Writing to Learn in the Natural Sciences: Does Source Material Matter?

By Christensen, Heather Rebecca; Rasmussen, Andrew | Journal of College Science Teaching, September-October 2017 | Go to article overview

Writing to Learn in the Natural Sciences: Does Source Material Matter?


Christensen, Heather Rebecca, Rasmussen, Andrew, Journal of College Science Teaching


Writing to learn (WTL) is a well-established pedagogical method. Originally proposed in the 1970s (Britton, 1970, 1972; Emig 1977), the use of language and written process as a means to enhance student learning quickly gained attention in several disciplines (reviewed in Keys, Hand, Prain, & Collins, 1999; Bazerman et al., 2005). More recently, researchers have focused on how to successfully assess and quantitate the effect of the WTL strategy on student learning (Peters, 2011; Reynolds, Thaiss, Katkin, & Thompson, 2012). Unlike formal writing assignments, WTL is generally implemented as a "low-stakes" activity that allows students to digest complex material while informally strengthening their writing skills (Balgopal & Wallace, 2013; Kalman & Kalman, 1996; Newell, 2006) and improving retention of content (Marzano, 2012). In particular, successfully implemented WTL exercises challenge students to (a) generate and then collectively share their thoughts, (b) define and explain concepts, (c) elaborate and expand on ideas, and (d) reflect on their own understanding of the subject matter presented (Bangert-Drowns, Hurley, & Wilkinson, 2004; Klein, 1999).

Although some might assume that WTL is most appropriate in a humanities curriculum, there is mounting support that student learning can be improved through the use of this pedagogy in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). This is a shift away from the more common practices of learning to write (Balgopal & Wallace, 2013), "knowledge-telling" writing (Johnston, 1985; Yore, 2000), and inquiry-based writing (Moskovitz & Kellogg, 2011) to improve scientific literacy. As creative writing practices emerged in the STEM classroom, the need for adequate research in this area became evident (Keys et al., 1999). In what way can and should these activities be implemented in the sciences? How might these activities support scientific instruction, and to what degree do they influence students' understanding of the material (McDermott, 2010)? What challenges are associated with incorporating this new strategy (Hand & Prain, 2002; Totten, 2005)? Although many publications have addressed such questions, Reynolds et al. (2012) completed a comprehensive review in which the purpose, practice, and effectiveness of WTL in undergraduate STEM courses were critically analyzed. In addition to generating a database devoted to WTL practices in STEM education, this group also calls attention to the gaps that remain in this research field, suggesting the need for more analytical and experimental research (vs. the largely case study-based data).

In the past 20 years, a number of methodologies for implementing WTL across many disciplines have been described. Some use this approach to informally assess students' knowledge of material (cause and effect, compare and contrast, concept definition; Kiefer, 2015). This is a particularly effective way to allow the learner to process his or her own understanding before being asked to communicate with the larger classroom (McDermott & Kuhn, 2011). Others describe the use of short writing assignments to contemplate a controversial topic or socio-scientific issue (Balgopal & Wallace, 2013) and craft a persuasive argument for their position (Keys et al., 1999; Yore, 2000). In some instances, WTL exercises are used to allow students a chance to reflect on their own performance, either in the lecture or in the laboratory (Moskovitz & Kellogg, 2011).

We have also found that WTL exercises can be used as a unique mode to introduce outside material (relevant news articles or recent scientific findings beyond those reported in a textbook) into a course. When implementing this particular WTL genre, it is perhaps equally important to consider the source material. What resources should the instructor use to facilitate student learning? Some have reported the use of written case studies (Papadopoulos, Demetriadis, Stamelos, & Tsoukalas, 2011) or interactive laboratory exercises (Sampson & Walker, 2012) in their WTL practice, but there is surprisingly little research regarding the impact of different source material on students' understanding of a new concept. …

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