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Writing is an invaluable tool for exercising our cognitive faculties. Extensive and diverse research has suggested links between writing and mental capacities in such domains as memory, critical thinking, creativity, verbal skills, and overall health. Below, you will find recommendations and explanations for how writing can be harnessed as a thinking tool both inside and outside the classroom.
Writing can help improve memory by creating deeper connections with subject material at the neurological level. More specifically, research has shown that writing by hand correlates more strongly with improved memory than writing with an electronic or mechanical device. In a study by Mangen and Verlay (2014), it was demonstrated that the sensory-motor activity of writing by hand relays feedback to the brain that assists with information recall. Similarly, Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014) observed that taking notes by hand not only improved information recall, but also conceptual learning (that is, understanding the ideas behind facts). It may therefore be helpful to incorporate handwriting into writing tasks in order to improve memory.
Writing facilitates a deeper engagement with subject material. Beyond the mere storage and retrieval of data, critical thinking requires analysis, reflection, evaluation, creativity, and careful reasoning. In studies wherein experimental groups that were subjected to written treatments on tests were compared with control groups that were not, indications of critical thinking skills measured more highly in the former than the latter (Naber & Wyatt, 2014; Quitadamo & Kurtz, 2007). In light of these findings, we might incorporate more critical writing tasks into our teaching and learning regimens.
Creativity is a notoriously challenging construct to understand on all fronts. Nevertheless, research suggests that writing has some measurable influence on creativity under some description. Lotze et al. (2014) compared brain scans and performance on creative indices between “expert” writers and non-experts. Findings showed differential brain activity and performance between the two groups. Notably, those in the expert group routinely scored higher on creative indices than those in the non-expert group. There remains a question of whether experts become creative through writing or if they write because they are creative, but these findings establish some connection between writing and creativity. We might conjecture that the more creative activity we engage in, the more creative we become.
Writing expands our lexical capacities. When we are challenged to express ideas more clearly or creatively, we push beyond the boundaries of our habitual jargon and explore novel ways of communicating. A finding of particular interest in the above-mentioned research by Lotze et al. (2014) was that creative writers scored highly on the verbal creativity index (VCI); that is to say, their creative output featured a more robust use of language. Another study supports the idea that when learners are forced to explore and present complex topics, their vocabulary and manner of expression improves in concert with their growing knowledge (Wolsey, 2010). These insights suggest that it is worthwhile to promote exploration during the writing process.
It has long been appreciated in medical fields that writing can be instrumental to positive health outcomes. By many accounts, writing has been shown to decrease stress, help people cope with trauma, and even correlate with fewer experiences of adverse physiological symptoms (“Writing about emotions”, 2019). Writing may also help allay anxieties and improve mood (Watson, Fraser, & Ballas, 2019). Researchers prescribe methods of ‘expressive writing’ or journaling whereby one can work through complicated thoughts and thereby obtain some relief.
Research on the relationship between writing and cognition is ongoing. Nevertheless, developments thus far show much promise, and we can easily apply the lessons that we glean from this in our everyday practices.
Lotze, M., Erhard, K., Neumann, N., Eickhoff, S.B., & Langer, R. (2014). Neural correlates of verbal creativity: Differences in resting-state functional connectivity associated with expertise in creative writing. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8, 1-8. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2014.00516
Mangen, A., & Velay, J. (2010). Digitizing literacy: Reflections on the haptics of writing. In M.H. Zadeh (Ed.), Advances in Haptics (385-402). London: IntechOpen Limited.
Meuller, P.A., & Oppenheimer, D.M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science, 25(6), 1159-1168. doi:10.117/0956797614524581
Naber, J., & Wyatt, T. H. (2014). The effect of reflective writing interventions on the critical thinking skills and dispositions of baccalaureate nursing students. Nurse Education Today, 34, 67-72.
Quitadamo, I.J., & Kurtz, M.J. (2007). Learning to improve: Using writing to increase critical thinking performance in general education biology. CBE Life Sciences, 6, 140-154.
Watson, L.R., Fraser, M., & Ballas, P. (2019). Journaling for mental health. Retrieved from https://www.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentID=4552&ContentTypeID=1 Literacy Research and Instruction, 49(2), 194-208. doi:10.1080/19388070902947360
Wolsey, T.D. (2010). Complexity in student writing: The relationship between the task and vocabulary writing about emotions may ease stress and trauma. (2019). Retrieved from http://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/writing-about-emotions-may-ease-stress-and-trauma