Incorporating Exploratory Writing Into a Course

From: Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professors Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 2001.

Students do exploratory writing in order to focus their ideas, investigate questions, and/or examine course concepts. As opposed to writing to demonstrate what has been learned, exploratory writing is an example of writing to learn and is not typically graded. Exploratory writing can be incorporated into different classroom contexts for a range of purposes. Below is a list of exploratory writing activities, followed by suggestions for when and why they might be employed. See Bean (pp104-188) for explanations and specific examples of the following activities.

In-Class Writing

  1. Writing at the Beginning of Class to Probe a Subject: Writing at the beginning of class takes only a few minutes and can help students reacquaint themselves with material covered in previous classes or begin thinking about ideas to be discussed in class that day.
  2. Writing During Class to Refocus a Lagging Discussion or Cool Off a Heated One: Taking a moment to write during class can diffuse a discussion that is out of control or stimulate a slow discussion. Students and teachers acquire some time to refocus or explore possible reasons for strong emotions or disinterest.
  3. Writing During Class to Ask Questions or Express Confusion: Having students write after a particularly packed discussion or difficult lecture can give you (and the students) an idea of how they are making sense of the material. Students’ questions or misunderstandings can help you plan future lectures or discussions.
  4. Writing at the End of Class to Sum Up a Lecture or Discussion: This activity is a way of recording students thinking as class comes to an end. Students' writing can serve as a touchstone or jumping off point for discussion during the next class session.


  1. Open-Ended Journals: These invite students to engage course materials in a number of ways. By making individual connections with key questions and ideas, students develop a more meaningful relationship with the material. They also establish a record of thought that might serve as a resource when studying for exams or creating final projects.
  2. Semistructured Journals: Like open-ended journals, semi-structured journals offer students the freedom to connect with course material in ways meaningful to them. Here, teachers may provide a list of questions, suggestions or prompts to help students imagine ways to engage particular concepts.
  3. Guided Journals: Because they are based on specific questions, processes or ideas determined by the teacher, guided journals allow teachers to help students focus the thinking and learning they do outside of class. Guided journals are also a useful way to help students study for essay exams.
  4. Double-Entry Notebooks: This type of exploratory writing creates a dialogue between the student and the course material. Students practice taking notes, paraphrasing ideas, gathering significant quotes, and identifying and recording useful information while simultaneously responding to that material by raising questions, making connections, or exploring relationships.
  5. "What I Observed/What I Thought" Laboratory Notebooks: The lab notebook frames the double-entry notebook in mathematical or scientific terms. Students track the process of conducting experiments or working equations while simultaneously recording their thought processes or reactions to the results.
  6. Contemporary Issues Journals: Focusing journal entries on contemporary issues invites students to make connections between course material and the world around them.
  7. Exam Preparation Journals: Guided exclusively by past or possible exam questions, these journals help students to constantly practice thinking and writing in ways they will be asked to think and write during exams.

Reading Journals or Reading Logs

  1. Marginal Notes or Focused Reading Notes: This activity encourages students to maintain conversations with texts as they read. It gives students practice marking their texts, recording thoughts or questions, and developing their own strategies for taking notes while reading.
  2. Reading Logs or Summary/Response Notebooks: Another way of helping students interact with texts as they read, this method of exploratory writing gives students experience summarizing as well as responding thoughtfully to key ideas or arguments.
  3. Student Responses to Reading Guides: Creating questions to guide students reading of course texts can help them practice reading for a purpose, gain experience identifying certain elements or ideas embedded in texts, and prepare them for class discussion or exams.
  4. Imagined Interviews with the Author: This activity taps into students’ creativity. In order to compose interviews with the authors of course texts, students must think deeply about ideas raised in the text as well as explore multiple perspectives or approaches to the material.

Creative Exercises

  1. Writing Dialogues: This form of exploratory writing invites students to investigate perspectives or ways of thinking that may be very different from their own. They must understand the material well enough to put various characters in conversation with one another.
  2. Writing Bio-Poems: While students are given a specific structure for this kind of writing, they must inquire deeply into a person or subject and then develop creative ways of fitting that information into the established form.
  3. Metaphor Games, Extended Analogies: Working with metaphors and analogies forces students to think about language in sophisticated ways. They must understand course concepts and ideas on multiple levels in order to make meaningful comparisons and point to relevant relationships.

Other Ideas for Using Exploratory Writing

  1. Occasional Thought Letters: Thought letters are way for students to make their thinking visible for themselves and for the teacher. Extended exploration of their thinking about course material in writing can help students generate ideas for final papers or projects.
  2. Electronic Mail: Electronic forums for discussion serve as alternatives to classroom spaces, inviting students to articulate their thinking and engage with one another online. Electronic sites may allow students who are hesitant to speak in class an opportunity to contribute.
  3. Exploration Tasks to Guide Invention for a Formal Writing Assignment: Sequencing writing prompts can help students slow down their composing processes and spend time exploring ideas, following lines of thought, and generating questions before beginning more formal drafts.
  4. Portfolio System: Gathering all of the writing students do for class, including exploratory writing activities, can give you a richer, more holistic understanding of their growth as writers as well as how their thinking evolved over the course of the term.

Informal Tasks for Practicing Thesis Writing

  1. Practice Essay Exams: Helping students imagine the kinds of writing, thinking and problem solving in which they will be asked to engage during exams can give them a sense of how to prepare for the test. Looking specifically at short answers or responses to essay questions can help students think in concrete ways about strategies for thinking through and composing written responses during exams.
  2. Thesis Statement Writing: Once they've taken a stand or come to a conclusion about an idea or argument, students need practice forming thesis statements that capture the complexity of their issues or topics. Writing and revising thesis statements as a class or in small groups allows students to experience the process of thesis development.
  3. Frame Paragraphs: Like the analogy and metaphor activity, work with frame paragraphs invites students to experiment with concepts and language on multiple levels. They must engage higher levels of thinking in order to arrange material in a given structure while accurately representing relationships among ideas.