Writing to Learn: The Effects of Summary Writing and Learning Log Strategies on Achievement in and Attitude Toward Biology Among Ninth Grade Students

Carol Tempest
CARR Wirth-Santoro Scholarship Research Report

The purpose of this study was to determine the effects selected writing-to-learn approaches would have on secondary high school students’ achievement in and attitudes toward biology. Previous studies have found that writing to learn has significantly enhanced student knowledge in content areas (Daniels, 1989; Dyer, 1988; Johnson, 1991; McGinley & Tierney, 1989; Newell, 1986; Sharp, 1987; Tierney & Soter, 1989; Willey, 1988).

Background of the Study

Researchers suggest that summarization activity is beneficial for comprehension and retention of information (Irwin, 1991; Kintch & VanDijk, 1978). Furthermore, Meyer (1980) demonstrated that students who used textual structure to organize summaries recalled more than those who did not.

It has been suggested that readers who elaborate recall more than those who do not {Irwin, 1991; Reder, 1980). With learning logs students elaborate on text. Maintaining a learning log can increase writing fluency, stimulate cognitive growth, and reinforce learning (Atwell, 1990; Calkins, 1986; Jacobson, 1987; Vacca & Vacca, 1989).

Some researchers claim that student attitude is significantly correlated to achievement (Hayes, 1984; Khan & Weiss’, 1973; Punch, 1989). However, there is no substantial body of empirical research that supports the assumption that a favorable attitude toward science by ninth grade students contributes to learning, nor has previous research demonstrated that the combined effects of a traditional instructional program and summary writing or learning log strategies are more effective than traditional instruction alone in teaching biology to ninth grade students.

Statement of Purpose

This study was designed to address the following research questions:

  1. Is there a significant difference among the teaching methods (traditional, traditional with a learning log component, traditional with a summary writing component) with respect to science achievement after adjustment for initial differences in reading ability?
  2. Is there a significant difference among the teaching methods (traditional, traditional with a learning log component, traditional with a summary writing component) with respect to attitude toward science after adjustment for initial differences in attitude?
  3. Is there a significant difference among the teaching methods (traditional, traditional with a learning log component, traditional with a summary writing component) with respect to long-term retention of content information in biology after adjustment for initial differences in achievement?


To answer these questions, the following procedures were followed.

A teacher and 57 subjects were selected to participate in the study. Permission from administrators was granted for the use of both the teacher and subjects for the six-week period. The purpose and procedures of the experiment were explained to the administrators.

The investigator met with the participating teacher to explain the rationale, treatment procedures, test measures, and the amount of time required to complete the study. The investigator also provided training for the classroom teacher, along with materials needed to conduct the study.

The investigator administered the Degrees of Reading Power test prior to the six-week unit. The classroom teacher provided three lessons to each experimental group to clarify writing strategies to be used. He also administered the Attitudes Toward Science instrument as a pretest measure of attitude toward science.

Each group included in the study met for one 4 5  minute period per day, five days per week, for biology instruction with the same teacher. The unit of study required six weeks of instructional time. During this time the learning log group was assigned entries as homework, to be written following the completion of each reading assignment in the unit. The summary writing group wrote summaries of text material as homework, following the completion of each reading assignment. Reading assignments were given three times per week. The traditional group wrote answers to factual, literal-level, end-of-chapter questions as homework, following the completion of each reading assignment. Reading assignments were given three times per week. The traditional group wrote answers to factual, literal-level,end-of-chapter questions as homework on three separate occasions during the six-week period.

Following the six-week unit, the investigator administered the Attitudes Toward Science instrument to each student as a post-test measure of attitude change. The classroom teacher administered the post-test measure of achievement, “Muscles, Bones, and Blood” unit test to each student. Six months following the unit of study the classroom teacher administered the retention measure of achievement, “Muscles, Bones, and Blood” unit test to 27 of the subjects.

All data were analyzed statistically by analysis of covariance. An informal analysis of student written performance was undertaken by the investigator and conclusions were developed based upon the results of the data analysis.

Hypothesis 1 Results

Hypothesis 1 dealt with the differences between different teaching methods with respect to academic achievement. More specifically, the groups consisted of one control group involved in traditional instruction, and two experimental groups engaged in specific writing-tolearn activities.

The ANCOVA (analysis of covariance) resulted in a significant difference between the three levels of the independent variable. Therefore, it was possible to reject the first null hypothesis at the .05 level.

The differences were then statistically analyzed using the Tukey post hoc test. An examination of the results revealed that the adjusted means for achievement for the learning log group (Group 1) were significantly greater than the adjusted means for the summary writing group (Group 3). The adjusted means for the learning log group (Group 1) and for the summary writing group (Group 3) did not differ significantly from the adjusted means for the traditional group (Group 2).

Summary Writing Group Test Results

These findings suggest that the application of learning log and summary writing strategies does not lead to an increase in knowledge of biology on multiple-choice examinations based upon the objectives of a single unit of study. Summary writing was intended to provide students with a method to increase their ability to retain information from their reading. This strategy enables students to use the top-level structure of expository text. Summarizing allows readers to continuously synthesize and reduce the amount of information stored in short-term memory for the purpose of interpreting incoming text. This ongoing process of summarizing, called macroprocessing, is considered valuable to comprehension (Irwin, 1991; Kintch & VanDijk, 1978). It is also viewed as a means of connecting central ideas of a text, thereby making these ideas more accessible to recall.

In this study students who engaged in summary writing did not demonstrate greater ability to recall content material, as evidenced on the achievement test, than those students who did not write summaries. Several factors may have been responsible for these results. Students may not have improved because of the novelty ofthe strategy. Though the teacher provided guidance and training, the task of summarizing text material is difficult. Summarizers have different concepts of the task, different levels of summarizing skill, and different levels of content knowledge relative to the text to be summarized (Hare, 1992).

Also, some students have little regard for the value of summarizing, or do not see how this strategy can influence their academic performance. Therefore, many students will attempt to complete the task of writing a summary as quickly as possible. Brown and Day (1983) found that many subjects in their study deleted low-level information provided by the author and then merely copied text into their summaries (Hare, 1992). The availability of the text to the student makes this copying behavior more apparent. Hare (1992) also believes that the purpose for summarizing seems to significantly affect the summarizing enterprise. When the purpose is understood, students are apt to produce better summaries. In the present study, even though the methods and procedures for summarizing were detailed by the teacher, he may not have clearly explained the purpose of summarizing to the subjects.

Another issue relative to success in summarizing is text familiarity. Researchers have determined that narrative text is more comprehendible and easier to summarize than expository text (Hare, 1992). Science text may be even more difficult to summarize than expository text from other disciplines. For example, Daniels (1989) conducted a study in which students summarized social studies text. The study revealed that the students who summarized performed significantly better on an achievement measure than those who did not. Social studies text is generally more similar to narrative material than science text. Thus, in Daniel’s study, this factor may have given students greater ease in summarizing and perhaps contributed to the success of the summary writing groups.

There are other difficulties relative to summarization of expository text. Students find it difficult to summarize completely novel text-content because all ideas seem equally important (Hare, 1992). Although the students involved in the present investigation had been using the biology text previously, the topics in the unit of study were new to them This may have had an effect on their ability to summarize the material successfully. Indeed, it may be that summarizing is only effective as a combined reading and writing process, as Taylor (1986) discovered in his study. According to Hare (1992), selection and condensation of information occur recursively from the moment of encoding a text, to the completion of a written summary. Students involved in the present study had little training in the process of summarizing, and may not have been involved in on-line summarization and summarizing while reading. In this case, the difficulty of the task of summary writing may have been further compounded. Again, this possible limitation may have resulted from the teacher’s lack of experience in teaching writing, along with his omission of instruction to students regarding the usefulness of the strategies. Further difficulty may have resulted from students focusing their attention on the process of summarizing rather than on the content of the material being summarized.

Finally, because the act of summarizing is a complex one, with many factors influencing success, it may be necessary to engage in the process for a longer period of time in order to gain mastery. The relative brevity of the “Muscles, Bones, and Blood” unit may have hindered student ability to produce quality summaries that would allow them to reap the benefits of enhanced recall ability as a result.

Learning Log Group Test Results

The other writing to learn strategy, learning logs, was intended to provide students with a means for elaborating text material. Irwin (1991) and Reder (1980) state that elaboration of text content facilitates recall and makes information more useful to students. According to Weinstein (1989) use of elaboration strategies improves future recall and helps students to store new information with related knowledge. Many of the proponents of writing to learn believe that it is this facet, the ability to personalize the material being learned, which enhances academic achievement (Fulwiler & Young, 1982; Mayer & Lester, 1983; Mitchell, 1989). Many professionals believe that the act of combining text information in various ways is another aspect of writing which is beneficial to students learning new content (Giroux, 1979; Kurfiss, 1985; Nostrand, 1979). Learning logs provided the students in the present study with the opportunity to engage in this personalizing and manipulative activity with respect to their text reading. The researcher therefore anticipated that students who wrote elaborative learning log entries would recall more of the information from the text than those who did not.

This belief however did not hold true in the present investigation. The learning log group was unable to attain significantly higher scores than the traditional group on the test of achievement. Several factors may have been responsible for these results. Students’ unfamiliarity with the learning log strategy may have contributed to a lack of improvement. The researcher found evidence of improvement in learning log entries as the study progressed. Students chose most often to respond to prompt five, ”This reading was important because … ”, when elaborating on text material in their learning logs. However further analysis of student selection of particular prompts, indicated that prompt selection did not reflect differences in scores on the achievement measure.

With respect to the writing strategies themselves, the learning log group did significantly better than the summary writers. This finding suggests that perhaps learning logs are more beneficial to students than summary writing. Two explanations can be offered for this outcome. First, summarizing text is more difficult than elaborating on the material. Second, elaboration is a more personal writing activity than summarizing. While engaged in elaboration, the students are metacognitively involved in creating meaning from text. Because the nature of learning logs allows for more personal involvement,· it may be more motivational to students than summarizing text. This motivational factor was evident in the present study. In conversations with his students, the teacher discovered that students who were assigned summary writing felt as though they were being treated unfairly; that the learning log and traditional groups were involved in more interesting activities.

A strong positive correlation between teacher explanation and student awareness was found in an earlier study (DuffY, G. G., Roehler, L. R., Meloth, M. S., Vavrus, L. G., Book, C., Putnam, J., & Wessleman, R., 1986). These researchers suggested that instructional talk has a powerful effect on what students remember and understand. In the present study, the teacher provided practice in both strategies, but did not explicitly explain the purpose for engaging in either summary writing or maintaining learning logs. As a result, student awareness of the purpose of engaging in these writing strategies was not evident.

Other Factors

Also, the time of day may have attributed to the findings of the present study. The summary writing group, with the lowest mean on the achievement measure, was the only group who met for biology instruction in the afternoon. Perhaps the students’ ability to attend to and benefit from lectures was affected by this time variable.

A final consideration relevant to the fmdings was the nature of the measure of academic achievement. The “Muscles, Bones, and Blood” unit test consisted of 50 multiple-choice items which reflected the established objectives for the unit of study. One explanation for the lack of statistical significance between the writing groups and the traditional group may be that the unit test addressed simple recall and recognition. These processes are perhaps best learned through memorization. A traditional approach to instruction which emphasizes knowledge as the gathering of facts would be sufficient in promoting student mastery on tests of recall and recognition. A post hoc comparison of text questions answered by the traditional group and the test questions on the achievement measure, demonstrated that the cognitive demands of these two tasks were similar. Therefore, the traditional group was actually provided with the opportunity to practice prior to the unit test by answering factual, literal-level, end-of-chapter questions on three separate occasions during the unit of study.

Hypothesis 2 Results

Hypothesis 2 dealt with differences among the three groups in attitudes toward science content and learning. This construct was measured through the administration of a pre- and post-attitude survey. The ANCOVA results indicated no significant differences between the groups with respect to the dependent variable, attitude. Therefore, it was not possible to reject the second null hypothesis. Attitudes were found to vary greatly both before and after treatments. This inconsistency made further interpretation of the attitude results inappropriate. The fmdings confirmed that attitude was not significantly different between the experimental and control groups.

Hypothesis 3 Results

Hypothesis 3 dealt with differences among the three groups with respect to long-term retention of content information in biology. The ANCOV A results indicated no significant differences between the groups with respect to long-term retention. Therefore, it was not possible to reject the third null hypothesis. Because the results of the ANCOV A neared significance, the experimenter examined the differences in group means and noted that the learning log group performed substantially better than the traditional group, though this was not revealed as statistically significant. The small sample-size for the retention measure, 27 students, may account for this lack of significance.

Personalizing content information through elaboration, as students did in the learning logs employed in the present study, may have an effect on a student’s ability to remember text information for longer periods of time. Because of the lack of statistical significance no further interpretation of the retention results was conducted.


This study suggests that the writing-to-learn strategies (learning logs and summary writing) do not have a significant effect on biology achievement as measured by an end-of-unit, multiple-choice objective test following a six-week unit of study. However, the novelty of the strategies to the students involved in the present study may have inhibited the ability of these students to benefit from the writing activities. Further, the limited experience that the teacher had with writing instruction and the use of writing in his teaching, may have influenced his ability to effectively use the writing-to-learn techniques in the instruction of biology.

The nature of the test may also have been an inhibiting factor. The current focus on measures such as recall and recognition maintains a narrow emphasis on knowledge-change as simply the gathering of facts. This knowledge accretion seems to be a peripheral outcome of writing·. Instead, the power of writing would appear to be in reconceptualizing certain aspects of knowledge and internalizing information. These processes would enhance the learners’ ability to apply that knowledge in future academic undertakings (Schumacher & Nash, 1991). The results of the attitude survey indicate that attitude is variable for ninth grade students with respect to science. ·The incorporation of writing-to-learn strategies did not effect attitude change in any of the groups over the six week period. Perhaps in a more longitudinal study, findings would be different. The short-term effect of the writing strategies on attitude toward science was insignificant.

On the other hand, the data revealed that long-term retention of content information may be improved through the use of learning logs. The students who were actively involved in manipulating information and making it relevant to their own experiences could recall this information more successfully than those who wrote more objectively in summary writing and answering literal-level comprehension questions following the reading of a text. Though this fmding did not prove to be statistically significant, it suggests that elaboration may play a role in retention of content information.

An informal analysis of the students’ written work revealed that most students who were successful at adhering to strategy guidelines for summary writing and learning logs scored at or above the mean on the achievement test. Students whose writing was of a lesser quality, and were not able to adhere to guidelines provided, performed less well on the achievement measure. Though it is inconclusive, this observation suggests that a student’s academic achievement may be enhanced as the student becomes more proficient in writing summaries and learning log entries.


The ease of implementing these writing-to-learn strategies makes them appealing for daily classroom use. These strategies may also be used by students in interdisciplinary endeavors as they are not content specific. Though the writing groups did not significantly outperform the traditional group on the test of academic achievement, the students who wrote were provided with the opportunity to increase writing fluency (Jacobson, 1987; Vacca & Vacca, 1989).

The fact that students who wrote in learning logs were most successful in retaining content information six months following the unit of study, suggests that learning logs might be used to enhance long-term retention of information. Further, the learning log group scored significantly higher that the summary writing group on the measure of academic achievement. This finding suggests that of the two writing strategies, learning logs may be more effective for enhancing academic achievement over a short-term period. Because the study focused on a single six-week unit of study and the students who wrote summaries had not mastered this task, it may be that summary writing is more beneficial once students have perfected their ability to summarize.


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