The science behind writing

The science behind writing

Photo Credits: COURTESY

UC Davis science faculty find incorporating writing into traditional science classes improves academic performance among students.

Writing may not be every scientist’s favorite subject. In order to change this, some UC Davis science professors are starting to incorporate writing into science coursework, from entry-level biological science courses to advanced, upper-division biochemistry and cell biology courses.

“Every discipline needs strong writing skills,” said Scott Dawson, a professor in the UC Davis Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics. “You are always teaching something in some way. As scientists, we have to convey something that we know to other people – other scientists, lab members or non-scientists. There’s jargon and concepts that might not be common knowledge.”

Students enrolled in Dawson’s BIS 10, biological sciences for non-Science majors, were tasked with drafting up public service announcements. Students wrote their own scripts detailing pressing public health concerns, including Human Papilloma Virus, and the scientific concepts involved, such as how viruses hijack human cells. The videos were then shared across campus, encouraging students to think of creative ways to reach each other through writing and video while building a foundation in science concepts.

“Writing takes scientific information and helps you understand it better,” Dawson said. “Science is a language — you need to go beyond the memorization part of learning science as [a] language to speaking it as a way of practicing your understanding.”

The goal of the course, according to Dawson, was to teach science literacy so students could make informed choices in the future, even if they choose non-science professions.

Mona Monfared, a professor in the UC Davis Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, reached a similar conclusion in her BIS 102, Structure and Function of Biomolecules,  and BIS 103, Bioenergetics and Metabolism, courses.

Monfared surveyed students in BIS 102 courses with and without writing assignments over a period of several quarters. During the quarters with writing assignments, she included two 350-word assignments. Students explored a topic related to class and wrote about the biochemical concepts involved.

Monfared found students appreciated building their writing experience after completing the process in class. For students enrolled in BIS 102 courses who had little writing experience, 58 percent indicated a need for practicing their knowledge and reading through writing assignments. On average, over 60 percent of students appreciated the ability to write after completing the upper-division science course. Over 90 percent of students enjoyed the opportunity to select a course topic to write about.

Additionally, students saw the assignments as a way to apply their critical thinking skills. Over 60 percent of students indicated they were able to use their problem detection, diagnosis and solving skills.

“Students like to read each other’s writing and be able to give and receive feedback,” Monfared said. “However, they do not like being evaluated during the peer-review process.”

“Students in science classes encounter writing apprehension,” Monfared said. Writing apprehension refers to anxiety about writing which can lead to avoiding writing and evaluations based on writing.

To tackle this anxiety, Silvia Carrasco Garcia, a lecturer in the UC Davis Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, applied collaborative writing to relieve academic pressure and encourage students to work together to build a stronger understanding of course materials.

Carrasco Garcia teaches BIS 104 Cell Biology. In the course, Carrasco Garcia assigned students into groups of three to complete writing assignments based on each model of cell biology. Students designed experiments to answer questions posed by primary literature, learning to deconstruct research articles.

One student wrote down the group’s answers, but only if the group came to a consensus on an answer. This left the other two group members with ample time to discuss their understanding of the concepts and receive immediate feedback, shaping their understanding and their ability to communicate with each other.

“After looking at the surveys, a majority of students say that the writing assignments helped them to review content for the class and know what I expect them to learn,” Carrasco Garcia said. “At the beginning of the course, students take a pre-assessment on their understanding of experimental design and concepts. At the final, you see the growth in their understanding. Over 70 percent achieve full marks for the experimental design component.”

Another benefit from encouraging students to collaborate in their writing has been the class dynamic. The environment becomes a welcoming space for students to learn from each other and help each other identify gaps in their knowledge and critical thinking skills. Students leave each class with stronger class relationships and collaborative study groups.

“For a school like UC Davis, the science classes are really large,” Dawson said. “A lot of the exams tend to be scantron-based or multiple-choice and not short answer or papers, to accommodate for 400 students.”

Although class sizes are large, perhaps a new method to engage student learning involves writing, encouraging students to learn from each other and leaving them with a written record of their academic growth and progress in becoming the next generation of scientists.

Written by: Foxy Robinson – science@theaggie.org