Improve Student Writing in Science – A Guide

The common core standards include a writing component for all educators of all grades, which  can cause some mild anxiety among teachers who do not generally include writing as part of their instruction.    According to the common core standards:

For students, writing is a key means of asserting and defending claims, showing what they know about a subject, and conveying what they have experienced, imagined, thought, and felt. To be college- and career- ready writers, students must take task, purpose, and audience into careful consideration, choosing words, information, structures, and formats deliberately.

Though some science teachers may require a research paper for their class, many high school science teachers do not include this in their curriculum, and I do not think that it is the intent of the core standards to push for term papers in every class. I do, however, believe it is their intent to encourage writing as an everyday learning tool.

Students in my AP class are familiar with the “Free Response” questions I include on every test, but I don’t think it is enough to just have one essay on a test and think that satisfies the common core requirement.  The problem with the “one essay per test” format is that it gives students no opportunity for feedback and revision which are important components of the writing process.

Teaching Adolescent Writers

Another teacher recommended I look into books by Kelly Gallagher and loaned me “Teaching Adolescent Writers.”    There is an amazing amount of helpful information for teachers wanting to add more writing, some of which I am currently trying.   The idea of on-demand writing is particularly appealing, since I already have my students answer “free response” questions on their tests.  

I will use Kelly Gallagher’s model to teach students specific strategies for dealing with essay questions.   Strategies that will help them not only with the Free-response question on the AP exam, but can be useful in other classes and even with job interviews or job-related tasks.    This week, students are learning about genetics and DNA, and I know there will be an essay question on their test.  Consider Kelly Gallagher’s model  of the ABC’s of on demand writing when faced with the following prompt:

“DNA was not always known to be the molecule of heredity, biologists had to establish which molecule within the cell, be it a protein, carbohydrate, or nucleic acid held the genetic code.  Scientists seeking to determine which molecule is responsible for the transmission of characteristics from one generation to the next knew that the molecule must (1) copy itself precisely, (2) be stable but be able to be changes, and (3) be complex enough to determine the organisms phenotype.  Explain how DNA meets each of the criteria listed.”

A =  Attack the Prompt

The first step to helping your students with this essay would be to show them how to determine what the question is actually asking.   The first part of the prompt is giving you some background information and some clues about things you might want to think about.  The second part is the important section, show students to cross out the beginning background information and just focus on what the question is asking.   Circle words that ask you to do something, in this case, such as EXPLAIN and then separate things you are supposed to address.  Write these out in simpler terms.

sample writing

B = Brainstorm Answers

Show students how to make a mental map of the essay, tossing out ideas and concepts that could potentially be included.  It is important at this point to not try to edit or remove any items, brainstorming gets our minds to think about all the possibilities, pruning can occur later.

C = Choose Order

This is often the easiest part for science essays because the question often determines the order of your response.  On this essay, there is a clear, part one, part 2 and part 3, however within each section, you may want to ask the students to number how they will answer it. The brainstorm map can be numbered so that you have an idea of which order to include your concepts.

This image shows the brainstorming and ordering phase of the writing process:

sample brainstorming

D = Detect Errors

The last step after writing the essay is to proofread it for grammatical errors.   This step can also be skipped if time is short.  For the on-demand writing in class, I like to use a little timer and give them 10 minutes (or 5) to answer the question, the responses remain brief and contain only information required of them, and it keeps the paperwork I need to grade, or respond to, minimal.  I do not always grade the practice essays, unless it is just a basic rubric.   I may even allow them to revise the essay to fix major problems.   Remember that the goal is to give them practice before they answer the high-stakes question on a test, AP exam, or college application.