Informal, In-Class Writing Activities

Brief Description: This page briefly summarizes a number of quick (3-15 minutes' writing time) techniques for using informal expository writing to help students develop critical mastery of the material in any discipline. It includes descriptions and examples of prompts for freewriting, one-minute papers, scenarios, logbooks, and microthemes, as well as general advice on writing-to-learn strategies. Several of the techniques are adapted from John Bean's excellent Engaging Ideas.

Contributed by Pamela Flash, The Center for Writing, University of Minnesota

Informal, In-Class Writing Activities

Informal, exploratory writing, when assigned regularly, can lead students to develop insightful, critical, and creative thinking. Experience tells us that without this prompted activity, students might not otherwise give themselves enough time and space to reflect on class content, or to forge connections that will allow them to remember and use ideas from assigned readings, lectures, and other projects. These brief writing activities also allow instructors to get a general sense of students’ grasp of course concepts and materials, and can, in turn, inform future lecture notes, class plans and pacing

What follows is an annotated listing of some of the more common write-to-learn activities assigned in classrooms across the disciplines at the University of Minnesota.


Freewriting, a form of automatic writing or brainstorming trumpeted by writing theorist Peter Elbow, requires students to outrun their editorial anxieties by writing without stopping to edit, daydream, or even ponder. In this technique, all associated ideas are allowed space on the page as soon as they occur in the mind. Five-minute bouts of freewriting can be useful before class to spark discussion; in the middle of class to reinvigorate, recapitulate, or question; and at the end of class to summarize. It is also useful at many points in the drafting process: during the invention stage as students sift for topics, and during the drafting process as they work to develop, position, or deepen their own ideas.

There are at least two types of freewriting assignment: focused and unfocused. Focused freewrites allow students opportunities to initiate or develop their thinking on a topical, instructor-supplied prompt, for example, “What is a virus?” Unfocused freewrites, on the other hand, allow students to simply clear their minds and prepare for content activity. In either form, students are instructed to write generic phrases like “I can’t think of anything so say, I can’t think of…” or “Nothing nothing nothing” if their minds go blank. Once their self-consciousness or resistance lowers, ideas will begin to flow again.

It’s important, particularly in the case of focused freewrites, that students take a few moments after the timer has gone off to read over what they’ve written, highlighting useful and interesting ideas that may be glittering from amidst the verbal rubble (see example below). These insights might then be developed into formal writing assignments, or at least be contributed to discussions.

Note also that freewriting is often personal and messy. It should be a low-stakes writing activity for students, and should therefore remain ungraded.

One Minute Papers

One-minute papers are usually written in class on an index card or scrap of paper, or out-of-class via email. The limited space of the card forces students to focus and also presents such a small amount of writing space that it usually lowers levels of writing anxiety. On their cards, students may be asked to summarize, question, reiterate, support or counter a thesis or argument, or to apply new information to new circumstances. The results help students to digest, apply, and challenge their thinking, and achieve enough confidence to contribute fruitfully to class discussions. These short writing assignments also deliver quick, valuable feedback to instructors.

The following are examples of prompts: