Math + Writing = Learning

Math + Writing = Learning. This is the premise of Sweetland’s current offering in the large-enrollment course Math 216 and is part of M-Write’s ongoing process of fostering writing-to-learn across disciplines and departments at U-M. 

What started in 2016 as an effort to pilot writing-to-learn assignments in a few undergraduate courses has evolved into a much larger initiative involving 14 faculty members and over 20,000 students. Sweetland continues to support faculty across campus in using writing as a means of learning and simultaneously trains and supports dozens of undergraduate Writing Fellows each semester who work with these faculty.

Winter 2019 M-Write Fellows (morning class)
Winter 2019 M-Write Fellows (afternoon class)

Beginning in Fall 2019, Sweetland expanded its support of writing-to-learn to include Math 216, Introduction to Differential Equations. This course already included writing assignments designed to help students explain mathematical concepts and make connections between computer labs and course work. What was missing, however, was an opportunity for students to engage in a writing process designed to reinforce learning. 

Sweetland worked with Gavin LaRose, the course coordinator of Math 216, to find ways to improve the writing process for some of these assignments. This collaboration produced modifications to the assignments to allow for feedback, peer review, and revision. The goal of these changes is to encourage students to generate a low-stakes draft, to receive feedback on it and respond to the drafts of others, and then to use this experience to revise their own drafts.

The changes to the assignments in Math 216 reflect the core principles of the M-Write Program. One of these is that student learning can be improved by writing in response to assignments that include several essential elements – a meaning-making task, an assignment with clear expectations, and an interactive writing component that includes interacting with peers through a feedback process. 

Sweetland will continue to expand the number and type of courses it supports in Winter 2020, as we help faculty adopt writing-to-learn approaches in Political Science and Kinesiology, two areas new to M-Write. Throughout this expansion, we continue to focus on understanding how writing-to-learn assignments affect student learning by conducting research that identifies and measures student outcomes. The long-term goal is to create a new U-M equation: all courses + writing = learning.


What do applied liberal arts, biology, chemistry, climate studies, economics, earth and environmental sciences, material science engineering, mechanical engineering, physics, and statistics have in common? Each department or program offers one or more M-Write courses.  This means that over 15,000 students have had the opportunity to deepen their learning in these courses by writing about key concepts introduced in them. Preliminary research shows that students who participate in M-Write demonstrate more substantive learning than those who do not. In addition, writing about key concepts helps to reveal the misconceptions that students may have about them. For example, one study showed that in an introductory biology course student writing in response to an M-Write prompt revealed students’ misconceptions about protein structures. Approximately one-third of students wrote that quarternary structures are comprised of multiple proteins rather than multiple polypeptide subunits. This misconception went beyond what had previously been reported in the literature and, thereby, contributes to ways of improving student learning.

M-Write Writing Fellows meet with John Sweetland

The twelve faculty who participate in M-Write say they appreciate learning more about students’ understanding (or lack of it) regarding course content because it enables them to change their pedagogy. For example, when students’ written responses to an M-Write prompt revealed that they were confused about the concept of comparative advantage in an economics course, the instructor presented the information in a different way and the next semester students demonstrated less confusion. Another aspect of M-Write that faculty appreciate is the opportunity to work with Writing Fellows. These Fellows are nominated by faculty and trained in a Sweetland course to understand prompts, manage the automated peer review tool, convey understandings about peer review and revision, and to monitor the writing students produce in response to prompts. The approximately 200 Fellows who have participated in M-Write claim that they learn the subject matter more fully, develop confidence as writers, and feel more engaged in learning as a result of their role. Faculty report that Writing Fellows enhance their experience of teaching large classes.  Fellows help faculty feel more connected to their students at the same time that they offer useful insights into the ways students understand course material.

Looking ahead, M-Write is positioned to play a key role in the University’s Foundational Course Initiative. The goal of this initiative is to enhance the learning experience of students in all of the large enrollment courses that serve as gateways to a wide variety of disciplines. With its capacity to engage students in deeper conceptual learning, M-Write will offer an important contribution to the FCI.

MWrite Faculty Seminar

MWrite Faculty Seminar

In big introductory classes where hundreds of students are enrolled, M-Write is changing the way they learn. Now in its second year, M-Write, funded by one of U-M’s Third Century grants, an NSF grant, and funds from the Keck foundation, is incorporating writing into students’ learning experiences. Several times each semester students in statistics, economics, biology, chemistry, and material science engineering are required to write about key concepts in the subject they are studying.

These prompts or assignments, which are written by the professors give students an opportunity to show what they are learning in a form other than a multiple-choice test. For example, students in economics are asked to read a short article in the Wall Street Journal and then write an economics-informed explanation of how the USDA could react to an overproduction of milk and cheese. Students write their response and upload it to an automated peer review tool. This tool distributes the paper to several other students, and the author, in turn, receives papers from several classmates. Each student in the class reads papers from several peers and, using a rubric prepared by the professor, provides feedback on how the author might improve the response. Then all students in the class revise their original responses and submit a final version.


Winter 2017 M-Write Writing Fellows

Writing Fellows, students who were successful in the course in a previous semester, and who have received training in writing from Sweetland, provide support to students in the course. They help explain prompts, show students how to negotiate the peer review tool, explain what helpful peer review looks like, and offer suggestions for ways of using peer feedback in writing revisions. At the discretion of the professor, Writing Fellows also monitor student performance throughout the writing process.

In fall 2017, a new group of faculty are participating in the inaugural M-Write Seminar. They are learning about the program, developing prompts, and planning to implement M-Write in their courses in either winter 2018 or fall 2018 semesters. Within the year students in physics, astronomy, health sciences, mechanical engineering, and biophysics will have the opportunity to write about what they are learning. For further information about M-Write, visit the M-Write section of our website.


2017 M-Write Seminar Participants

Jimmy Brancho, Sweetland
Adam Eickmeyer, HSSP – Health Sciences Scholars Program
Ingrid Hendy, Earth & Environmental Science
Tim McKay, Physics
Jim Penner-Hahn, Chemistry/Biophysics
Perry Samson, School of Information
Angela Violi, Engineering

Graduate Students
Kimberly Frauhammer, School of Information
Joseph Meadows, Chemistry
Peter Meisenheimer, Engineering
Tom Finzell Physics
Qi Wang, Engineering
Yi Wang, Earth & Environmental Science

Gere, Anne Sweetland
Sano, Larissa Sweetland

John Sweetland meets with M-Write Fellows

The Launch of M-Write

Students in Organic Chemistry, Economics 101 and Statistics 250 all found something new in their classes this fall–regular writing about the big ideas these courses present. They have been writing about concepts such as aromaticity and resonance, opportunity cost and trade, along with standard deviation and histograms. During the summer, instructors in these courses identified key concepts, focusing on the ones that students typically find most difficult, and M-Write staff, in consultation with the course faculty, developed writing prompts that address these concepts. Ginger Shultz from chemistry, Mitchell Dudley from economics, and Brenda Gunderson from statistics are the faculty members leading these innovations.

M-Write, a project funded by the University’s Third Century Fund, aims to transform the teaching and learning in large enrollment gateway courses so that there is more opportunity for student engagement and transformative learning. Project directors Ginger Shultz and Anne Gere have also received funding from the National Science Foundation and the Keck Foundation for closely related projects. All of these projects follow the same pattern of developing writing prompts based on key concepts to which students respond with a draft, participate in automated peer review, and write a revision to solidify their learning.

L to R: Solaire Finkenstaedt-Quinn, Dave Harlan, Anne Ruggles Gere, Raymond Pugh, Larissa Sano, Alena Moon, and Ginger Shultz

As part of the preparation for this fall’s implementation, M-Write’s new software developer, Dave Harlan, improved upon the automated peer review that is already part of Canvas, the University’s course management system, so students are able to write in response to a given prompt, upload it, and receive drafts from several other students to review and comment upon. In turn, they receive comments from other students, and these, along with what students glean from reading the drafts of others, enable them to revise their own drafts. In other words, M-Write makes it possible for students in very large gateway classes, of several hundred or even a couple thousand students, to write and receive feedback on their work.

Of course the technology is only part of the story. Every M-Write course has a cadre of advanced undergraduates who support and monitor the writing of students in the class. These Writing Fellows, as the advanced undergraduates are called, have already completed the gateway course and have been nominated by their professors. New Writing Fellows take a Sweetland course that prepares them to help students with everything from the technology of the peer review system to strategies for using feedback to revise a draft. (See the M-Write Fellows article for more information about the Writing Fellows practicum course.)

This fall’s implementation was preceded by a pilot course in Materials Science Engineering (MSE) where all the elements of M-Write were employed for the first time. That course made the limitations of Canvas’s peer review system visible and led to the development of the modified system. In addition, the MSE course provided an opportunity to learn more about how students experience M-Write. Overall, student response was very positive. Comments such as: “The writing helped me understand difficult concepts,” “I didn’t realize what I didn’t know until I started writing the prompt about phase diagrams,” and “I learned a lot from reading what other students wrote about polymers,” were typical, and they validate the M-Write premise that writing fosters learning.

During Winter Semester M-Write will add courses in biology and take on expanded versions of Economics 101 and Materials Science Engineering. Plans are in place to add additional courses in the fall and to initiate a Sweetland Seminar for Engaged Learning that will bring together experienced and new faculty interested in incorporating M-Write into their courses. For further information about M-Write, visit the M-Write section of our website.

M-Write Undergrad Writing Fellows

This Fall, Sweetland welcomed twenty-four undergraduate students to participate in a new Writing Fellows Program. This effort is part of the larger MWrite Project, which is working to integrate writing-to-learn pedagogies into several U-M Gateway courses. The current Writing Fellows are helping implement MWrite into several large courses this semester including Stats 250, Econ 101, and Chem 216. Each of these courses has at least seven Writing Fellows who are assigned to work with a subset of students on their writing assignments. Most of these assignments involve a rigorous three-step process that includes drafting, peer-review, and revision. The Writing Fellows help with the different stages of this process, by working with students to understand the assignment question and to develop robust and detailed responses. An important step in developing strong responses is the use of peer feedback and revision. Fellows play an important role in this too, as they oversee the submission process for assignments as well as track the peer review process and assess the strength of revision of final submissions. Fellows thus help ensure that the students in their courses are gaining as much as possible from the writing assignments as well as the writing process.


To help prepare them for these responsibilities, Writing Fellows enroll in a practicum course that both covers the elements of the writing process as well as considers ways that writing can strengthen learning. Through this practicum, Fellows explore the ways in which they can help students more rigorously answer the assignment questions, both in terms of understanding the nature of the question, as well as by helping students consider the feedback they receive about their answers and how they can revise them to make their responses stronger.

To be eligible for the Writing Fellows program, students must have successfully completed the course to which they are assigned. They must also be nominated by a faculty member and have an interest in working with STEM students.

This first cohort of Writing Fellows is proving instrumental to the MWrite Project. Not only are the Fellows helping students in their courses engage more rigorously in the writing-to-learn process, they are also providing valuable feedback about ways to enhance and improve writing-to-learn opportunities at the University of Michigan.