Teachers across disciplines and grade levels have discovered that writing essays and research papers can serve many purposes in the classroom. Writing-across-the-curriculum theorists suggest a variety of write-to-learn activities, from free writing in journals to summarizing class lectures to working with papers through multiple drafts. In the composition literature, support for these activities has come largely from intuitive arguments about the value of writing as a way to learn.
Emig, for example, in her seminal dissertation "Writing as a Mode of Learning" (1977), argued that one way writing helps us learn is by forcing us to engage actively with our material. Shaughnessy (1977) suggested that this activity embeds the material more "deeply" in memory. Others have described writing as a "connective" activity, arguing that the process of writing forces us to discover and articulate relationships between what might otherwise be discrete bits of knowledge and encourages us to go beyond the text, to engage in imaginative and speculative thinking (Fulwiler, 1982).
We know writing can enhance student learning in important and exciting ways, but we also know that the value of writing as a means for learning varies from one writing task to another, from one classroom to another, and from one student to the next. Research to date suggests four key variables in the relationship between writing and learning: the type of learning desired, the nature of the material to be learned, the nature of the writing task, and characteristics of writers themselves.
Studies of writing-to-learn have defined "learning" in a number of ways. The easiest type of learning to test, of course, is simple comprehension, particularly factual recall, and most experimental studies have included measures of this sort. Results on this type of learning have been mixed. When compared with non writing activities such as answering multiple-choice questions, writing does appear to dissertation help students remember and use facts from their reading. However, research has demonstrated no clear advantage for extended or dissertation writing over shorter, more text-based writing activities when it comes to factual recall or application measures.
In one of the first studies of this type, Ne well (1984) compared learning gains across three writing activities: note taking, answering study questions, and dissertation writing. He found no effect of task on eleventh graders' ability to recall simple facts and relationships or to answer application questions; none of the three activities consistently resulted in higher scores on these measures. In my own research with college freshmen (Pen rose, 1989), essay writing actually led to lower factual recall and application scores when compared with a direct studying task in which students chose their own study and note-taking strategies.
Keep in mind that this methodology is not planned to bind your thoughts, other than to provide you a possibility to consider how you are going to research practically and write your dissertation.
These few studies suggest that the benefits of writing as an aid to basic comprehension may disappear as students mature, perhaps indicating that younger students benefit from the extra concentration and time-on-task that writing activities require. As students become more familiar with academic studying, however, they develop efficient study strategies of their own.