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Biology students write to learn critical thinking

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Writing in the Biological Sciences functions as both a biology course and a course about writing in disciplines,” says Lydia Daniels, Biology. The main assignment is a research paper for which students select a topic from the field, read the primary literature and write a paper for an audience of their peers. “Our goal is to develop the thought processes that come with producing sophisticated, scholarly writing within the discipline of biology. We want students to understand that it’s as important to get the science right as it is to express it clearly,” comments Daniels.

“The tremendous amount of information in biology tends to determine how we teach. Because of the content-driven lecture format of most biology courses, students have become accustomed to spending time in class passively taking notes. Writing in the Biological Sciences may be the first opportunity the juniors and seniors have to use the information they have learned to figure out how to solve a problem. With this course, we’re trying to show them that the process of collecting information often yields results that appear to be contradictory. Therefore, it’s important to have students evaluate evidence to see how it supports a hypothesis, or claim.”

Peer Review
Daniels continues: “The writing is a key to learning. If you think about talking to someone about a topic, once the words are said, they’re gone. The writing component allows us to see the development of thought, to see the logical steps a student has taken, and to pinpoint where the writer has done a good job or is on shaky ground. Writing teaches the writer to make a statement and support it with evidence. Peer review is the best test of how well the students understand their topics, and students pay more attention when their peers point out weaknesses. Furthermore, the peer review process helps to build a collaborative atmosphere in the class.

“We encourage students to pick a focused topic, preferably something controversial about which there is no consensus, and challenge them to read the original sources, take a position, and find evidence that supports that position. In that way, students learn how to write a persuasive argument, supporting their claims with objective evidence, rather than appealing to the reader’s emotions.”

To illustrate the difficulty of narrowing a topic, Daniels offers the example of hormone replacement therapy (HRT), a well-known current issue. A physician might prescribe HRT to relieve symptoms of menopause, prevent osteoporosis, or protect against heart problems, but studies have suggested that HRT might increase the risk of breast cancer. So should a woman choose to use HRT? A student must decide which part of the bigger topic to pursue in order to answer the question.”

Applications of Knowledge
“Many of my colleagues use essay questions on exams, but when grading for a class of 150 students, it can be tempting to look for key words and say ‘all right, they have the basic idea.’ On the other hand, when reading a paper, especially one that has gone through multiple rounds of revision, the instructor can tell if students really understand the basic concepts and their application to the problem that they’re writing about. The writing course is a valuable adjunct to other courses in science. One cannot think without having a foundation of factual knowledge — so the writing course allows for a practical application of the contextual knowledge students have accumulated.”

Daniels says many students dread the course because science is not considered a writing-intensive major. “Science students like nice neat packages. A lab report with a strict format is comfortable. Since this paper is more open-ended, it makes them nervous. Furthermore, it requires a lot of work for two credits. But I look at it as a life skill. We’re teaching them how to think critically about all of the information that they read or hear, even if they are not pursuing a career in scientific research.”

Rubrics
While the primary project is a research paper, the course also gives students regular short exercises to practice the skills that they need. To ensure that students know precisely how their work will be evaluated, Daniels and her colleagues, Karen Curto and Jaclyn Newman, have developed rubrics listing and describing the “features” that will be assessed for each of the three drafts and the final formal paper. The grading system is completely criteria based. For example, in first draft the instructor determines if the student has narrowed the field of study. In a subsequent draft, the student must identify a problem, or “perplexity,” to write about. Ultimately, the instructor seeks more subtle features such as background, sense of stance, and direction. “Students find this reiterative process disconcerting, but it is essential for them to demonstrate a deeper level of analysis. They make comments like, ‘Wow! I didn’t know there were so many different ways to write in science,’” says Daniels.

In addition to rubrics and peer review, Daniels and her colleagues offer support outside of class. Recalling how she learned from a mentor who offered continuous feedback and encouragement, Daniels offers to read any additional drafts that students care to submit, telling them, “I’m here to help. I will read anything you want to show me.” She points out this would not be possible in a class larger than the 15 students who typically comprise the writing courses.

Because of her interest in WAC, Daniels is trying to introduce more writing in the large lecture classes she teaches. She now includes an integral writing component in her biochemistry classes of 50 or 60 students: Weekly essays have replaced the essay portion of exams. “I assign them to investigate some aspect of biochemistry that I think is important but that we have no time to cover in class. They are using writing to learn important areas of the content, and they are gaining skills in communication, which is an integral part of science.”

Saying the writing course prompted her to evaluate how she herself goes about writing and to read extensively in the literature about teaching writing, Daniels comments, “The more I read, the more excited I get about trying to integrate writing into teaching in the sciences.”


APRIL 2003

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