by Dr Colleen McKenna

couple kissing painting


Studying inventions fine her wits to entertain, 

Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow 

Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburn’d brain. 

But words came halting forth, wanting invention’s stay; 

Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows; 

And others’ feet still seem’d but strangers in my way. 

Thus great with child to speak and helpless in my throes, 

Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite, 

“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart, and write.”

(Astrophil and Stella, Sonnet 1, Sir Philip Sidney ll. 6-14)

In Sonnet 1 (above), Astrophil despairs at his inability to declare his love for Stella in written form. Yet, I’ve always thought this could equally be the lament of the academic writer – haltingly creative (‘wanting invention’s stay’) only to have creativity bowed in the face of ‘step-dame Study’ and the burgeoning academic voice subdued in the presence of past critics and researchers who have written on the subject (‘others’ feet […] strangers in my way’ .)

In a recent blog post, I wrote about using writing as part of learning. In that text, I explored the use of short, open writing exercises. In what follows, I consider more structured writing exercises that support critical thinking, academic discourse and the development of longer written projects.

John Bean’s Engaging Ideas is replete with ‘write-to-learn’ exercises supported by evidenced-based research, from across the disciplinary spectrum. Examples include

  • microtheme assignments which are short, problem-based rubrics which require a written answer. Bean uses various formats, including advice- style letters asking for arguments about velocity or operant conditioning; short pieces in which the writer explains a concept to a younger sibling (or other non-expert); role-play assignments (“imagine you are Hobbes …”); and summary activities (“write a precis in 200 words; now reduce it to exactly 25 words”).
  • Reader-response texts in which, for example, following the reading of a short extract from Aristotle or Locke or Foucault, the student is asked to write a brief, first person reflection on how a theorised or abstract conceptualisation might be understood in the student’s lived experience. (For example, how might we understand the panopticon in 21st century London?)
  • How might an academic argument be written as a dialogue?

Bean argues that such texts invite a sort of academic wrangling with ideas, and that this helps students see the way in which writing itself is a form of critical thought:

When we make students struggle with their writing, we are making them struggle with thought itself. Emphasizing writing and critical thinking, therefore, generally increases the academic rigour of a course. Often the struggle of writing, linked as it is to the struggle of thinking … awakens students to the real nature of learning.’(Bean: xvi)

Incorporating these short critical thinking exercises either within or between teaching sessions can be a powerful means of helping students see writing as part of learning.

Rowena Murray’s How to Write a Thesis is another excellent source of critical thinking exercises. I’ll mention two elements that have influenced me.  One is her notion of ‘snack writing’ – writing we can do in small amounts of time. Murray argues that academic writers often put off writing until they have sufficiently long blocks of time – three hours or more (which Murray refers to as ‘binge writing’). Yet our schedules frequently don’t allow this, and Murray argues that we can train ourselves to become ‘snack’ writers and take advantage of much shorter spaces of time, say 20-30 minutes – if we use targeted exercises, free writing or writing prompts.

Murray’s use of prompts is also a technique I’ve used with students. One such exercise asks students to complete the following:

My research question is ………………………………   (50 words).

Researchers who have looked at this area are …………………… (40 words).

They argue that ……………….. (40 words).

Debates centre around the issues of ………………….  (25 words).

There is still work to be done on ………………. (25 words).

My research is closest to X in that ……………………….. (25 words).

My data will be drawn from…………………………   (50 words).

My contribution will be ……………………………………………………………. (50 words.)

Adapted from Rowena Murray (2006) How to Write a Thesis. Open University Press.

I’ve used variants of this framework – style exercise to support students at the start of a dissertation or similar projects, and it is surprisingly generative, even when students don’t yet feel ‘ready’ to write. It can serve various functions:

  • It can help students realise what they already know and where they should focus their research
  • It provides a framework for the writing of a proposal or abstract
  • It helps students break down a large intellectual task into manageable parts
  • It demonstrates an underlying rhetorical structure.

This broad approach could also be used to support students writing shorter texts (such as a chapter, essay, or policy brief).

My final suggestion for these short critical thinking-oriented writing tasks is the Thinking Writing website at QMUL which is a treasure trove of activities organised by both discipline and type.

In short, these types of short writing exercises can help students

  • explore a topic from a fresh perspective
  • experiment with writing formats and styles
  • get started with longer pieces of writing
  • realise how much they already know about a topic

Additionally, an aim of both these blog posts is to suggest exercises – brief, organic, playful and framed – that get students using writing as a means of developing their thinking and to see the act itself as something to develop by practising regularly. As Astrophil’s Muse implores ‘Look in thy heart and write’.



John C. Bean (2011) Engaging Ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Rowena Murray (2006) How to Write a Thesis. Open University Press.

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