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Implementing Writing-to-Learn Approaches in STEM

On using blogs and other writing assignments that focus on self-reflection to build critical thinking skills in undergraduate courses for science students.

September 11, 2018
 
 

Ingrid J. Paredes is a Ph.D. candidate in chemical engineering at New York University. You can find her on Twitter @ingridjoylyn.

Regardless of discipline, strong written communication skills are essential to a successful career. As graduate students, this is fact: completion of our degrees relies on the publication and presentation of our research. At GradHacker, we’ve offered a lot of advice on writing practices and strategies, from how to best overcome writer’s block to how to create effective deadlines.

For undergraduate students, though, the amount of communication training they receive depends on their majors—in STEM disciplines, communication skills are often a small part of the curriculum. Instructors instead usually ask students to solve problem sets in the form of assignments or timed exams. To better prepare our future scientists and engineers for the many reports and presentations they’ll have to do once they graduate, we can and should implement writing into our courses.

Assignments like this that seek to improve literacy in a particular subject follow the writing-to-learn (WTL) approach. Summed up, it is the philosophy behind this approach: “Writing to Learn Means Learning to Think.”

Examples of such assignments include short assignments like:

  • Summaries of what was covered in class​
  • Reading responses—summaries and questions
  • Annotated solutions to problem sets

The prompts can also be longer and more creative:

  • Creation of problem statements
  • Research essays based on certain topics within a discipline (My personal favorite—for a class on chemical kinetics, I had the opportunity to write a paper on the reaction between the sugars of cheese and bread that occur while baking pizza).

Regardless of length and form, WTL exercises allow students to gain critical thinking skills through self-reflection of the material, which allows them to build their literacy in a subject. Essentially, these assignments allow students to create their own personal learning journals that they build throughout the semester, rather than stacks of solutions to isolated problem sets they may not recall later.

As an instructor, the assignments also provide the opportunity to give your students regular and meaningful feedback on their writing. To track student progress, some metrics to consider when implementing WTL approaches are:

  • How often should my students write?
  • What kind of assignments are students most responsive to?
  • Has student response aligned with improvements in their performance?

While these assignments work well offline, they translate well to the digital classroom, too—Kerawalla et al. found that this approach works through blogs as well; according to their study, students responded to well to writing blogs because they cared about their presentation of course material and the comments other students would leave on their posts. Previously, we’ve discussed how teaching with blogs allows the students to find their voices as writers while engaging with each other. By the end of the course, they even have a finished project to show what they’ve learned during the semester.

While trends in student performance in response to WTL approaches have been difficult to establish due to varied assignments and results, implementing these approaches encourages active learning practices that are key to student success STEM classrooms. When done solo, students can do more critically thinking at home, allowing classroom time to be spent on active discussion; when done in the classroom, students can become more comfortable engaging with each other about the course material through group work and peer evaluations.

STEM educators, have you brought writing into your classroom? What practices have you found to be most effective? Share your thoughts in the comments or tweet us @GradHacker.

[Image by Flickr user pnnl and used under a Creative Commons Public Domain license.]

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