Michael Seery explores how we might include meaningful writing assignments in our curriculum

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Source: nics_events on Flickr

One of the things I’ve been interested in recently (especially now as I trawl through hundreds of exam scripts!) is how our students write; or more precisely, what opportunities we give our students to develop their writing skills. I’m currently reading the literature on this, and it turns out there is quite a lot of work done on the topic of student writing in chemistry.

First though: a question. How do we currently integrate academic writing into our curriculum? A common assignment is often to get students to summarise a scientific article in order to develop their writing skills. There is a useful resource on Learn Chemistry for this very purpose.1 While these kind of assignments are well intentioned (I use them myself) they have, in my opinion, both practical and design flaws. The practical flaw is that if they are to be useful, a substantial amount of time is required to read and offer feedback on these articles. Such feedback is on draft work, meaning that there are at least two correction cycles. Even with the best intentions, it is challenging to find that time! I’ve tried getting students to write drafts for each other, based on the argument that if they write with the aim of trying to explain (instead of trying to get marks), the quality is better. But although this can result in better quality drafts, the feedback requirements are still significant.

The design flaw with this assignment is that it is really two assignments in one. We are asking students to read and understand the content of a scientific article (writing to learn), and then write about it (learning to write). There is a conflict in what the purpose of the assignment is. While it may be attractive to give students an interesting article to work on, I think for the purpose of learning to write, it is better to ask them to write about some chemistry that they already understand.

Using the Lab Report

Of course most of the writing chemistry students do is in the form of laboratory reports. As there is already a lot of time invested in these in terms of feedback, the focus on integrating academic writing in the curriculum should be on what we can do with the traditional lab report. This is the very topic that Moskovitz and Kellogg approach in their article in Science.2 They argue that a requirement that the laboratory report mimics the traditional research report is pedagogically unsound, because students are not in a position to place their results in the context of their own research agenda (the typical introduction in a research report) and as they are usually provided with a procedure, it is “a sham” to ask them to write their own. What students do have, Moskovitz and Kellogg argue, is lots of data from their experiment.  Therefore an authentic writing exercise would be to allow them to use this data to argue a point of view based on their findings. They illustrate this with an example where some students in a class group had contaminated reagents, but no-one knows who had them. The report then becomes more about writing a convincing argument. They propose that the lab report be just one page long, which would begin with the main claim, followed by relevant experimental data and an argument justifying their claim. Thus they have to decide which data to include to justify their claim, discussing this in the accompanying text.

This kind of approach appears to be a sensible strategy to begin to include meaningful writing assignments into the curriculum. I’d be very interested to hear opinions on this or other ideas which allow students to develop their writing skills.

Image Credit: "Editing a paper" - nics_events on Flickr