- phase completed
- phase in-progress
The College of Biological Sciences (CBS) has a complex interdisciplinary structure, including five academic departments and seven academic majors. The College enrolls more than 2,200 students who pursue Bachelor of Sciences degrees in those seven majors. Although the specializations of the majors differ, they share a foundational core curriculum, and thus undertook the WEC process as an entire college rather than working department by department.
Writing in the College of Biological Sciences
The CBS faculty generated the following evolving list in response to the question, “What characterizes academic and professional communication in this discipline?” Obviously, there are multiple genres aimed at a variety of audiences, so not every piece of writing would be expected to evidence each of these characteristics.
- Cohesive: Arguments contribute to a conceptually logical narrative, building from one point to the next.
- Evidence-centered: Ideas and conclusions are based on research, its results and analysis, rather than the scientists as actors in producing that research.
- Internally consistent and adequately evidenced: Arguments and conclusions are logically based on data, either one’s own or from the body of relevant scientific literature.
- Framed in terms of foundational concepts and ideas: Arguments acknowledge and build on the conceptual contributions of others. Much scientific writing includes a description of a hypothesis based on current knowledge in the field and interprets newly generated data in light of other published work.
- Synthetic: Arguments or conclusions are based on the analysis and synthesis of the scientific literature, pulling together ideas and results from multiple sources.
- Underscores the idea that knowledge is conditional and nature is variable: The writer recognizes and appreciates that research findings depend on the unique characteristics of the system being studied. Variability is inherent in natural systems and must be considered and acknowledged when generalizing or applying results to other systems.
- Accurate/precise in the description of biological processes: Wording is unambiguous; terminology is used appropriately; writing avoids teleology and anthropomorphism.
- Overt: Ideas are presented in a comprehensible (reader-friendly) manner, taking into account the intended audience.
- Persuasive to specific audiences: Writing is persuasive to the targeted audience, be it lay, political or scientific.
- Concise: Arguments or descriptions are direct and to the point.
- Replicable: Procedures and findings are presented completely and concretely to allow others to replicate them.
- Organized using typical scientific formats: For example, research reporting is organized in terms of an Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion, and incorporates graphics and tables with appropriate and informative legends (captions).
Writing Abilities Expected of the College of Biological Sciences Majors
The CBS faculty generated the following list in response to this question: “With which writing abilities should students in this unit’s major(s) graduate?”
Novice (developed throughout the undergraduate curriculum, beginning in 1XXX and 2XXX courses):
- Write concisely, avoiding unnecessary language or information
- Use grammar, tone, and terminology that are appropriate for the intended audience (e.g., avoid jargon when writing for lay audiences)
- Describe observations and procedures concretely (avoiding ambiguous language or subjective characterizations)
- Write with biological accuracy (i.e., precisely, using proper terminology, and without teleology or anthropomorphisms)
- Use the appropriate scientific template when necessary to structure assignments (e.g., scientific papers, diagnostic keys)
- Interpret, construct, integrate, and properly caption and format figures and tables
- Create cohesive narratives that are structured to flow logically from one point to the next
- Recognize the unique characteristics of scientific writing in articles
Intermediate (developed in core 3XXX courses and upper-division electives):
- Formulate research or thesis questions that are appropriate in scope and topic
- Describe quantitative analyses accurately (e.g., statistical results and mathematical solutions)
- Argue logically and persuasively, using appropriate evidence
- Analyze for cause and effect
- Use writing to develop and deepen thinking
- Work and write collaboratively (e.g., provide constructive peer review)
- Write in a style that focuses on results (rather than on those who obtained the results)
- Effectively revise and/or self-edit written work
Advanced (developed primarily in upper-division electives):
- Select appropriate (i.e., peer-reviewed) sources from the primary and secondary literature; interrogate those sources by evaluating them for logic, consistency, and soundness; and acknowledge those sources appropriately
- Develop independent, logical conclusions by synthesizing information from disparate sources, including original data and published studies
- Recognize the importance of variability in biological systems in the design and interpretation of research and in the synthesis of findings across studies
- Write credibly and persuasively to a variety of assigned audiences, using terminology that is appropriate for the intended audience
Menu of Grading Criteria Used in the College of Biological Sciences Courses
Members of the CBS faculty identified the following menu of criteria from which colleagues can select and adapt items relevant to course-specific writing assignments:
- Presents information in a concise manner.
- Uses terminology that is appropriate for the intended audience (e.g., defines technical terms when writing for lay audiences).
- Describes procedures in a way that can be replicated.
- Does not use anthropomorphisms or teleological arguments.
- Utilizes the scientific template (abstract, introduction, methods, results, and discussion) or another appropriate format.
- Makes appropriate choices about which data to represent visually.
- Figure and/or table titles and legends are appropriately informative, i.e. they orient the reader to visual's content.
- Directly communicates a scientific narrative using an overt logical structure: moves from problem, to procedure, data, conclusions, and back to target problem.
- Describes significant gaps in scientific knowledge by articulating a target question or problem and describing its significance.
- Uses appropriate statistics and describes them according to conventions in the literature.
- Draws logical conclusions from synthesis of evidence.
- Selects appropriate sources (primary and/or secondary).
- Evaluates and interrogates sources.
- Cites sources in a consistent manner.
- Identifies potential problems with data and/or research approach.
- Identifies alternatives to given interpretation and approaches.
Highlights from the Writing Plan
After conducting a study of instructional artifacts used in all lab courses, CBS faculty members focused on improving the authenticity of lab reports in 2K-level Biology lab courses. These courses now incorporate explicit instruction in reading scientific papers and in composing traditional lab reports that are closer to scientific papers. CBS faculty members continue to develop and use a variety of teaching strategies, including Five-Minute Writing Workshops for efficient and timely writing instruction. Finally, to ensure that faculty, instructors, and students are simultaneously aware of what is valued in writing across their majors, the college's list of valued undergraduate writing abilities in addition to other resources are posted on their Teaching with writing website.
In its third-edition plan, the College of Biological Sciences continues to maintain its innovations in TA training and lab courses, and to prepare for the continued growth in biological sciences majors in the coming years. This plan includes familiarizing new faculty members with the role of writing within the curriculum, rightsizing the WI offerings in the department, incorporating writing-to-learn activities in large enrollment courses, and developing effective supplemental instruction for undergraduate directed research.
As a related activity, in 2015, CBS's Leslie Schiff and WEC's Pamela Flash, with colleagues from the University of Michigan and Duke University, received a 5-year, $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation's IUSE program to investigate impacts of low-stakes writing activities on critical and conceptual learning in STEM courses. The project builds on the ongoing success of the U's innovative Writing-Enriched Curriculum Program. 2022 will bring the third grant-sponsored STEMwrite institute to the campus of the University of Minnesota.