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Teach Science Writing with Peer Review—and Vice Versa

To help biology students become better writers, readers, and peer reviewers, Dr. Pamela Kittelson has added a writing lab to her courses.

Educator

Pamela Kittelson, PhD

Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies , Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, Minnesota

PhD in Botany/Plant Biology, MA in Biology, BA in Biology

Dr. Pamela Kittelson knows that publishing research is often a requirement for active, tenured educators like her. (She teaches a wide array of biology courses at Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, Minnesota.) Her own work has appeared in numerous journals, including Ecology, Evolution, and the American Journal of Botany.

So she finds it interesting that few science professors weave writing into their curriculum or hold students accountable for the quality of what they write. Kittelson is looking to change that.

“Writing is one of the most important tools any college student can take away from their undergraduate experience,” Kittelson says. “And it’s vitally important for scientists.”

To tackle this knowledge gap, Kittelson found inspiration in creative writing workshops and nonfiction writing courses that she has taken to hone her own craft. As a result, she has begun to incorporate student peer review—another important aspect of science research—into the evaluation of students’ writings.

Below, she shares how she teaches students to review one another’s work—and become better writers themselves.

Challenge

Students lack writing (and peer review) skills

Students today struggle more with writing than others before them, Kittelson believes. She attributes this to the breakdown of communication into 140-character chunks and bulleted blogs. Many students also lack the ability to evaluate others’ writings (and their own)—and to give or receive feedback in a productive way.

Innovation

Add peer-reviewed writings to any science course

Kittelson implemented a series of exercises that culminate in students writing a literature review that goes through a double-blind peer review by others in the class. This not only helps make her students better writers but it also helps them learn how to evaluate the writing of others.

See resources shared by Pamela Kittelson, PhD

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Context

“I always tell students that I want improvement. I don’t expect a perfect essay, but I do expect them to work on it from the first draft to the last draft. What’s important to me is the arc of improvement.”

— Pamela Kittelson, PhD

Course: BIO-202 Evolution, Ecology, and Behavior

Course description: This course focuses on three themes: 1) the mechanisms and patterns of microevolution and macroevolution, including the evidence for evolution of life on earth; 2) ecology, including organismal responses to the environment, population dynamics, species interactions, community structure, and ecosystem processes; and 3) behavior.

Lesson: Kittelson’s tips for teaching peer-reviewed writing in science

To prepare students to be better science writers—and to be adept at peer review of others’ work—Kittleson’s approach includes steps to build critical thinking and reading skills, practicing writing in low-stakes assignments, learning to give and receive feedback, and more.

She has found that this approach is easiest to employ in elective classes for high-level (junior and senior) students, as they have had prior practice writing reports and reading scientific literature. However, she has used a modified version in her mid-level sophomore capstone course, too, and she feels that the approach can work for any kind of science writing, whether it is a lab report or a literature review.

These are some of the highlights of her approach.

Annotate technical works in class to boost reading endurance

“[Today’s students] won’t read anything that’s longer than a page, and they have a hard time reading anything that’s not bulleted,” Kittelson says. To lengthen their reading span, she spends class time having students read and annotate primary literature. (These are usually highly technical pieces that weave together multiple pieces of information and that correlate to lecture topics.)

Students read through the paper once, marking it for facts and phrases they do not understand. They also use pluses and minuses to identify statements they like and do not like. Then they read the paper again, this time looking at the structure (abstract, introduction, etc.), which is generally the same in most science literature. In lab, they also discuss the writing and scientific contributions.

Kittelson’s Tip for Educators Who Say “I’m Not a Writing Instructor”

Kittelson knows writing instruction is not every educator’s forte. “I hear so many of my colleagues say that they just don’t know how to teach writing. They say, ‘That’s not what I do—I teach science.’ [But] it’s difficult for students to transfer composition class to science class without explicit help,” she says.

Her suggestion to science instructors: Make allies at the campus writing center, as well as with journalists, authors, and members of the English department. She herself has also taken courses and workshops in writing—creative nonfiction—to improve her skills. Her personal writing goal is to become more adept at rephrasing scientific findings in a way that is more easily digestible by the general public.

Her other advice to science instructors is to encourage students to talk through their assignments with a peer or writing tutor. “They can talk through the prompt, which can ease fears or help jumpstart a process,” she points out. “They can read passages of their draft aloud and ask the person who is listening to advise where they might deepen the argument or make a point more clear.”

Provide low-stakes practice with (ungraded) one-minute writings

To help students get used to writing about science, Kittelson gives them opportunities to write without being graded. “Practicing the habit of writing is helpful, so sometimes we’ll take one minute and just start writing about a [simple] topic,” she says. For example, she might ask the class to spend a minute capturing what they just learned in a lecture.

Make sure peer reviews are double-blind—and constructive

The most respected studies are double-blind, peer-reviewed ones, for which colleagues evaluate the research anonymously to ensure that the findings are valid. Kittelson’s student-paper peer review process mimics this. However, this anonymity has led some students to think they “can be jerks,” she says. Other times, students are too easy on one another. Neither provides helpful feedback.

So before the first peer-review process, she reads examples of bad reviews to the class, then opens the floor for discussion. “It’s necessary to discuss the work as a class so everyone is clear on the components that make up good or bad feedback,” she says.

Review what the peer-reviewers say—and grade them on it

At the start of the semester, Kittelson gives her students a peer-review rubric with a single-page checklist. (It includes such prompts as, “This paper uses specific data or evidence to support their claims throughout,” or “The author re-worded main ideas clearly without excessive or missing details,” with answer choices of “Yes,” “No,” or “Sometimes.”) Knowing their review is graded ensures that most take it seriously. Students have two class periods to complete the review—circling words, underlining statements, providing constructive feedback—and then Kittelson’s lab instructors look through the comments to make sure they are helpful and appropriate. “If people haven’t made quality comments or missed something, [my lab instructors] write a note and send the reviewer to see us,” she says.

Teach students what to do (or not) with the feedback

Students are instructed to implement the feedback from their peers before submitting their work to Kittelson. Receiving feedback can be as difficult as giving it, she notes—especially for those who have perfectionist tendencies.

For students who have received particularly critical feedback, Kittelson buoys confidence by having them meet with her or one of the lab instructors, so they can talk through it together. “We help them see past the criticism,” she says.

“I always tell students that I want improvement. I don’t expect a perfect essay, but I do expect them to work on it from the first draft to the last draft,” she says. “What’s important to me is the arc of improvement.”

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