Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Optimizing Faculty Use of Writing as a Learning Tool in Geoscience Education

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Optimizing Faculty Use of Writing as a Learning Tool in Geoscience Education

Article excerpt


As geoscience educators, we focus on helping students understand technical content and learn to think like geoscientists. Although research substantiates writing as a tool for teaching technical content and disciplinary thinking, geoscience educators often do not integrate writing in geoscience education because of the frustrations and exigencies involved. To address these issues, this paper describes the literature on using writing as a learning tool in both cross-disciplinary and geoscience teaching contexts. Further, we describe our Less is More approach, designed so faculty can spend less time grading student writing and still yield more learning benefits from incorporating writing. This approach involves five strategies, including explicitly integrating assignments with course objectives, designing effective assignments, incorporating process writing, evaluating writing effectively and efficiently, and consulting appropriate campus resources. Results of an initial assessment using this approach with a geoscience course suggest gains in student learning.


As faculty members in geoscience education, we face a quandary with student writing: on the one hand, the quality of their writing is often below expectations-including grammatical sloppiness, poor transitions, underdeveloped or under-supported ideas, or a general inability of our students to write like geoscientists. On the other hand, we are resistant to expand the writing component of our classes because the process of grading writing can seem subjective, inexact, and overly time consuming. Few of us may be enthusiastic about teaching a writing-intensive course or revising one of our courses to become writing intensive. Of course we realize that if we do not provide our students with practice in learning to write like geoscientists, they will nave little opportunity to develop such skills. Offloading this responsibility to a technical writing or composition course loses our disciplinary expertise because our content knowledge puts us in the best position to help students understand how disciplinary thinking informs the writing and content of geoscience documents.

This paper addresses these issues and provides another way of thinking about incorporating writing in geoscience education. Our authorial perspectives stem from our disciplinary backgrounds; one of us teaches writing-intensive geoscience courses in a geology and geological engineering department, and the other conducts research and faculty workshops on Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) and Writing in the Disciplines (WID), particularly in engineering and applied science settings. The impetus for this paper came following one of these faculty workshops, when we recognized that writing in the geosciences could be improved and expanded if we could demonstrate practical, research-based strategies that enhance learning and minimize the labor of preparation and grading. Before demonstrating such strategies, this paper will provide both a general and a geoscience-specific background on writing as a learning tool.


The notion that writing is a learning tool is framed by two important areas of research, in WID and in writing and cognition. Generally, WAC programs aim at improving students' higher-order thinking and problem solving skills as well as their ability to communicate ideas. Unlike more transitory educational reform movements, WAC in 2005 celebrates its 35-year anniversary in the US higher educational system (McLeod and Miraglia, 2001; Russell, 2002). Its staying power is attributed to numerous factors, among which is the fact that WAC helped catalyze and develop numerous staples of current higher education pedagogy, including thematically linked cluster courses, learning communities, collaborative learning, and peer tutoring (Maimon, 2001). Also among WAC's most salient attributes is that writing facilitates problem solving and higher-order thinking (Maimon, 2001). …

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