Creative and Technical Writing Activities That Demonstrate Students' Understanding of Science

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Say "science literacy" in a room full of science teachers, and a collective groan often rises, along with some grumbling about teaching language arts in science class and having to do "one more thing." But implementing activities that develop science literacy isn't about teaching another subject, and it's not just an add-on. It's about making sure that students understand what we teach them.

Writing activities are a sure way to assess and enhance students' science literacy. Sometimes my students use technical writing to communicate their lab experiences, just as practicing scientists do. Other times, they use creative writing to make connections to the topics they're learning. This article describes both types of writing activities and how I've implemented them in my biology classes. All have proven useful and even fun.

Technical writing

Lab notebooks

Scientists record their lab procedures and findings in lab notebooks. I require my students to do the same, giving them a list of criteria for the notebook at the start of the school year (Figure 1, p. 42). I created this list by asking professionals about what they keep in their notebooks. I have students tape half-sheets of paper listing the criteria inside the front covers of their notebooks, and I also post the list on the class wiki. I remind students to refer to the list, and as the school year progresses, they learn how to keep a professional notebook.

Some labs are quick and the analysis straightforward. For these, students write their conclusions directly in their notebooks rather than in full lab reports (see "Lab reports"). At the beginning of the school year, I provide examples of guiding questions and conclusions to help students organize their thoughts and use data to support their statements. The conclusion is important, making up 50% of students' lab grades. (The other 50% is procedure and data collection.)

Lab reports

Science communication is expanding as scientists share protocols, data, and ideas for future studies over the internet. However, the benchmark of success in scientific research is still publication in a peer-reviewed journal, so I have students write lab reports that model journal articles. This brings communicative writing and peer review into the science classroom. I give students a handout that describes each section of the lab report and models how the report should look (see "On the web"). I also post this handout on the class wiki.

The introduction to the lab report is both a challenge and an indicator of understanding. Students who can explain why the lab was conducted and what information was relevant comprehend the task at hand. The next two sections--the materials and methods section and the data and analysis of results section--already exist in the lab notebook and merely need to be reported. The conclusion has been "practiced" in the notebook but should be expanded here, which students find difficult to do. As with lab notebooks, I provide examples and guiding questions for the first few lab reports to help students write conclusions. As the year progresses, they are able to do this without help.

To assess lab reports, I use a fairly simple rubric (see "On the web"). I give students a copy before they write their first reports, and I assess their reports with copious comments about each section at the bottom of the rubric. I photocopy these assessments, and tell students I will be checking their next lab reports to see whether they incorporated my suggestions--much the way peer reviewers make recommendations and scientists incorporate those suggestions into their revised pieces.

As the year progresses, students develop a better understanding of what constitutes a complete and accurate lab report, and I see improvements in their writing. Once students are comfortable with the rubric and lab reports, they conduct peer reviews prior to turning in their reports. …