UniServe€Science News: Newsletter of the Science Software Clearinghouse Vol. 3, March 1996

Teaching writing skills in the science curriculum

Charlotte Taylor & Helen Drury

The development of good writing skills is currently being targeted by many institutions of higher education as part of their brief to include teaching transferable (generic) skills to undergraduate students. Our project aimed to improve the writing skills of first year science students and was included within a first year biology course characterised by large student numbers and diverse student backgrounds. The teaching of writing skills was integrated with the teaching of biology so that the purpose of learning how to write well, and the value placed upon written communication, was quite explicit.

Types of written work appropriate for mastery by a first year biology student were first identified, after which a series of teaching and learning materials was developed for incorporation into the laboratory component of the course. These teaching materials began with a very structured teaching approach whereby the emphasis was on communicating the learning goals to the students and then progressed to giving the students opportunities to learn about the writing tasks, assessment, and feedback. The first part of the course thus had a distinct awareness-raising component, and had to dispel myths such as "but we did science so that we wouldn't need to write and use spelling and grammar". From the outset students were encouraged to discuss their ideas about good writing and in this way identify the criteria on which assessment would be based (always a key focal point for the students!). This process gave students confidence in their current abilities and allowed them to learn and practice communication skills in an informal setting.

Once this groundwork had been completed, the formal teaching input decreased as students put theory into practice in a number of writing tasks, such as short written quizzes and laboratory reports. These writing tasks were of increasing complexity and also required more complex use and application of the students' expanding biological knowledge. Students received individual formative feedback and discussion sessions after each task and were encouraged to progress and improve their writing by applying this feedback in subsequent tasks.

Since the structured teaching input decreased as the course progressed, students were expected to become more independent in their learning and practice of writing. This was promoted by making them aware of assessment criteria and methodology, and involving them in self and group assessment of pieces of writing. Group or peer assessment (where marks were allocated) was very unpopular with the students but they found that giving each other feedback on pieces of writing (with no marks allocated) to be a useful learning experience.

Students were also provided with a number of `self-help' materials associated with the various writing tasks for independent study. These included explanations of `How to write...' and models showing appropriate and inappropriate written answers. Similar models were also used to demonstrate the way in which the assessment criteria would be applied to pieces of writing. Students tended to use these materials in a variety of ways depending on their level of competence and confidence in both writing and the biological material. Having access to these materials greatly increased their expectations in terms of provision of a greater range of support materials in the future, which could be seen as both a positive and potentially negative learning outcome!

Student evaluation of the program has been very positive (with the exception of peer assessment) and students who have finished the course have indicated that they found the program useful in improving their writing and would like similar teaching or materials for writing tasks in higher years. Objective measurements of improvements in writing skills have proved difficult, since so many variables are involved, but staff feedback suggests that the increased awareness and value placed on writing by students has been reflected in their written work.

First year biology teaching staff have been involved in discussions on the project since its inception and have provided continued constructive feedback through questionnaires and workshop sessions. While they have been positive about both the aims, the teaching of writing skills, and its effect on student writing there is an underlying concern that there is a need for more training of staff in this area and that there is insufficient time for assessment and giving feedback. The former may be addressed by the provision of a comprehensive teaching package which is being prepared and will be available in mid-1996 (contact the authors for further information).

Since this article is lurking in a software newsletter it seems appropriate to make mention of technology and the teaching of writing. Potentially some of the student learning material could be incorporated into a self-help package on computer to be accessed by students in libraries or at home. However, the teaching and development of communication skills requires an interactive component which caters to the individual as both teacher and student, and fosters learning and practice by example. Components of the teaching such as assessment and feedback, which require intensive time and funds for marking, would be prime areas for computer use. However, development of software capable of language evaluation is presently in its very early stages.

Charlotte Taylor & Helen Drury


Charlotte Taylor is an Associate Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Sydney.

Helen Drury is a Lecturer in the Learning Assistance Centre at the University of Sydney.

This project was funded by a 1994 CAUT grant.