Writing To Learn And Why It Matters

“You want to remember something? Write it down.”

So goes the age old wisdom. But this is also an idea now increasingly supported by science. Psychology research and learning experts suggest writing things down leads to better learning. Notes are helpful, sure – but the act of writing makes information stick in your memory.

Writing helps us monitor what we know, as well as causing us to engage in retrieval practice: a more active form of learning. When we write, a variety of mechanisms come into play: repetition, reinforcement and critical reflection on new material.

Writing to learn pushes us even further, to uncover which information we don’t already know.

In other words, scribbling leads to learning. Call it the scrawling method of gaining expertise. The write-to-learn approach is useful for everyone from frazzled managers to school kids to overworked doctors. Simply put, writing things down turns out to be a major learning skill, useful in diverse professional fields. ​

The Lesson of Mark Bernstein

As an example, a surgeon once attempted to record every error that was made in his ER. Not for a few weeks, or a several day period, but for an entire decade. Each time a scalpel was dropped, he wrote the incident down. If stitches weren’t sewn correctly, it was recorded. Even minor miscommunications with his team or nurses made it to the database.

This man was Mark Bernstein.

Bernstein was curious whether writing down mistakes would change the frequency of errors in his practice. The results were in fact an astronomical shift: oversights of all kinds dramatically decreased. By recording his team’s errors, fewer mistakes were made overall.

This went on for over ten years, with the rate of mistakes per month dropping by half, to almost zero. The experiment demonstrated a basic lesson, that is confirmed by psychology. When we write, we learn.

If you want to learn, one of the most valuable assets you have is your critical awareness.

Why is it we learn when we write?

Psychologists would argue the written record Bernstein implemented in his surgery involved a process of ‘feedback’ or a review. Researchers suggest the crucial factor is being fully aware of an action, by recording it. The process works something like this: in order to notice when mistakes happen, we are forced to maintain a higher level of watchfulness. This creates a feedback look with an impact on the activity at hand.

Bernstein was using exactly this higher level of engagement to track mishaps in his practice. Most of the errors in questions were obvious blunders that anyone would have noticed, like a machine failing or acting up, or instruments falling on the ground. By recording the errors however, smaller mistakes were also noticed like an incorrect way of holding a surgical instrument, or minor delays.

Self-monitoring, by writing information down, comes into play through cultivating awareness. It changes the game by offering  the chance to fix those small mistakes. To know our mistakes, we must be aware of them.

Bernstein used the same logic: noting down every mishap, tracking how severe the error was, and if it could have been prevented.

How to implement a ‘write to learn’ method

Monitoring, recording, and feedback are practices anybody can undertake. All it takes is to note down performance in a certain area over time in a notebook or journal. Over time, personally, I’ve maintained a document where I review my own writing. I think about, and write down, what can be improved or typical slip ups.

During the writing or drafting phase, I often might make grammar errors, or use less than perfect style or composition. Keeping an open document to record these, gives me room to think how I might not make the same mistake next time.

Some folks argue using video is the key to monitoring and tracking results. Filming does offer a chance to gain exact feedback, with no intermediary mediation. A well-known NFL football coach, Jon Gruden, maintained a large collection of game footage, going back years, for exactly this reason.

Now Gruden is a commentator at ESPN, where he still utilizes his library of football practices and games. He once described his video collection to a reporter. The videos included literally  every football play or pass imaginable. This was Gruden’s tool for training his teams as a coach, and later, they served as a reference point for him to analyze games.

Writing down what you know, and even what you don’t, helps you to master a subject.

Writing offers reinforcement

Recording and monitoring trains our level of awareness. If you focus on the result of your actions, this is likely to make you want to improve. That is a simple idea, but profound. We ought to acknowledge here: most people approach very few areas of life with an ‘improvement mentality.’ Think of how people drive.

The majority of folks worry very little about improving everyday skills, like driving or navigation. We tend to learn how to park as teenagers, then live our lives with more or less the same parking ability. I regularly witness people who continuously make the same driving mistakes for years, whether leaving the headlights on, or braking too hard.

The same can easily be said of public speaking. When people speak before others, they often make mistakes. Not just any mistakes, but the same mistakes. Talking too fast, failing to meet the eyes of the audience, or fiddling are all classic fumbles when giving a speech.

Human beings seem to be born with a tendency to go into auto-pilot mode. Whether you are a professional athlete or a surgeon like Mark Bernstein, any task can become a rote behavior, run-of-the-mill activity.

Knowing that we lose awareness during our activities – explains in large part why self-tracking works. It has to do with reexamining our autopilot setting, and forcing ourselves to ask questions. Is this correct? Is there an error I’m repeating? Can I improve?

Tracking our patterns

In the course of tracking our behavior, sometimes patterns emerge. We may or may not be aware already of the patterns. In the Mark Bernstein example, he eventually discovered most mistakes made by his surgical team were possible to prevent. These might have been small errors, but they often had a big impact – like having an instrument contaminated.

Other less intuitive conclusions about our activities might also become evident. For instance, Bernstein noticed the more patients who came into his surgery, the less errors were made. Or another counterintuitive discovery: doctors or nurses new to Bernstein’s team (even those with less experience) weren’t necessarily those who made more mistakes.

Certainly there are downsides to closely tracking all the errors we make. After all, mistakes are human. Constant monitoring of behavior and mistakes can lead to discouragement, or embarrassment. Again when it comes to my writing, I become frustrated when I consistently make the same mistake – confusing “that” or “which,”despite being a published author. Imagine the impact in Bernstein’s surgery then, where the errors were potentially more serious.

In one incident, someone dropped part of a person’s skull on the ground. Such experiences can be mortifying to record. Egos aside, there are real returns for efforts we put into monitoring, in terms of results and progress.

Writing helps us monitor what we know, as well as causing us to engage in retrieval practice: a more active form of learning. 

Awareness of issues helps to make changes

All it takes to improve at almost anything, is becoming more aware of your performance. Consider the huge industry surrounding weight loss. Whether it’s removing carbohydrates from your diet, or making your meals look like a caveman’s, there doesn’t appear to be one fixall solution.

Recently, a Vox journalist tried to discover if there is any key to weight loss. After calling more than a dozen prominent weight loss specialists and researchers, she discovered there does seem to be a common factor for losing and keeping weight off.

Spoiler alert: it wasn’t the amount of time you spent in the gym or a fad diet.
It was simple. The individuals who lost weight on the long term paid close attention to what they ate, and monitored their performance. It was about noticing which calories were going into their body, and how this correlated to what they weighed.

Monitoring and tracking were the ways people achieved long term weight reduction.

Those who succeeded in losing weight over time, tended to check their weight often for instance. Some experts recommend food diaries,  similar to Dr. Bernstein’s journaling record. When dieting or trying to implement any other shift, you need to know what exactly needs to be changed.

How can this help us to ‘learn better’?

When you want to learn almost any subject, the same logic applies. You need to know what you know, and what you don’t. If you want to be an expert, you should be aware of where your strengths lie, and what needs improvement.

Writing down what you know, and even what you don’t, helps you to master a subject. By writing something down, it’s more likely time will be spent reflecting upon it. Research suggests even a three year old can use the reflection process to learn better.

I personally learned how this worked after meeting a well-known learning expert, and educator, Susan Ambrose. Ambrose is Senior Vice Provost for Education Innovation at Northeastern University in Boston.

She started by explaining how often people assume that they are reflecting or even learning, when in reality they’re not absorbing information. In many U.S. schools and colleges, the assumption is that if you put information in front of a student, it will enter their brain. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

This is where reflection in the learning process comes in. As it turns out, the more information you are exposed to, and the more you are trying to learn – the more important reflection becomes. As part of her role as Vice Provost at Northeastern, Ambrose supports an internship program that encourages students to engage in this sort of reflection.

Students are required to write, and answer questions about their internship experience overall, both during, and at the end of their time working with an organization.

Ambrose told of a female Northeastern student who offered a strong example of the progress these writing assignments facilitate. The college student in question worked with a Human Rights non-profit in Cambodia for one summer. She reported that writing about her experience, in the course of living it, made an enormous difference.

Writing helped her to reflect on what she was learning, and how the experience was pushing her to grow. It led her to thinking what she wished to accomplish in the remainder of her time in Cambodia. The space given by the writing assignment was a chance to take a step back, and witness the experience from a new perspective.

This is the promise of writing to reflect, and writing to learn. Write to learn is both a mindset, and a toolset that can be used in virtually any context to improve reflection and comprehension. Whether it is an ER surgeon improving his practice, like Mark Bernstein, losing weight, or interning in Southeast Asia, the results are consistent.

In a classroom context, writing has the radical potential to position students as active participants in their own learning. Rather than regurgitating information, writing offers students a chance to create, and use higher order thinking.

If you want to learn, one of the most valuable assets you have is your critical awareness. In my book, I point out how critical thinking, comprehension and reflection are far more important in the workforce today than memorizing information.

Writing, together with tracking and monitoring can improve our learning results throughout our lives.

-Ulrich Boser

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