It would be helpful to have weekly writing that allows students to engage with the information in the lectures.  These writing assignments should be modeled on forms of science writing that the students recognize.  They should also be done in lieu of other assignments so that your overall workload is not increased.  Here are two examples:

  1. At the end of one class, you asked students to list ten steps in the creation of the world's ocean.  This was a good way of getting students to engage with the information.  What if you continue it.  After listing the ten steps, the students could write a 200 word piece modeled after a sidebar in a high school Biology textbook.  The sidebar would explain the origin of the ocean, from the formation of the star to the creation of water.
  2. During another lecture, you discussed Monterey Bay.  Perhaps you could give them a writing assignment that reflects this information.  Students could imagine that they have been commissioned to write the text for a tourist-information sign detailing the features of the ocean floor in Monterey Bay.  They would be required to explain the key features in 150-200 words.

In general, the idea is to have students create a narrative of the class.  Journals are difficult because they require a lot more work from the teacher, and students tend to do all the work just before the journals are due.  They also feel like busy work (both to the student and professor).  What we want to do is create a culture of writing in the class. 

One way to approach this would be to ask yourself four questions for each lecture period:

  • How could students engage with the information in my lecture?
  • What are the specific features that I want students to leave my lecture with?
  • How could I create an assignment that allows students to put this knowledge into a recognizable form of science writing?
  • How can I do all of this without increasing my work load?

Here are some additional, general bits of advice:

Emphasize the importance of writing in the sciences.  There seems to be a false divide between the facts of an issue and the ability to articulate your knowledge of the issue.  The ability to select a fact out of a multiple choice test demonstrates a much more superficial knowledge than the ability to articulate the fact in ones own words so that someone who is unfamiliar with it can understand it.  Writing in the sciences affords students the opportunity to demonstrate a deeper understanding of the material that they are being presented.  Further, writing assignments enable students to deal with the overriding systems of knowledge as well as the individual details (for example, students not only need to know how a shark's swim bladder works, they need to know how it relates to the overall workings of the shark).

Express expectations early. Students who wish to pursue graduate work---and to some extent professional work---in the sciences need to be able to write cohesive reports.  Further, much of their future funding (not only through grants, but through demonstrated relevance of their particular field of study) depends on their ability to articulate the significance of their findings.  Therefore, writing in this type of class is not simply a tool for the assessment.  It should be designed to develop verbal skills that they will need in the future.

Develop a rubric.  This aids in expressing different expectations, particularly with regards to assessment.  Describing the qualities of a response and how those qualities correlate with their grade will help students view their writing in the way their professor views it (at least somewhat).

Model proper writing.  When discussing the assigned readings to students, it would be helpful to address how the information is being presented as well as what information is being presented.  Identifying successful elements of academic writing is key to emulating that writing.  It would be helpful to spend a bit of class time explicitly examining the ways in which academic writing works.  It may help to do this with other forms of less academic writing, as well.

Practice. Writing is just like everything else: the more you practice it, the better you get.  There is no panacea for great student writing, but the more students write, the better they get (in general).

Rachel Cartwright's Response