Freewriting: Untapped Metacognition

Freewriting: Untapped Metacognition

A first-year composition lesson is about to begin: the instructor takes attendance, pulls up her PowerPoint, and asks students to take out something to write with; they’re going to start with a freewrite. This is a common scene in writing classrooms, often used as an activity to capture students’ attention, ask them to form an opinion, explore their ideas on the subject matter, prepare for small-group discussions, etc. But freewriting as an activity to cultivate ideas, to ask students to express themselves, or to simply wake up ignores an aspect that instructors often overlook: freewriting as a metacognitive tool. Metacognition is a hot topic in education and has been proven to be a keystone in transfer, and instructors are constantly trying new things to improve the metacognitive skills of their students. This paper will give a brief review of metacognition, explain the background of freewriting, and suggest how freewriting as metacognition might be incorporated in the classroom.


Introduced by John Flavell in 1976, metacognition has grown to be an astounding body of scholarship. It means thinking about one’s thinking, and at its foundation is a critical awareness of one’s learning that facilitates success in education (Anderson; Flavell; National Academies of Sciences; Tanner). Metacognition is often broken into three: planning, monitoring, and evaluation. (Anderson; Lv and Chen; Tanner). Though scholars use different terms, metacognitive strategies can usually be placed into one of these categories. Students utilizing metacognition learn more effectively because of their ability to “monitor their progress, determine when they are having problems, and adjust their learning accordingly” (Ford et al, 220). Tanner suggests multidisciplinary activities that facilitate metacognition at different learning phases, including asking students to evaluate what they already know before the unit starts, identify things they are confused about in medias res, and recognize how their thinking has grown and changed after all is finished. (116). As students engage in metacognition, they can think through their learning choices, empowering them to make better decisions.

Transfer, students’ ability to take knowledge from one situation or class and use it in another, has been identified as a key benefit of student metacognition (Beauford, 152; Driscoll et al.). If students think about what they are doing academically and why, they can identify other areas of their lives where the same learning applies. Today, many scholars use reflective journaling to prompt student metacognition for transfer in first-year writing, including N.J. Anderson, who recommends the method with two caveats: First, the types of questions given by the teacher must prompt students to be aware of their thinking. Anderson gives sample questions, such as asking students what they need to do in their next essay to improve their score, what strategies they use to listen in class, and what they could do better that would improve their learning. It is not enough to simply ask students what they did wrong: students must be able to identify the how and why as well. Second, teachers must explicitly discuss cognitive processes. The goal is not to “trick” students into being mindful. Anderson writes, “Teachers must be consistent in their reminders of the importance of being metacognitively aware during learning” (182). If a student does not know he or she is being metacognitive, then the benefits of metacognition, such as transfer, probably are not happening like we want. But if instructors write good prompts and give students enough cognitive instruction, metacognition through reflective journals can improve student learning and writing exponentially.

Lindenman et al. second Anderson’s work, arguing that though metacognition is important for student growth, getting students to use their newfound knowledge in their writing (in revision, specifically) is more difficult than it seems, and simply asking cogitating questions is often not enough. The researchers conducted a qualitative analysis of student revision and reflection assignments, coding both and looking for patterns. They found that sometimes students could write an insightful reflection on what their paper needs to improve, but when researchers looked at the “revised” writing sample, they found that much of the students’ own observations about their revision needs were left out of the final draft:

While this reflective exercise seems to have prompted students’ metacognitive awareness of their learning about writing and revision, for many students this awareness was not enough to help them translate their new knowledge into practice within the context of their revisions. (592)

If students can be metacognitive without then making any changes in their revision, or, in a broader sense, in their writing and learning strategy, then teachers’ asking students to simply reflect does not push them far enough, and the metacognitive debate now centers on finding the best ways to implement metacognitive strategy and activity in the classroom. As Lindenman et al. later write, “reflection, if implemented and taken up well, can play an important role in fostering students’ metacognitive writing awareness, which in turn can support their ability to revise their writing in substantive ways” (601). Metacognition through reflection can improve student writing, but teachers themselves must be mindful about how and when they ask students to engage in it, for if students are metacognitive only after their final draft is turned in, it’s often too late. It’s time to shake up the notion that reflective journals are the only way to prompt student metacognition about their writing. Freewriting, though similar to reflection in many ways, can bring student reflection into the entirety of the writing process, including the invention stage, thus opening an opportunity to dialogue with themselves about their piece throughout the writing process.


Peter Elbow, known as the father of expressivist writing, champions freewriting. Elbow’s interest in freewriting began with his theory of high-stakes/low-stakes writing. Writing at its lowest stake is produced by students who think that it won’t be collected at all, while high-stakes writing denotes a piece that will be thoroughly digested and judged by an instructor, usually accompanied with an important grade. Elbow began paying closer attention to the lower stakes writing produced in his classroom and noticed a disturbing pattern: it was often better than the high-stakes writing the same student turned in: “I’ve almost never seen a piece of low-stakes writing I couldn’t easily understand. But I’ve seen lots of high-stakes writing that students worked very hard on that was impenetrable” (Writing to Learn, 7). Students write better low-stakes assignments, Elbow argues, because they don’t exhaust all their concentration on the final product, allowing them to be in the moment without worrying about how it will all come together. Elbow suggests that low-stakes writing, writing that has often been ignored, is the key to students untangling their ideas.  

Like Elbow, Toby Fulwiler sees freewriting as a process of invention—allowing space for a student to flesh out his or her ideas. His book Teaching with Writing argues for writing as an interdisciplinary method for learning. Fulwiler cites French philosopher George Gusdorf, who wrote that writing has two purposes: to correspond with other people (communicative) and to develop thoughts (expressive) (3). According to Fulwiler, the problem with writing in higher education is that teachers encourage and expect students to write only communicatively, ignoring that students must first write expressively to understand the concepts they want to communicate. Fulwiler writes: “When people write about anything, they learn more about it. Often, they learn more than they intended—about what they know, what they don’t, and where they need to go next” (15). This helps explain Elbow’s problem of students’ best writing coming from their low-stakes assignments: as students write freely to themselves, they aren’t worried about an artificial audience and have the space to figure out their thinking.

Elbow’s book Writing Without Teachers calls for freewriting as a method to help students write expressively at their best—as long as instructors keep the stakes low: “The main thing is that a freewriting must never be evaluated in any way” (4). Students can invent while freewriting only if they aren’t worried about how it may be judged. Elbow gives two extended metaphors that explain how freewriting can develop good writing and good ideas: growing and cooking. Growing refers to how writing develops through stages. The more students write, the better their ideas get. The first draft, even if it is absolute garbage, becomes the “center of gravity” that each successive draft revolves around (20). Elbow’s growing model encourages digressions: as we write about X, questions may emerge, so we start to write about Y. Or, like engaging in Hegel’s synthesis, we write about X, write about Y, and conclude that the only possible answer can be Z. As we write, our message grows, morphing into something bigger, better, and, potentially, totally different from our original direction.

The same dramatic change is encouraged in Elbow’s cooking metaphor through the combining of thoughts, like flavors, to create something new. Language is required for thinking, making thought inherently conversational (Bruffee, Oakeshott, Vygotsky). This is why our best ideas often come from talking with someone else. Elbow argues that, through freewriting, we can have this idea-generating chat alone through internal conversations about our own thinking. Like visiting a colleague’s office to brainstorm ideas for a new paper, freewriting takes our conflicting ideas and reshapes them:

Just as two people, if they let their ideas interact, can produce ideas or points of view that neither could singly have produced, a lone person, if he learns to maximize the interaction among his own ideas or points of view, can produce new ones that didn’t seem available to him. (Writing Without Teachers, 50)

Like brainstorming with other people opens new doors of thought, freewriting can be a process of brainstorming with yourself, and, often, writers discover new ideas that then lead their writing. Elbow writes, “As in all cooking, new ideas and perceptions result. Connections are loosened so that something may develop or grow in whatever its potential directions are” (Writing Without Teachers 54). Freewriting is the vehicle that allows one to converse with oneself about one’s thinking, and this conversation creates ideas that wouldn’t have emerged otherwise. Elbow’s metaphors of freewriting are both, along with Fulwiler’s writing to learn pedagogy, sold as a method of invention (Cer). And many instructors implement freewriting into their classrooms for that purpose. However, there is something bigger going on. As students write as fast as possible without worrying about what others will think of it, they are literally thinking on paper, and if they go back and look at their thoughts, they can engage with themselves and see what is working and not working, a valuable aspect of metacognition.

Freewriting as Metacognition

Metacognition through freewriting differs from reflective journaling in a few key ways: First, freewriting is most often low stakes. In reflective journaling, students are often still writing to their instructor as an audience, jotting down whatever they think they need to say to get an A. Perhaps this was the case with Linderman et al.’s revision journals, which students knew would be evaluated on a few different levels. Students wrote about changes that could improve their papers, changes they knew their professors would like to read, but then failed to incorporate the revisions. Maybe the stakes were simply too high. Freewriting, if done correctly, relays students’ true thoughts on paper. They don’t have to worry about writing what they think their teachers want to read; they can write honest thoughts about their learning process. Elbow gives the following instructions to ensure that unmediated thought gets on the page:

Don’t stop for anything. Go quickly without rushing. Never stop to look back, to cross something out, to wonder how to spell something, to wonder what word or thought to use, or to think about what you are doing. . . . The easiest thing is to put down whatever is in your mind. . . . Make some words, whatever they are, and then grab hold of that line and reel in as hard as you can. (Writing Without Teachers, 6)

If implemented correctly, the students don’t have time to write what they think the professor is looking for; they write their true thoughts. Because the assignment is low stakes, they aren’t worried about making sure they are writing the “right” thing. This leads to the students’ ability to analyze their writing as their own thoughts on the page, leading to students’ thinking about their thinking.

Unlike reflective journaling, metacognition through freewriting would be assigned throughout the writing process. Now, reflections are most often assigned either right before students get started with a writing assignment or right after they turn the assignment in. An example can be found in Mindful Writing, a first-year composition textbook. The author, Brian Jackson, tells students that they should reflect throughout the writing process, yet gives them timing-specific questions that are labeled as either “projecting,” or “reviewing.” Under projecting, he suggests questions such as “what does my instructor want me to do?” And “what do readers of this genre expect?” (104) Questions he lists under the reviewing column include “how did I do with the goals I set as a writer?” and “to what extent have I achieved my purposes for writing?” (105) Clearly, reflection isn’t utilized as well as it could be to promote metacognition throughout the writing process. That’s where freewriting comes in. With prompts like, “what additional research do I need to complete to improve my current draft,” and “what habits do I need to change to reach my current writing goal,” given in the middle of the unit, students can see their internalized thoughts on paper, think about them, and allow the newfound insights to guide their current project during the writing process, instead of simply projecting goals before they start writing and reviewing those goals once they are finished. When viewed as a reflective activity to be used throughout the semester and writing process, freewriting becomes bigger than a throwaway inventive activity: it’s an opportunity for students to connect with themselves through their low-stakes writing.

For this metacognitive aspect to occur, students must return to their freewriting, an aspect that is often forgotten in traditional reflection. Instructors and students usually think of freewriting as garbage to be thrown away after it’s finished, but to Elbow, and to me, throwing away freewriting destroys an important opportunity. Elbow writes the following:

Try, then, to write words on paper so as to permit an interaction between you and not-you. You are building someone to talk to. This means two stages: first put out words on paper as freely as possible, trying to be so fully involved that you don’t even think about it and don’t experience any gap between you and the words: just talk onto the paper. But then, in the second stage, stand back and make as large a gap as you can between you and the words: set them aside and then pick them up and try to read them as though they came out of someone else. Learn to interact with them, react to them. Learn to let them produce a new reaction or response in you. (Writing without Teachers 55-56)

This activity, this coming back to the writing and reading it as if you were someone else, is metacognition at its finest. Students without thinking about what they are writing, thus writing down their true thoughts, and then come back to it to critically analyze their thinking process. Like in Elbow’s cooking metaphor, students are asked to engage with themselves and then move further, critically analyzing their own thoughts to see their current learning practices and decide what they could do better.

By reframing freewriting as metacognition, one can see that the activity offers a valuable space for students to converse with themselves about their writing process; it is much more than simply a method of invention. Unlike reflective journaling, students can analyze their unmediated thoughts throughout the writing process. And as instructors ask questions that facilitate metacognition, reminding students of the importance and benefits of thinking about their own thinking, students gain valuable insights into their academic performance. Here are some examples of how that might look in a classroom.

Pedagogical Implications

The writing process is a common first-year writing topic that is notorious for not transferring to student practice. A professor can talk until they are blue in the face about how much better it is to have a plan in place a few weeks before the paper is due, but, inevitably, a student will wait until the day before the writing is due to complete most of the work. In this case, I believe freewriting as a method of metacognition could help. Instead of this lecture where the instructor admonishes and threatens, imagine a freewrite that asks students the following: “How is your writing process failing you?” A student then thinks on paper, writing honestly, because there is no room for anything but honesty in a true freewrite, that she hasn’t been writing very well ever since she started doing all her homework in her bedroom. Next, for a student to get anything out of the freewrite, she needs to read it objectively and think about what it means. And no student is going to take time out of their busy schedules to do an unassigned reflection on their in-class writing. No, instructors must allow at least a few in-class minutes for students to think about what they wrote and to, as Elbow asks, engage with themselves as if they were talking to a friend. I believe many would end up giving themselves some solid advice. Maybe the student writes about how she always listens to distracting music, or that she can’t get anything done when her roommates are home, something she didn’t notice until she wrote about it and then read what she wrote. This new awareness can lead to some productive changes, leaving students in a much better place to listen to following lessons on writing strategy because they have done the metacognitive work to see how it can benefit their academic career.

Similarly, freewriting could be a helpful activity to teach students how to read materials closely, a common learning objective in first-year writing. One could assign students a chapter about reading and then, to start the next class period, ask them to write for five to ten minutes about how they did the reading and why they chose those methods. The instructor could then ask students to engage with their own writing as Elbow asks, looking at it as if someone else wrote it. The first step to changing student bad habits, like simply glancing through the reading the night before, is for students to realize why they aren’t getting as much out of their reading as they could. Analyzing their own thoughts from a low-stakes freewrite could help students realize how their reading strategies hold them back. This will also encourage student engagement in upcoming lessons on reading strategies. As students realize what doesn’t work for them through a metacognitive freewrite, they will start looking for what does work, something that could be gleaned from class.

The final pedagogical implication I would like to talk about is freewriting in the process of revision. As Linderman et al. and Anderson have discussed, reflection is a helpful metacognitive tool that may be wasted in the writing classroom if instructors don’t utilize it correctly. Even while using freewriting, instructors must craft reflective prompts carefully and discuss metacognition with their students. Some prompts may be, “What do you know is missing from your paper?” or “What do you think is the weakest argument in your essay?” Next, allow students to write this low-stake assignment as Elbow instructed and give them time to read and reflect on what they wrote. The following activity may be a small group discussion where students ask each other about their freewrites and compare the changes they plan to make in their writing. As students write what they think instead of what they think needs to be on the page to get an A, they have some honest feedback from “not-them,” feedback that’s hopefully easier to incorporate than the BS they may have written in a higher-stakes reflective journal.


Elbow was onto something when he suggested freewriting, but he didn’t explore all of its potential benefits. Not only can it be used to explore and improve ideas, but it can also be used to help students have an honest conversation with themselves about what is lacking in their writing process during their writing process, promoting invaluable metacognition in the classroom. In the book How People Learn, Bransford et al. argue that metacognition is critical even in the learning of preschoolers: “If children lack insight to their own learning abilities, they can hardly be expected to plan efficiently” (57). And getting older doesn’t solve the issue. Everyone, including our composition students, needs to engage in some sort of metacognition to learn effectively, metacognition that can be facilitated by freewriting.


Works Cited

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Bruffee, Kenneth A. “Peer Tutoring and the ‘Conversation of Mankind.’” Landmark Essays: Writing Centers. Edited by Christina Murphy, Joe Law, Hermagoras Press, 1995, pp. 87-98.

Cer, Erkan. “The Instruction of Writing Strategies: The Effect of the Metacognitive Strategy on the Writing Skills of Pupils in Secondary Education.” SAGE Open, vol. 9, no. 2, 2019,

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Lindenman, Heather, et al. “Revision and Reflection: A Study of (Dis)Connections between Writing Knowledge and Writing Practice.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 69, no. 4, 2018, pp. 581-611. ProQuest,

Lv, Fenghua, and Hongxin Chen. “A Study of Metacognitive-Strategies-Based Writing Instruction for Vocational College Students.” English Language Teaching, vol. 3 no. 3, 2010, pp. 136-144.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (U.S.). How People Learn. Edited by National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (U.S.). The National Academies Press, Washington, DC, 2018.

Oakeshott, Michael. “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind,” Bowes and Bowes, 1960.

Tanner, Kimberly D. “Promoting Student Metacognition.” CBE – Life Sciences Education, vol. 11, no. 2, 2012, pp. 113-120,


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