I could start this post with a back-in-my-day story and bemoan the state of student writing today but I think you can probably fill in the blanks without me hashing out a familiar tale*. Sufficed to say for a ecological methods course I team teach, we’re finding that the quality of writing from the students is poor. The course includes a major project where the students design and execute a survey for insects, birds or plants and culminates in a written report in scientific paper style.
The reports we get back range in quality but most of the issues are stylistic. Students clearly don’t know what to include in a paragraph. Have a few random sentences? Sure, why not leave them orphaned all on their own? The idea of describing your results seems foreign. What does one put in a figure caption anyway? My students don’t seem to have a clue. How should you present data? Tables of every last thing offered up from your stats program might just be the thing. Abstracts, who needs to consider that? Just throw it together at the end. Titles? Are they really that important? And so on.
We comment on drafts and include time for peer-review but it doesn’t seem to make a huge difference. So this year we’re trying something completely different.
We’ve scrapped a literature review assignment to specifically address scientific writing. Instead of exploring the literature, we’re going to explore how to write it.
I’ve broken down the subject into five lessons that will include some brief lecturing from me and a whole lot of practising for the students. We’re going to deal with the structure of a paper and break down the general way to writing introductions, discussions, etc. Then we’ll work on basic sentence structure. How to cite (and not plagiarize) will deal with not only how to find relevant papers but how to build those into a sentence and an argument. How to visualize data is as important as writing about it so we’ll discuss tables, figures and what to put in captions. Finally we’ll talk about abstracts and how to summarize your paper.
Throughout the activities, we’ll be working with lots of examples and I will have the students do short writing activities. I’ve done some of this before, such as getting students to write figure captions or describe data. Here we’ll also be improving previously written work culled from old reports. Each lesson has about two hours so it is a considerable chunk of time. Given that students tend to assume they already can write by the time they reach us (but clearly have a lot to learn!) and the fact that I want them work through examples, I’m guessing it will go quickly.
I wonder about my role in this. I never received much training on scientific writing (or otherwise). To be honest I often still feel like I am learning how to write. I struggle with how to teach my graduate students how to improve their own scientific writing. Should I give detailed comments and let them figure out for themselves? Or rewrite to show the example of how it can be done? I learned how to write papers organically through doing and getting feedback from advisors, collaborators and reviewers. So distilling down that organic process to directed lessons is challenging. I’m doing a lot of reading** and thinking about what is important.
To answer the question of the post: I don’t know. Perhaps students should receive training on writing from a more general or experienced source. The ecologists are certainly not the only students in the masters program that need to learn how to write. So maybe ecologists shouldn’t shoulder the responsibility of teaching writing. But on the other hand I will certainly feel like I have failed my students if they walk away from our course/program without knowing how to write better. And maybe my best qualification is that I care.
I am certainly interested to see how this experiment works. If anyone has suggestions on how to teach writing skills, I’m all ears!
*I’m not actually sure we were any better back in my day.
**I may write a future post about how helpful these were.