Department of Biology
A neuroscience professor enhances writing in smaller classes and improves the experience of large upper division classes through the addition of writing and
Because Introductory Neuroscience classes typically have about 60 students, writing has not been an extensive component of the course. On average, students in this course write a two-page technical summary and a two-page case study of a particular topic in the field, with some opportunities for extra credit by writing one-page answers to questions that arise in class, as well as collaborative work done through the class blog and discussion boards. Students Advanced Neuroscience, with only 6-20 students, usually entails extensive writing, especially for graduate students, but could use more for undergraduates. The goal of the grant was to find ways to include more meaningful writing assignments to both classes without adding substantially to the time involved in grading. Honors 101 is a small class that could also benefit from more writing.
There were twelve students enrolled in my Hon 101 course. I added several short in-class writing exercises to the course. These were typically performed prior to our discussion for the day. Exercises included prompts that could be categorized as Believing and Doubting, Concept Mapping, Questioning the Texts’ Purpose, and Role Playing. These were graded for participation only. In addition, we performed several Preparatory Exercises to aid in the writing of their final 10-page research paper. All of these exercises involved in-class peer review. Several of the Preparatory Exercises, including an Annotated Bibliography, were graded for course credit.
For my Bisc 327 class, I added ten writing assignments. This semester enrollment was at 45 students but enrollment is often as high as 90 students for this course. Assignments were graded for participation only and included those used in the Hon 101 class with the addition of Topic Summaries, and Case Studies.
I did not perform a formal student opinion survey of the writing assignments for HON 101. However, several students included the writing exercises, especially concept mapping, into their own teaching when they were discussion leaders. This suggests that many students found the writing exercises beneficial for collecting ones thoughts prior to discussion. Unfortunately, at least a few students thought the brief writing exercises were a waste of time and others did not put the necessary work into the Preparatory Exercises to reap specific benefits. These negative statements were gleaned from students’ self-reflective essays written at the end of the course. In general, I believed the short, pre-discussion exercises were successful in helping students gather their thoughts about the readings for the course. It seems students need a better understanding of peer review or more professor feedback for the Preparatory Exercises to be beneficial to the writing of their research papers.
I surveyed students in BISC 327 at the end of the semester to ascertain their opinions about the writing assignments with regards to educational benefits, grading methods, and class discussion style. I also asked questions to determine which writing exercises they liked best of those we did, and asked what types of writing exercises they would like more of in the future. Analyses of the survey showed that most students felt that the writing exercises added to the educational value of the course. Students did not feel that qualitative grading and professor feedback of the assignments was necessary for learning or for them to perform at their best. Students only liked peer review of a few assignments. While students generally felt that qualitative grading was unnecessary, there were a few assignments on which they would have liked more professor feedback. Desire for both qualitative grading and greater professor input was associated with the assignments the students liked best. In general, the class would have liked to write more Topic Summaries and develop more Concept Maps. Importantly, my results demonstrate writing enhanced learning can be performed in larger classes, like BISC 327, without a great deal of added effort on the part of the professor.