Chapter 3: Literacies across the disciplines

3.3.2 Different approaches to writing in a science lab (synthesis)

Sydney Arnold

English 102, September 2020

I have written many lab reports in the past few years for both chemistry and biology labs. I am also aware of how students feel about lab reports. For many students writing a lab report for a science lab can be stressful and many do not have good attitudes toward them. Many of these students do not receive good grades because they are just thrown into it and do not know how to write a lab report. Over the years there have been multiple studies done on different approaches to writing these lab reports to make students have better attitudes toward them and receive better grades on their lab reports.

Lab reports are a type of secondary language. To further explain this, I will be referencing to James Gee’s, “What is Literacy”. Gee’s definition of literacy is the ability to control secondary languages. A primary language would be your native language. A lab report is a secondary language because it is a literacy learned later in life, generally through school. Based on my articles, it has been shown that many incoming college students do not know how to write a lab report so they must learn this new literacy/secondary language. My articles will provide different approaches to learning how to write a lab report and the benefits they provide. Though these approaches may be different from each other, they all agree on the same thing, learning to write a lab report is necessary for any scientific field and there needs to be changes in how students are taught to write them, so they understand how to write them.

I will first start with the article, “Creative Report Writing in Undergraduate Organic Chemistry Laboratory Inspires Nonmajors” by Maged Henary, Eric Owens, and Joseph Tawney. The authors believe that a more creative approach to writing a lab report is beneficial for new organic chemistry students as it promotes appreciation and understanding of presented material (90). This method “encourages students to be creative and serves as a gentle introduction into writing laboratory reports and helps alleviate the start to the unfamiliar task of scientific writing.” (91). For this approach students are still required to correctly annotate and describe their compounds, but they can do so by telling a story rather than doing so in a traditional way. It has been shown students using this approach demonstrated a higher degree of understanding and makes them excited for the course (92). The students were given a survey in which they had to answer questions on a scale of 1-5 on whether they disagreed or agreed with a statement (92). This survey showed that student’s excitement and understanding of the material increased, they came out of the class more prepared and knowledgeable, and half the students even said they were more likely to consider a career in chemistry (92).

The next article is, “Developing Technical Writing Skills in the Physical Chemistry Laboratory: A Progressive Approach Employing Peer Review” by Derek Gragson and John Hagen. The authors developed an approach that uses peer review and revision components for the lab reports (62). The three principles the authors believe are essential to improving technical writing skill include: “less is sometimes more, initial guidance on writing and expectations that is gradually reduced leads to autonomy, and experience with the review and revision processes is essential to developing writing skills.” (62). Students were given a Calibrated Peer Review (CPR) tool and Integrated Writing Guide (IWG) for the class. The IWG allowed students to become critical readers of their own work and helped them become better at peer reviewing (64). The CPR and writing cycle mimic the process of how journal articles are written as a real-world chemist (64). The authors have seen significant improvements in the quality of the lab reports (65). This is believed to be due to the mixture of the IWG, CPR, and writing cycle (65).

The article, “Using Journal Articles to teach Writing Skills for Laboratory Reports in General Chemistry” by Luanna Tilstra uses an approach that teaches students how to properly construct a report and helps them understand the chemical concepts (762). This specific approach is used for students taking their first college chemistry course (762). In the first week of the quarter students are asked to find an article from the Journal of the American Chemical Society and create a properly formatted citation (762). This allows students to practice what is considered a low-level writing skill (762). As the quarter goes on, the writing tasks get harder. For the second report of the quarter, the students begin a higher level of writing such as classification and organization of data (763). Students are also required to write a critique on someone else’s work. The third report asks students to write a discussion section (763). The fourth report focuses on making good figures and using the high-level writing skill of critical analysis (763). This approach has shown that students do a better job at describing their observations, it lowered complaining, and it increased their writing confidence (764).

In the article, “Stepwise Approach to Writing Journal-Style Lab Reports in the Organic Chemistry Course Sequence” Jay Wackerly believes using a stepwise approach would be beneficial to students as it helps build rhetorical skills in scientific and technical writing (76).

This approach is based on the framework of stepwise writing, collaborative writing, journal-style reports, and imitation (76). The stepwise approach has students basically write their report in steps from the lowest skill to the highest skill throughout the semester (76). For each lab, it is required to write a post laboratory assignment (78). The students first experience report writing one-third into the semester (78). Students are asked to supply aspects of the procedure and data gathered during the experiment which is known as the “results” (78). For the second report, students wrote the results and discussion which increases the writing level from low to medium (78). The final reports are full reports which is a high level of writing (78). Increasing the writing complexity overtime allowed students to learn the expectations of journal-style writing and gave them a smoother transition into organic chemistry from a general chemistry lab (79). Most students wrote their reports with their lab partner which is an important skill to have for many careers (79). Students also were asked to peer review other work, which is also an essential skill to many careers (79). Student wrote their reports in the style of The Journal of Organic Chemistry format (79). This allowed students to be “introduced to technical writing in a manner that “real scientists” us to communicate information.” (80). This approach showed improvement in students’ writings (78). Students felt that this approach improved their writing skills and made them feel like better scientists (81). It is discussed that there needs to be larger studies done to fully support this evidence but the results from this smaller study show promising results (79).

The article, “Writing Activities Embedded in Bioscience Laboratory Courses to Change Students’ Attitudes and Enhance their Scientific Writing” by Susan Lee, Kyra Woods, and Kathryn Tonissen suggests using an approach that utilizes in-course writing activities (195). The authors suggest that a challenge in teaching a science course is finding ways to effectively engage students with scientific communication and writing (193). A suggested barrier to this is students tend to like doing experiments but do not enjoy writing (193). The writing activities were used made to engage students, make connections to their future careers, promote collaborative learning, and teach them how to provide a basic model for scientific writing (196). Completing each activity allowed the students to construct this paper while performing their experiment (196). The students were also able to get advice from a tutor or course coordinator during this time (196). Each writing assignment came with a checklist that focused on the requirements for a scientific paper and collaborative learning was encouraged by peer review (196). The first activity aimed to make sure students read the laboratory manual, completed background research, and understood the point of the project (197). The second activity focused on how to present figures in the results section of the paper (197). The final activity involved the discussion section of the paper (197). A survey was given to students and the results showed there was a high increase in confidence of students’ ability to write a scientific report, an increase in confidence for finding journal articles using databases, and students found the activities useful and had positive learning outcomes (197-198).

My final article is, “Inquiry-Based Writing in the Laboratory Course” by Cary Moskovitz and David Kellogg. The authors believe that inquiry-based writing is beneficial to students. The authors believe that for inquiry-based writing to be successful, there needs to be three modifications to the inquiry lab (919). These modifications are including forms of writing in lab that are similar to writing used by scientists, writing tasks need to be aligned with what is going on in the lab so students have meaningful things to say, and lastly students need to write for a real audience (919). This first step in inquire-based writing is to assign writing activities that use the form scientists use (919). The second step is aligning student writing with lab activities (920). This step has students present and discuss results (220). The last step is to provide students with a real audience for their work (920). This step shows students the constraints faced by real scientists (920). The authors also suggest that instructors need to shift from graders to scientists, so students are required to make scientific arguments rather than just reproduce scientific arguments (920). This approach has shown that students are more likely to find tasks meaningful and engaging (920).

Based on these articles, I have learned that many people believe that there needs to be a change in how writing in a science lab is taught so students are more engaged and receive better grades. I learned that most researchers study these methods by implementing these methods in a real lab at a real college with real students. I noticed that most of these approaches have students write their lab reports in steps throughout the semester rather than make them write an entire report for every lab. I never knew how many different methods there were for teaching students how to write a lab report and many of them do make sense to me.

Works Cited

Gragson, Derek E., and John P. Hagen. “Developing Technical Writing Skills in the Physical Chemistry Laboratory: A Progressive Approach Employing Peer Review.” Journal of Chemical Education, vol. 87, no. 1, 2010, pp. 62–65., doi:10.1021/ed800015t.

Henary, Maged, et al. “Creative Report Writing in Undergraduate Organic Chemistry Laboratory Inspires Nonmajors.” Journal of Chemical Education, vol. 92, no. 1, 5 Nov. 2014, pp. 90–95., doi:10.1021/ed5002619.

Lee, Susan E., et al. “Writing Activities Embedded In Bioscience Laboratory Courses To Change Students’ Attitudes And Enhance Their Scientific Writing.” EURASIA Journal of Mathematics, Science and Technology Education, vol. 7, no. 3, 21 Mar. 2011, pp. 193–202., doi:10.12973/ejmste/75191.

Moskovitz, C., and D. Kellogg. “Inquiry-Based Writing in the Laboratory Course.” Science, vol. 332, no. 6032, 19 May 2011, pp. 919–920., doi:10.1126/science.1200353.

Tilstra, Luanne. “Using Journal Articles to Teach Writing Skills for Laboratory Reports in General Chemistry.” Journal of Chemical Education, vol. 78, no. 6, June 2001, pp. 762–764., doi:10.1021/ed078p762.

Wackerly, Jay Wm. “Stepwise Approach To Writing Journal-Style Lab Reports in the Organic Chemistry Course Sequence.” Journal of Chemical Education, vol. 95, no. 1, 20 Nov. 2017, pp. 76–83., doi:10.1021/acs.jchemed.6b00630.


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