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Reading & Writing in the Disciplines

Writing in Science

THE PURPOSE OF SCIENTIFIC WRITING

Scientists do a lot of writing, and for many different reasons. Mostly they focus on scientific data, on how the data were obtained, and on what they mean. Nonscientists also write about science, but tend to focus more on “discoveries” and their importance and much less on how the data were obtained. More journalistic and narrative writing on science may also emphasize the culture of science, the personality of scientists, and the atmosphere of research settings, something that has traditionally been missing from the professional writing of practicing scientists. In helping students gain science literacy and develop disciplinary literacy in general, a much broader use of media and modes should be employed.

Here are some reasons why scientists write:

  • Scientists write to record data. Observations and results may be recorded in a lab notebook. They may also record results directly on a spreadsheet or in a database. Results are often recorded by digital computing devices and may be logged into an electronic notebook or printed and pasted into a notebook.
  • Scientists write for the scientific record, mostly in the form of research reports, but also by logging annotated data into big databases that the global research community uses.
  • Scientists write in all sorts of less formal ways to communicate with each other, both within a research group and among research groups in large networks. For example, scientists make extensive use of email and increasingly other forms of networked and social media—blogs, in particular.
  • Scientists write to think. This includes writing extensive marks, comments, and questions on documents as they read (see Units 5 and 6) as well as taking notes on conversations and listening to research talks. Scientists want fresh ideas and approaches and practice creativity by associational thinking. A research idea can be very direct—for example, a scientist might read about a new microscope technique and decide to give it a try. But more often, the ideas are less direct, resulting from multiple lines of thinking coming together. Most scientists keep hard copy and electronic notebooks and file folders for these ideas.

Video: Watch Reading and Writing in Science to see how various experts view key aspects of disciplinary literacy in science, including understanding evidence, vocabulary, multiliteracy, and inquiry.

Reflect: Choose two aspects emphasized by the experts in the video—for example “inquiry” and “vocabulary.” Write a brief paragraph on the relationship between the two and how you might address them together in your teaching.

Apply: Think about one of the lab experiments or hands-on exercises you do with your students in which they generate a table or data graph. Have students write a short formal paragraph describing the data. Then, have them take the role of researcher and compose an email message to a colleague that explains the result. Finally, have them write a note to themselves about remaining questions and what they should do next. This activity could also be done with data that you provide to students.

CHARACTERISTICS OF SCIENTIFIC WRITING

Most scientific writing is expository. Although scientists write in many different modes and use various styles, perhaps the most important and challenging writing they do is for research reports. The format of scientific research reports has developed over decades to match the scientific method. Even though scientists do a lot of writing in addition to formal research reports, the discipline of writing research reports influences their other writing, with the primary goals of high fidelity in describing or analyzing data; being conservative in interpreting data, including considering alternative explanations; and being concise.

Most published research reports include some version of the following sections:

  • title that informs the reader of the specific research result that is being reported. This is typically a one-sentence statement of the main finding. Readers use the title as a first-order filter for deciding whether to read the report.
  • An abstract that is a brief summary—typically between 50 and 400 words—of the question or problem, the method used, the data obtained, and the conclusions drawn. Readers use the abstract as a second-order filter to decide whether to read more of the report or add it to their personal list of reference reports.
  • An introduction that explains what questions and problems the experiments were intended to address and provides background for the broader context and importance of the experiments. This section is often very useful for a reader who is less expert in the topic and typically contains good background references.
  • methods section in which the experimental approach is described in careful but succinct detail. This section is intended to make it possible for a reader to understand exactly how experiments were done and to even replicate the experiments independently for themselves. Some techniques in modern science have become so complicated and sophisticated, or routine, that the methods section often refers to other publications that have more detail and provides links to supplementary materials that are archived online. Methods can be tedious to write and hard to read.
  • The results section presents the data that were obtained from experiments and typically contains data tables, graphs, illustrations and images. Each graphic element is called a figure, and it has a short legend that’s a succinct description of what the figure shows. Accompanying text gives a fuller description of the data. One challenge of writing the results section is resisting the impulse to include conclusions from the data; however, strictly speaking, the only interpretive statements that should be made in this section pertain to analysis like statistical significance.
  • A final section of the research report is typically called the discussion section and includes more conclusive statements from the researchers’ interpretation of the meaning of the data. Importantly, limitations of the data will be discussed, along with alternative explanations of what the findings may mean. Comparisons to other related research findings, and to what degree the findings change thinking in the broader research field, are often included. This section is likely to include statements about future experiments and research directions.

Reflect: Think about the lab report rubric that you use with your students. Does the rubric follow the form of published reports? Do you require students to state a hypothesis? Research reports from across the science disciplines are readily available online. Consider collecting various reports to see how the sections are titled and organized. Consider changes to the form you use.

It must be acknowledged that even scientists find much of the scientific literature unappealing to read and aspects of the writing style to be awkward. Scientists don’t want to lose the original intent of the style, which is to be highly objective, but there is significant interest in the scientific community to change the tone and form of scientific writing.

Whatever future direction the form of research reports takes, scientists can agree on several important mandates for scientific writing:

  • Be precise; write what you mean to say, staying as close to the data as possible.
  • Don’t let your language leave the reader with uncertainty or a lack of clarity. If there is genuine uncertainty or alternative interpretations, state that explicitly.
  • Clearly differentiate—as in the sections of a research report—the presentation of facts, data, background, context, inferences, conclusions, and speculations.

Use the specific vocabulary of your discipline. However, depending on the context, avoid jargon or provide plain English explanations.

Building Knowledge from Multiple Sources

Video and Reflection: Watch Building Knowledge from Multiple Sources to see a 9th-grade biology teacher lead her students through the process of doing a literature review focused on HIV, which involves annotated reading, and then summarizing with writing and presentations. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: How does writing a literature review resemble reporting on an experiment? What’s the significance of multiple lines of evidence in science?
  • Watch the video: As you watch, notice how Ms. Miscyeni uses worksheets and peer interaction and how she coaches the peer interaction.
  • Reflect: Write a paragraph on whether you think (on balance) the students got more from the literature review process by including discussion on the social and policy dimension, or whether it would have been better to focus more on the evidence.

 

Modes of Scientific Writing

Scientists write for so many different purposes and in so many different ways that it’s a bit of a shame that so much emphasis is placed on the formal research report. It is certainly a worthy goal to build toward that level of literacy. But many of the other things that scientists “write” are useful models for developing disciplinary literacy in sciences, as well as for 21st century digital literacy.

Two of the most important communications experiences that scientists in training participate in are lab meetings and journal clubs. There are ways to model both experiences in your class.

Lab Meeting

A presentation at a weekly lab meeting would typically be 10 to 20 minutes but feature lots of discussion and questions. You might talk about experiments you are planning to do, or experiments in progress or recently completed. The heart of the presentation would be to show data, usually your own. The lab meeting is a great opportunity to practice oral presentation of your work and ideas; you learn how to think about and respond to questions and suggestions that you get as you speak, in the supportive setting of your own lab. Your classroom has many of the facets of a lab—all the more so if students are working in smaller groups and teams. The students are studying the same or similar things and you are like the head of the lab, the principal investigator. The key is for students to present actual data, preferably their own, but published data can also be used. Those in the audience ask questions about what they don’t understand as well as make helpful suggestions or even raise concerns about the strategy and tactics of the research. The same basic goals apply if the lab meeting presentation is about future plans. The questions help the presenter to think more critically about his or her research and to refine his or her plans.

You could have students do 10-minute versions of a lab meeting, aiming for 5 minutes of presentation and 5 minutes of discussion. Five minutes of presentation takes significant preparation: a student or team works on close reading of the data they will present, and writing notes on the content and sequence of their presentation, including anticipating likely questions. The outcome from a typical lab meeting presentation is a list of things that you realize you need to do.

Video: Watch Thinking and Communicating Like a Biologist to see how a teacher holds a version of a lab meeting by having her students present their ideas to students who took the class previously. This is nice modeling of the actual demographics of research labs, where people of varying levels of experience work together.

Reflect: Make a list of how peer feedback can complement and reinforce the modeling and feedback that you provide directly to your students.

Journal Club

A journal club is composed of people who agree to meet on a regular basis, typically monthly. Members take turns presenting the journal club, such that a single presenter fields questions and comments from the other members. The presenter usually focuses on a single research report, usually something new and exciting that has been published recently. The members of a journal club usually have more diverse backgrounds than those of a single research lab.

There are several big advantages of preparing a journal club. First, it requires the presenter to very carefully read the paper and outline how they should present it. It starts with a single paper; however, the presenter will often need to read several related papers and make decisions about how much background information and framing should be provided to the diverse audience. Journal clubs are a great way to practice presentation skills, dig in deep on a topic, and practice listening and responding skills. Journal clubs often take more time and effort than presenting a lab meeting because the presenter has to become familiar with someone else’s work. It may not be realistic to have your students read numerous technical papers to present a full journal club, but they could research a topic and make a presentation for which it is understood that there will be lots of questions and discussion.

Video: Watch Peer Teaching to see how a teacher has an eager student present some of his independent research on HIV to the class.

Reflect: Make two lists for comparison: the first outlines how the eager student benefited from making his presentation; the second how students in the audience likely benefited.

Other Science Communications Modes

Building a Foundation

Getting students started on good scientific writing, much like reading, involves helping them see how to break things down into manageable and meaningful pieces. If students can experience success writing short pieces, starting with sentences and paragraphs, they will gain confidence and practice that pave the way for longer writing and more complex text structures.

Power Writing for Science

Video and Reflection: Watch Power Writing for Science to see a 6th-grade science lesson in which students write in a fast and focused way, while aiming for high word counts, in order to loosen up and get their writing flowing. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: Think about how much in-class writing you have your students do. How do you support students who struggle with writing? Do you have different goals or standards for the writing that students do in class versus outside of class?
  • Watch the video: As you watch, notice how willing the students are to rewrite.
  • Reflect: What do you think of the idea of writing fast and going for a high word count? Write a paragraph on how you think it might be beneficial or negative and how it might be different for, say, 6th grade versus 10th-grade students.

Close Reading

Close reading is a form of writing when it includes underlining, marking, and making notes on specific aspects of text. You can have students extend close reading into writing by having them make a list of their close reading markups and then write a summary paragraph of their interpretation of their reading. If part of the close reading assignment is to identify data and evidence and map it to support a claim, you can have students specifically write a paragraph that outlines the evidence in support of the claim made in the text. In some cases, you can have students identify language associated with correlations versus more explicit claims of cause and effect. The analysis can be extended further into writing by having students formulate alternative language that could be used to state the same claims and evidence. Graphic organizers can be very useful for supporting and developing these practices.

Data Visualization

Because visualization of data is such a central part of scientific literacy, it is important for students to methodically develop this skill as well. You should provide students with published data that they can tabulate and graph, but it is also important for them to work with data that they have generated. Published data has the aura of flawless authority, while students will naturally have questions and concerns about their own data. Apart from the lab, students can generate data from exercises such as counting how many times in a minute a peer blinks, or polling each student on their commute to and from school in time and distance, or making a map of all the trees and shrubs on campus. Different groups of students should work on discussing what the data means, what they’d like to compare it to, and additional measurements they’d like to make. For example, a map can contain multiple layers of information in addition to just the location of things. Students should try visualizing a given set of data in different ways within or between teams. Students should present the graphs orally and in summary paragraphs and should practice writing figure legends.

The point of writing exercises focused on visualizing, describing, and to some extent interpreting data, is for students to become familiar with how experts handle and present data. The goal here is not to become an expert in the use of statistics, but, for example, to begin to understand that data has shape and character, that statistics do need to be applied, that there are standard ways to compare things, that many data have a normal distribution, and that many data relationships are linear.

Video and Reflection: Watch Science Literacy: Reading and Writing Diagrams to see a 8th-grade science teacher have students interpret diagrams, write, and use a physical model to understand a targeted concept. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: How do you think students’ retention of learning is affected if they engage with science content in a hands-on manner?
  • Watch the video: As you watch, notice places where you can observe that students are gaining conceptual understanding through visuals. Are you impressed with these students’ critiques of published graphics?
  • Reflect: The idea of students keeping a science journal where they record questions and observations in writing and graphic form is appealing. How would you assess students’ journal work? Is there a role for peer evaluation of journals?

Writing Thick

While students are developing their skills on shorter pieces of expository writing, you can also help them develop their skills by having them write longer pieces. This is sometimes referred to as “writing thick.” The object of writing thick is for students to get ideas flowing, record observations without worrying too much about text structure, and practice using new vocabulary. In the flow of ideas about experimental results, thoughts concerning results, methods, background, interpretation, and conclusions are likely to be mixed together. Besides getting past writer’s block, writing thick provides the material for rewriting and reversioning text. As students face their own and peers’ overlong and imperfectly organized writing, they can appreciate the value of concise and organized writing and start to understand the process of reorganizing complex text.

Working with thick writing includes these steps:

  • First, strive to make it complete and to be comprehensive and inclusive.
  • Students can look at each other’s work, noting things that are missing, such as important vocabulary or a lack of any conclusion statements.
  • As they close read their own and other’s work, they can identify parts of the writing that can be moved as they start organizing the text into the form of a research report or other writing form.
  • Once comprehensive, thick text has been critiqued for completeness, the process of cutting back can begin—of pruning and improving sentences and paragraphs.

Whether or not students begin by writing thick, exercises that are targeted toward writing with precision and concision are important. Students can hunt each other’s text for ambiguous statements and word choice. In many ways, concision is the path to precision. One technique is to have students write 400 words, perhaps in the form of a scientific abstract. Then have them cut the piece in half, to 200 words, while trying to preserve the essential meaning. Finally, have them write something under 50 words. At first, many students will find such drastic editing difficult; however, with practice, they will come to realize that 100 words on some topics can be clearer than 400 words. Teacher modeling and demonstration of how to do this, followed by guided practice, will support students as they work independently. Working scientists do this kind of editing on a regular basis as they generate text of varying lengths on the same topic for abstracts, research proposals, background sections, figure legends, and titles.

Recording Data and Note Taking

Developing and practicing literacy skills go hand in hand with learning science content. As students learn more science facts and vocabulary, and begin to better understand the process of science, they will develop a powerful platform for learning more and ramping up literacy. Taking notes while using domain-specific vocabulary is an important practice, whether the notes come out of listening to the instructor, from whole-class discussion, or from smaller group interactions. You should model good note taking and make assignments that target note taking. Just as in the rest of their writing, students should be striving for a balance between writing too much and leaving something important out. By their nature, notes can be short and ungrammatical; however, they need to be comprehensible when revisited and should make use of appropriate vocabulary.

Using Technology to Develop Writing Skills

Video and Reflection: Watch Using Technology to Develop Writing Skills to see how an 11th grade English teacher uses student podcast production to develop script-writing and revision skills along with interviewing skills and multimedia technology literacy. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: What could you do that might motivate students to be more excited about science writing?
  • Watch the video: As you watch, note the indications you see that students are engaged and motivated. How does Ms. Cunningham encourage students to be interested and curious?
  • Reflect: List some advantages and disadvantages of narrative writing for science content. How would you grade such content? List some topics that might be a good choice for a narrative approach.

Gaining Proficiency

There are several hallmarks of more sophisticated and confident science writing. Accomplished science writers are able to tailor their writing for specific audiences, formats, and lengths. They can also move the content that they want to communicate across different modes and platforms of communication, including journalistic articles, formal research reports, Facebook postings, podcasts, videos, twitter, wikis, blogs, and oral presentations.

The key to developing greater proficiency is to write more, write in diverse forms, and rewrite and reversion material. Revising can be painful for students who may feel it is repetitive; however, it is probably the single most important path to better writing, especially if peer and teachers feedback is part of the process. Changing the audience or the form of the writing can help some students feel like the work is not repetitive.

Video and Reflection: Watch Writing for New Media to see an 11th grade English class focusing on revising and polishing written scripts for podcasts. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: Do you make use of a workshop approach in your teaching? If so, what are the key elements that make a workshop approach work?
  • Watch the video: As you watch, note the specific instructions and feedback Ms. Cunningham gives students on their scripts. What aspects of the activity afford Ms. Cunningham the opportunity to differentiate instruction?
  • Reflect: Think about how you might use interviews to help your students gain science literacy. In addition to working scientists, who might your students interview, and what would the benefit be?

As students become more proficient writers, they become better able to focus on the mechanics of text structure. Various exercises can be used to spark students’ creativity as well as develop versatility in their science literacy.

  • You can provide them with a piece of writing and have them take a forensic approach to determine its source. Is the likely source a magazine article, a research report, or a script for a podcast? Have them write a paragraph that would be a plausible companion to the paragraph furnished.
  • Give them a piece of writing that is rich in observational detail. Have them write a couple of paragraphs on how they would move the rich observation into the realm of a correlation and then on to a claim for causation. The converse can also be done: students start with an experimental result and write a speculative paragraph on what the original observations and correlations were.
  • Give students diverse target audiences and purposes for their writing, such as a letter of complaint or inquiry about a traffic or sewer problem. The letter could be addressed to the local newspaper editor or to a government agency. Students could be assigned to create a multimedia documentary on a field trip with, perhaps, a marketing purpose.
  • Social media platforms, including simple text messaging, could be used to collect simple data over time (such as student observations of the time of sunset or the number of dogs they see on their way home from school). Over time, the aggregated class data can be collated and charted.

Video and Reflection: Watch Polishing Writing to see how a 10th-grade literature teacher use mini-lessons and group work in a workshop style to help students polish their writing and bring it to a more accomplished level. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: Think about what ‘s involved in polishing science writing. Is there a role for personal style and voice in science writing?
  • Watch the video: As you watch, notice the various insights and comments that students have and how they are offering each other constructive criticism.
  • Reflect: Although expository science writing doesn’t tend to leave a lot of room for personal style and voice, there is plenty of individual choice in sentence structure and word order. Consider having your students write a scientific statement and then vary length and word order to see the effect it has on a reader.

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Produced by WGBH Educational Foundation. 2015.