Taking a writing-intensive evolution course was transformative for me

Was there one course that had a profound effect on your career path? For me, there were a few courses that were important and influenced my path to ecology. But, without a doubt, the most important one was the Intro Evolution course I took as a second-year undergrad. I took it through Cornell’s Writing in the Majors program, which is “based on the premise that language and learning are vitally connected in every field”. I know others who had similarly transformative experiences in Cornell’s Writing in the Majors class in evolution (and, to a lesser extent, in the WITM version of ecology), and have wondered what it was about that course that was so special. More importantly, I wonder what I can do now as an instructor that might lead to a similarly transformative experience for some of my students.

First, to give some explanation: Writing in the Majors courses are available in a range of subjects and, based on my n of 2 (I took both evolution and ecology through the WITM option), each is taught differently. For Evolution, there were two options. For both, you attended the same lectures. The key differences between the two sections were that, for the Writing in the Majors option, you had one additional discussion section meeting per week, got 4 credits for taking the course (as opposed to 3), and, instead of taking exams, you had writing assignments.

It was that last point that made me opt for the Writing in the Majors option. I was not a fan of exams – I found them really stressful – and enjoyed writing, so this seemed like a fantastic option for me. I’m sure that there are several reasons why this course was transformative for me*, but having the opportunity to work through concepts in a deeper**, lower stress way was surely important. It also allowed for assignments where we got feedback and then edited our work based on that. The opportunity to really reflect on things and edit in response promoted much deeper engagement with the material.

The assignments were also so much more interesting to me than an exam would have been. I can’t remember all of them, but I recall key ones that taught us about reading the literature (originally just by us choosing a paper on our own and then summarizing it) and that had us do a literature review and propose a study. When writing this post, I originally thought my proposed study was on the evolution of melanism in gray squirrels, but, after more thought, I think it may have been on evolution of trees in urban areas in response to altered light regimes. Either way, clearly that particular exercise didn’t lead me to my current research program, but it was an important introduction to the literature and to asking scientific questions. (The course also was responsible for encouraging me to attend my first seminar.) For my colleague Melissa Duhaime, the literature review/proposal assignment more directly launched her on her current path. (She took Writing in the Majors Evolution at Cornell, too.) As a result of that, she wrote one of the scientists whose work she’d cited in her proposal, which led to a summer research experience that got her career as a microbial ecologist off to a start.

I think one key aspect of this course design is that it allowed students who were prepared to engage more deeply (or at least differently) with course material to opt-in to that format, while still leaving a more traditional format for students who wanted that. I feel like a lot of courses could benefit from this dual format – including many of the first- and second-year courses that bio majors take. I’m not sure why it’s not more common. (My guess is logistics.)

So why don’t we have more writing-intensive courses like the one I took? I think the biggest hurdle is that writing-intensive courses are also time-intensive to teach. But, if only some of the students do the writing-intensive option (see previous paragraph), then that is less of a barrier. I don’t know the specifics of how it worked at Cornell, but I think that the TAs who did the WITM option got the following semester off from teaching. (That is: I think it counted as a double teaching assignment, which made it more appealing.)  I think it would be fantastic if there was a spin-off of the Intro Bio course that I teach here that got students more deeply engaged with the material through writing assignments!

Of course, one could then ask: if the experience would be so valuable, why shouldn’t it be available to all students? An easy answer to that question is to say that not all students would want to take a writing-intensive course. That’s true, but it doesn’t get at the bigger challenge, which is that it is difficult to teach a writing-intensive course to hundreds of students. But people are working on this – including at my own institution.

So, for me, I hope to one day be more involved in writing-intensive courses. I think they have enormous potential for engaging students and helping them work through challenging material. If any readers have experience with teaching writing-intensive courses (particularly in larger courses and/or in STEM fields), I’d love to hear about them in the comments!


* I’m sure that another factor in this course being transformative for me was that I got very lucky and had Colleen Webb as my TA. She was an amazing teacher, and many of her students went on to grad school in ecology and evolution. But I know people who took the course with other TAs who also found it life-altering, so it wasn’t just that I lucked out with my TA!

** I realize that it’s possible to write exams – even multiple choice exams – that test higher order thinking. I do my best to do that. But, in my experience, engaging at this level is much more readily done with writing assignments than with multiple choice exams.

8 thoughts on “Taking a writing-intensive evolution course was transformative for me

  1. Definitely a transformative teaching experience too (I did the Ecology option twice at Cornell). It was more work but most of us wanted it to gain real teaching experience. That was the draw (no double teaching credit when I was there) and I certainly benefited from it. Probably wouldn’t have gotten my assistant professor position at Uppsala without teaching that course. I think the part of the model that works for the course is that the students have to apply (and want to be there) and the TAs also want that particular teaching experience. Think it leads to a good combination and productive course that might be different if either were forced into it.

    • Thanks for the comment! It’s interesting to get the teaching perspective on the courses. My impression was that WITM Ecology was less writing intensive than WITM Evolution, and I think maybe it didn’t have the extra credit hour associated with it, but I’m not sure about that.

      I do recall one of the ecology assignments very well: it was a debate about reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone, and students were assigned to be different stakeholders. I was assigned to be someone from Defenders of Wildlife, and I still think of this assignment every time I see that organization’s name!

      I think you are right that having both the students and the TAs opt-in to that format leads to a really engaged group. Surely that contributes to the success of the course!

  2. On twitter, there was a question about how to ensure the workload is balanced in a dual-format class. That’s a good question and, since I wasn’t on the instructional side of these courses, I’m not sure of the answer. I suspect it helped that, for Evolution, the writing intensive course was an extra credit hour, which probably helped people worry less about how the workload for the two versions compared (aside from just expecting that it should be more for the 4 credit option than the 3 credit option).

  3. Thanks for sharing this Meg, this is a super-interesting model.

    Don’t suppose you can recall how many people were in the Ecology and Evolution courses at Cornell, and what fraction chose the WITM versions? Trying to get a sense of just how big a course can be for this to work. Though of course, since it’s opt-in and more work for the student than the “ordinary” version of the course, perhaps there’s no need to worry that an infeasibly large number of students will ever take this option! At least, not at most universities.

    I too am incredibly grateful for having had the opportunity/obligation to write as much as I did as an undergrad. But for me, the most intensive and helpful writing experiences were in my non-science courses, especially philosophy. I recall in particular finding Philosophy 101 and 102 at Williams incredibly helpful. You had to write a short paper (1-2 pages) every week, and because it was philosophy there was an emphasis on close reading, precision of language, and logical argument. No room for word salad!

    Williams also had various courses offered in the form of Oxford-style tutorials, in which students meet in pairs with the prof once/week to discuss and critique a paper one of the students has written (i.e. each student writes a paper once every 2 weeks). There was an ecology one, as I recall. I never took a tutorial, but I imagine that they’d be great writing practice.

    Of course, neither the Philosophy 101/102 model or the tutorial model scales particularly well to large classes, although I suppose the Philosophy 101/102 model would if you had sufficient TA support.

    • I don’t know what proportion of the class did the writing intensive version, but would guess it was on the order of 40-80 students a semester. (That guess is based on thinking there were something like 2-4 of those sections per semester, and thinking that 20 is a typical number per section.)

      It’s interesting that your non-science writing courses were helpful for science writing. Initially I was surprised by that, thinking that scientific writing is different than other kinds of writing. But I guess those differences are more superficial, and that any sort of writing-intensive course would give a student practice in developing and conveying a clear argument.

      • “It’s interesting that your non-science writing courses were helpful for science writing. ”

        There certainly are aspects of science writing that my other courses didn’t help me with. But I felt like I picked those up fine from doing lab reports and a senior thesis in my science courses.

        EDIT: Forgot to add: wow, 40-80 students! That’s more than I would’ve guessed. Obviously great that so many students wanted that option. Could be challenging for institutions with fewer resources than Cornell to do that.

  4. Thanks for a really great post.

    I’m curious about how people actually handle the writing in writing-intensive courses. That is, are students given feedback/evaluation on the content and clarity of their argument, or do the courses actually contain any writing *instruction*?

    At my institution, Kenyon College, we have the luxury of relatively small class sizes, and our intro lab class and pretty much all of our upper level biology courses require substantial writing. But courses really vary in terms of whether and how much instructional attention is given to *how* to write (and its companion, how to read). Of course, this competes with other pedagogical content, so logistics are complicated even in classes of 15-30 students. But I’m interested in what you might term the Zinsser hypothesis: that learning, writing, and thinking are so closely related that if you teach science students how to write better, they in fact become clearer thinkers, and maybe even better scientists.

    I think we sometimes assume that high school or freshman English classes are supposed to do the job for us, but that might be a faulty assumption for many of our students. As a recovering English major myself, I can report that most English classes, even first year composition, are much more about reading literature than they are about the act of writing itself.

    It would take some training with TAs (and probably even faculty) but it seems like some of those extra discussion section meetings could be used as “writing workshops” to help students hone their work.

    • Thanks for the comment! Lots to think about here.

      “It would take some training with TAs (and probably even faculty) but it seems like some of those extra discussion section meetings could be used as “writing workshops” to help students hone their work.”

      Yes! I think that, before teaching a writing-intensive course, I would need more training myself in how to teach writing. Having mentored lab members who are learning how to write has given me some experience with that, but I think I would benefit a lot from learning more about how to teach writing. At Cornell, I know the TAs who teach the Writing in the Majors sections take a course before they teach it that trains them in how to teach a writing-intensive course.

      I can’t recall at this point how much instruction there was specifically in writing. But there were assignments where we wrote, received feedback, and then revised based on that feedback (which included feedback on writing).

      Your comment is making me realize an analogy to when I taught a reading-intensive upper level course. I realized after teaching it the first time that I needed to give more instruction early on in how to read a paper. They certainly learned a lot about that over the course of the semester, but I could have made their on ramp smoother by giving more direct instruction in that.

      “I’m interested in what you might term the Zinsser hypothesis: that learning, writing, and thinking are so closely related that if you teach science students how to write better, they in fact become clearer thinkers, and maybe even better scientists.”

      I will have to think more about this. It’s certainly true for me that the process of writing about a topic helps me figure out what I’m confused about and to work through the confusion (hopefully!) But I’m unsure about whether that process with one topic makes me a clearer thinker about other topics. I will need to pay more attention to that!

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