I had one student who would read her written responses in class as a contribution to discussion. This seemed awkward at first, but it clearly reduced her anxiety when she had 'her text' to work from. So by giving students a few moments to gather their thoughts, the in-class writing appeared to stimulate better discussion.
- Better small group discussion. When I've used in-class writing as a prelude to small group discussion, the groups tend to get started faster, be more focused, and stay more on task.
- Signaling expectations. Lord knows we want our students to read the assigned material. When the in-class writing concerns the assigned reading, there's a signal that doing the reading matters. And when students who haven't done the reading, there are looks of embarrassment when other students begin writing almost immediately.
- It's OK to be quiet. I've worried in the past that our loud world makes the solitude that philosophy thrives on harder to achieve. I'm attracted to the stillness of my classroom when in-class writing is taking place. Oh sure, there's plenty of energy and noise in my classroom the rest of the time. But we preach the merits of the reflective life. Why not make the classroom a place for reflection from time to time?