Understanding the Cognitive Processes Involved in Writing to Learn

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Abstract

Writing is often used as a tool for learning. However, empirical support for the benefits of writing-to-learn is mixed, likely because the literature conflates diverse activities (e.g., summaries, term papers) under the single umbrella of writing-to-learn. Following recent trends in the writing-to-learn literature, the authors focus on the underlying cognitive processes. They draw on the largely independent writing-to-learn and cognitive psychology learning literatures to identify important cognitive processes. The current experiment examines learning from 3 writing tasks (and 1 nonwriting control), with an emphasis on whether or not the tasks engaged retrieval. Tasks that engaged retrieval (essay writing and free recall) led to better final test performance than those that did not (note taking and highlighting). Individual differences in structure building (the ability to construct mental representations of narratives; Gernsbacher, Varner, & Faust, 1990) modified this effect; skilled structure builders benefited more from essay writing and free recall than did less skilled structure builders. Further, more essay-like responses led to better performance, implicating the importance of additional cognitive processes such as reorganization and elaboration. The results highlight how both task instructions and individual differences affect the cognitive processes involved when writing-to-learn, with consequences for the effectiveness of the learning strategy.

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