May 2, 2005
Study highlights the importance of writing
skills for science students
By Tim Stephens
A survey by a group of UCSC researchers on the role of writing
in undergraduate education in the sciences has turned up some
interesting findings, which the researchers hope will prompt
a serious and imaginative discussion of the importance of writing
in the science curriculum.
From interviews conducted with UCSC science faculty and students
involved in senior research projects, the researchers found
that both groups consider writing skills to be essential for
success as a scientist. Yet explicit instruction in writing,
including writing as a tool to help develop critical thinking,
is mostly absent from the courses typically taken by science
"Most students we interviewed said they learn to write
about science by inference, and there is a real need for more
explicit instruction in writing," said Nancy Cox-Konopelski,
director of UCSC's Academic Excellence Program (ACE) and one
of the principal investigators in the study.
"We are hoping that this study will help to open up a
dialogue about how we can provide more opportunities for writing
instruction to undergraduates in the sciences," she said.
Cox-Konopelski teamed up with Donald Smith, professor and chair
of environmental toxicology, and Donald Rothman and Virginia
Draper, both lecturers in the Writing Program, to conduct the
study. It was funded by a grant from the Consortium for High
Academic Performance. The researchers gave a panel presentation
of their findings in March at the Conference on College Composition
and Communication sponsored by the National Council of Teachers
of English (NCTE).
The study was motivated by a concern that poor writing skills
may be a barrier limiting the entry of students into independent
research paths or limiting their ability to complete their senior
"My experience is that a lot of students who do research
projects get hung up right at the end when they start writing
their thesis. I've encountered students who never finished their
thesis because they hit this barrier," Smith said.
Using a carefully constructed set of questions, the researchers
conducted independent interviews with 22 students and nine faculty
members in the Division of Physical and Biological Sciences.
All of the students were seniors engaged in student research
"Our hunch before we did the interviews was that the faculty
would say writing is important, but not the students. In fact,
everybody seems to recognize the importance of writing beyond
just the need to communicate--they see it as a valuable tool
for shaping their thinking and doing science," Smith said.
According to Rothman, many faculty recognize that writing can
be a tool for developing critical thinking skills and that the
process of writing forces one to think more clearly and creatively.
"I was impressed by the faculty who saw writing as a way
of learning and talked about the intellectual skills that writing
encourages," he said.
As one student put it, "The act of writing helped me understand
what I was doing."
Both students and faculty agreed, however, that students need
more guidance to develop their writing abilities. Faculty wish
they could do more to teach writing, but they don't have the
time and, more importantly, they are not sure how to do it,
"What's frustrating is that the campus has people who
can help--we have a group of professional writing faculty on
campus. We just need to figure out how to use the resources
we have more effectively," Rothman said.
Currently, the faculty in UCSC's Writing Program teach mostly
introductory writing courses for first-year students. When it
comes time to write a senior thesis, however, many students
find themselves on their own.
"The bottom line is we know we could do more just by having
a coordinated effort to provide support and resources,"
Smith said. "Our study is a very preliminary assessment,
but it gives us enough information to begin to understand what
is working and what's not. This could serve as a starting point
for addressing the need for more writing instruction linked
to undergraduate research."
The researchers said they are eager to connect with other faculty
on campus who are interested in this issue.
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