Teaching Tuesday: Writing in Ecology


In my continuing series on teaching ecology, I am going to focus on using writing in ecology classes. The following is a lot of my opinion, some of the results related to writing from a survey of ecology teachers and a few links to writing resources that I find helpful. If you are interested in exploring past posts stemming from the survey I did of ecology teachers you can read them here (intro, difficulties, solutions, and practice).

Writing is a particular interest of mine, stemming from before I taught a ‘writing in the majors’ section of ecology as a graduate student. Students applied for this section and they attended two sections a week with me with their grades based on my section rather than exams. I was given an amazing amount of freedom to run the section and both times it was incredibly fun. I didn’t need to give lectures (they attended those with the rest) but I had my first opportunity to organise a syllabus and be in charge as a teacher. It was a wonderful experience as a graduate student. In conjunction to teaching a writing-intensive section, teaching assistants for these writing-intensive classes also took a short course on how to teach writing. I learned an incredible amount by taking the course and teaching myself. My advice to any PhDs out there is if you have the opportunity to do something like this: do it! The skills I learned teaching these sections have been invaluable to me as a teacher.

I think that learning to write and specifically scientific writing is an important skill. Of course, writing is crucial if you want to go on in science, but scientific writing is also something that students can benefit from regardless of what they ultimately do. So I’m showing my colours and biases here. I think writing is essential and if we haven’t made an effort to teach students to be better writers, than I think we have failed as university teachers. Of course, it is possible to divide the responsibility of teaching writing skills across classes in a program and there are places where it is easier to do (fewer students, for example). However, I always find it disappointing when I see upper level undergraduates that have been able to get by without being able to write well. I know that some think that their subject should take precedent over skills like writing (they should have learned that elsewhere!). Given how important the ability to write is for science careers and so many others, I think we need to have some focus on writing in every course. After all, what is the use of knowing an answer if you can’t communicate it?

Maybe we ecologists are just a communicative bunch, but 62% of the responses said that writing is essential for teaching ecology.


So how many use writing assignments in their courses? Well, a quarter rarely or never assigns writing research papers or proposals. So there seems to be a bit of a contradiction here. It could also be that teachers are using different forms of writing assignments in their courses or make exams that emphasize writing as well as content. Being a skill, writing takes practice, so if we want students to learn to write we need to give them the opportunity to do so. I think with effective time management and teaching, writing can be incorporated to any class. For example, I’ve had students write exam questions and figure captions as very short writing assignments. Of course one of the best ways to learn how to write, as well as how ‘real writing’ works, is to have multiple drafts. I was lucky enough to be exposed to forced multiple drafts as an undergrad. Without the forced part, I wasn’t really learning how to improve my writing but that is only something I realised after the fact. For an upper-level plant ecology class I took, Elizabeth Elle had a clever way to use her time efficiently by doing not quite multiple drafts of the same work. We had a report early on in the class that was heavily commented on and then a larger paper towards the end. Even though these papers weren’t the same topics, capitalizing on the fact that students tend to make many of the same general mistakes again and again, we had to show that we had improved any issues in the final paper. Later working with Elizabeth and my masters advisor, Chris Caruso, really helped me hone my writing. I am still appreciative of their patience. It was only working through many drafts of my writing that got me to think directly about the writing, rather than just the content I needed to include. For me, writing is an on-going learning process. However, multiple drafts are time-consuming for students and teachers and only 15% of ecology teachers always use them. The trend is generally that fewer who have writing assignments also get students to do multiple drafts but the difference isn’t by much. To me this suggests that many who emphasize writing in class are also utilising feedback on drafts to help students learn the skill. I think that with effective time management and


So if writing is important, than how should we teach it? I’ve gathered a few sources that are mostly directed towards professional scientific writing but I think they contain lots of good tips than can be adapted to use in classes as well.

Here’s a detailed post on clear writing including a macro that detects your most verbose of sentences. Honestly, I’m a little afraid to use it, I tend towards long and involved sentences where I include lots of information that I end up needing to break up into smaller pieces in the revision process but I would probably benefit from getting those run-on sentences highlighted in red straight away. Here’s some more tips on how to write a scientific paper and on the beginning, middle and end of scientific papers. There is also this simple intro to writing for scientific journals and as mentioned by Brian McGill in his post about clear writing the Duke scientific writing site is also useful.

Writing in ecology assignments can also include summarizing existing research, so this plain language summaries post might give you some useful tips for students. It is written for scientists who want to communicate their findings more broadly but it seems that this is a good way to also assess if students really understand the literature they are reading.

Further guidance for writing detailed research proposals can be found as an example in TIEE (teaching issues and experiments in ecology). Here the students build upon data they collect and then create proposals but it also provides lots of good tips on helping students to come up with ideas and write proposals.

Finally, a list of common writing errors.

Up next week: ? I have a few more posts in mind from the survey results, including getting into the demographics and potential biases of the answers. I also haven’t included all the questions thus far and there are a few interesting things to discuss from the comments section. I want to reflect a bit more on what I’ve already written about and what might be left that is interesting to say. If you have anything in particular you want me to address, just leave it in the comments and I’ll see if I can include it.