Assessing Student Learning Through Writing

As instructors, we are used to evaluating student learning in a variety of ways. We create tests and assignments that communicate to us what our students have learned. Writing is an important tool we can all use to assess student knowledge and mastery. Whether our course content involves theoretical concepts or process oriented accomplishment, or both, we can incorporate writing into the opportunities we give students to show us what they know.

At Washtenaw Community College, many of us are concerned about the quality of our students’ writing and reading. Some of our students are under-prepared for college level work. If our students encounter regular writing assignments in all of their classes, their chances of leaving our school with college level literacy skills vastly improves. The more opportunities we give students to write what they understand, and what they have questions about, the better off they will be.

Richard Light of Harvard University, author of Making the Most of College, has found that students relate writing to the intensity level of their courses. His research suggested that the level of engagement students experienced with coursework corresponded to the amount of writing required. Given that, it serves all of us to incorporate writing into what we ask of students.


  1. Ask students to note their observations and conclusions following a particular demonstration (either of a process, a historical event, a social interaction, etc.) Collecting this sort of writing is a quick way to see how students are making meaning on their own about the material involved.
  2. Have students write a letter to future students in the course, explaining a key idea, event or concept. If you actually share these letters with future students, you are demonstrating to students that what they understand, and write, matters.
  3. Have students turn in an informal one page typed commentary on the reading assignments you give each week. Tell students that you want them to explore their questions on the readings, and to give a clear and honest response about what they understand after reading them. This will give you almost immediate information on what concepts in their reading need more explanation.
  4. A variant on this idea comes from Professor Light, who suggests that students write “one-minute papers” at the end of each class session. These papers simply summarize what students understand to be the central idea of the lecture, discussion or experiment, raise questions the students may have, and are anonymous. By collecting one of these from each student, Light ensures that all students participate, and feel free from any pressures they may feel in submitting work to him, or in speaking in class.
  5. Have each student present a mini-lesson on one portion of the course material during the term. For each mini presentation, ask students to prepare a handout that conveys important information about the material involved. Suggest that students consider writing a poem, recipe or letter as part of what they present to the class in their handout.

Links for more ideas:

Harvard Gazette Archives – an article by John Lenger outlining some of Richard Light’s findings is archived here. The original date of publication was March 8, 2001. Many other articles of interest appear here.

Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University – this is the links page for the Center, and highlights some relevant articles from Richard Light and others as a result of the Harvard Assessment Seminars that Professor Light initiated.