Poll: teaching science writing in university courses

Note from Jeremy: This is a guest post from Bethann Merkle (@CommNatural). She holds an MFA in nonfiction creative writing, has written over 300 articles and essays, edited a textbook, and works at the University of Wyoming as the Director of the Wyoming Science Communication Initiative. She will shortly be starting a column on science writing in the ESA Bulletin.


It doesn’t take much conversation with instructors of all career stages to recognize some consensus and irony: we wish students in our classes could write better, but we rarely actually teach writing skills. This is borne out by the literature (Guilford 2001; Robertson 2004).

Indeed, the paradox is: “the teaching of writing is not central to science education” (Reynolds and Thompson 2011).

Being inclined to see for ourselves, though, we thought we’d run a poll. Do you teach writing as part of the science courses you teach? Why or why not? Please share your replies in the poll below.

30 thoughts on “Poll: teaching science writing in university courses

  1. Writing reports, articles and memos is a professional skill and warrants it own class with instructors with pedagogical knowledge in this area. It should also include instruction in reviewing and editing the work of others. Simply assigning writing assignments provides experience, but not instruction. The typical undergraduate creative writing course does not suffice for technicaal report writting.

    • James, we agree that creative writing is not technical writing, and training for those involves differences. Interestingly, though, a body of literature looking at cross-curricular instruction suggests that weaving writing instruction into content courses is ideal. Research into this approach — writing-across-the-curriculum — supports it. Lots of challenges are at work, of course, when actually implementing this approach.

  2. I am not sure what is meant by Do you teach writing? I assign written reports, summaries, written arguments, etc. and give some instructions about how to write them and students are evaluated in part based on their writing and are given some feedback about their writing. I do not consider that teaching writing per se. It’s hard to pick ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as I assume a lot of teachers teach writing in a very informal or implicit way

    • Agreed, Veronique. I was just talking about this distinction with some Rhetoric and Composition colleagues from the English Department. They, too, distinguish between assigning writing and teaching it. Perhaps the poll options should have made that distinction, too…but we didn’t think of it at the time. 🙂

  3. The question why I don’t teach writing doesn’t have the main answer, which is, “I allow other professors to teach science writing”. More specifically, we divide some of these basic skills among the faculty. My classes emphasize quantitative skills, other professors emphasize writing skills. I take time learn about and explore and experiment with best practices to teach quantitative skills and quantitative thinking, from informal, back-of-the-envelope “how tightly packed are water molecules in a cell” type problems to more formal modeling. Two of our nine faculty members specifically run writing-intensive courses that emphasize science writing and they learn about and explore and experiment with best practices to teach writing skills. The writing-intensive courses are very time-intensive for the faculty and neither uses TA or student graders. Pretty awesome for the students if they take the time to take advantage of this.

    • This is a really interesting balance. I’ve heard of departments where folks have specific writing courses (usually upper division) taught by dept. faculty. But, they are often too much, too late. The writing-intensive courses approach you describe here might be a productive way to shift that. (Also, re the poll options – before posting this, we had a whole discussion about trying to be sure not to exclude some of the major likely responses. Not sure there’s a way to write a poll that would account for every possibility without making it a terribly long poll no one wants to complete. :))

  4. I’ll climb on the “I can’t answer #2 with accurate information because it lacks an appropriate option” dogpile.

    I teach a few different (graduate) courses, and the mix varies a bit (I get the decided luxury of teaching what I want, when I want to), but one of the courses I insist on offering regularly is a scientific writing course. I don’t include writing as a formal component of the other courses I teach, because I also get the luxury of requiring that students in my program take my (or an equivalent) writing course. I /do/ provide mentorship and call out to the writing course content when critiquing students work in the domain-science courses, but, my domain courses are exclusively _about_ the domain science, and I don’t dilute that with formal content about writing, any more than I dilute the writing course with formal content about domain science.

    That being said, I do think the “it’s not my job”/”I leave teaching writing to the experts” is a cop-out. If I did not have the luxury of packaging writing as a course and requiring the students to take it, I would feel obliged to include writing in my other courses.

    The students are clearly not getting it from “the experts”, and a solid 90% of what they need to learn, is simply to rigorously hold themselves to simple writing rules that we’ve all been being taught since 3rd grade. Anyone can do it. It just requires diligently holding them accountable, word by word, sentence by sentence, to what they already know they should be doing, until they learn to hold themselves accountable.

    • “That being said, I do think the “it’s not my job”/”I leave teaching writing to the experts” is a cop-out.”

      Then you’ll be glad to know hardly anybody is choosing those options in the poll so far. If this poll result holds (and I’m sure it will), it reminds me of our old poll asking how much instructors lecture and why. The most widely criticized reasons for lecturing are rare reasons for lecturing. Hardly anybody lectures because they don’t care about teaching, or because they’re ignorant or skeptical of the pedagogical literature, or because they want to “weed out” weak students, or etc.

      One unfortunate tendency of some–not all!–advocates of doing X is to attribute bad motives to people who don’t do X.

      “Anyone can do it. It just requires diligently holding them accountable, word by word, sentence by sentence, to what they already know they should be doing, until they learn to hold themselves accountable.”

      I think the first sentence in the quoted passage should read “Anyone who has sufficient time can do it.”

      • Ah, I probably should have said “Anyone has the skills to do it”, and in saying that, I’m at least partly reacting to the too-many of my colleagues (who almost certainly aren’t taking your poll) who have repeatedly told me that they’re not qualified to teach writing. I insist that they’re wrong.

        Time, and of course the (lack of) luxury to design and teach courses the way one chooses, are orthogonal and additionally confounding impediments to actually accomplishing the teaching teaching one might be capable of!

    • I’d love to hear more about this science writing course you teach. Is it grad or undergrad? How many students? What kind of material do you cover? I’m curious about all that (and maybe we should do another poll on what kind of material IS taught in science writing courses or as a writing assignments), because I hear from both students and faculty of departments that do offer writing courses that students still don’t graduate with adequate writing skills. And so, it makes me wonder what is being emphasized in these classes, what’s missing, and if there are examples of writing-focused or writing-intensive classes (and I think those are distinct) that teach students generalizable skills vs very specific types of writing products…and if that distinction is part of the challenge of teaching writing in a way that makes it transferable. Thinking out loud here, but….

      • I don’t want to hijack the discussion of Jeremy’s post and poll, but I’d be happy to discuss in more depth somewhere I’m not treading on toes.

        The short version is that the course I teach is on the books as a graduate-level course, but it’s open to undergrads, and quite literally isn’t teaching anything that the students haven’t heard in classes going back to grade school. In fact, the overwhelming majority of the class ends up being the students teaching themselves/each other, requiring only some initial writing prompts and reminders about what they already know, and then occasional nudging to keep them on track.

        The class is largely oriented towards grant proposals, but I’ve had students elect to do manuscripts instead.

        Based purely on my experience and pacing, this approach seems to work best with 8-10 students (though I think it’s expandable to classes that are multiples of 8-10, especially if TAs are available), with two-hour class slots, three times per week. A 5-week term of that, and the students are turning out work that’s more pleasantly readable and coherent than a lot of what my faculty colleagues produce 🙂

      • Oh good grief – and here I am being rude by trying not to be rude – I’d only remembered the “by Jeremy Fox” byline, and hadn’t noticed the “Note, this is a guest post” addendum. My most abject apologies!

        I still don’t know if this is where you’d prefer to discuss course content, but I sure do feel like a dolt!

      • Ok, W Ray – that clinches it. I’d definitely like to chat in more detail about how you facilitate this/these classes. 🙂 My email is bmerkle [AT] uwyo.edu, if you’d like to follow up over there. Though, I do suspect that lots of folks responding to the poll would also be interested.

      • To repeat a question I posed another commentor further down the thread: I’m curious, how did you come to a) seeing writing curriculum development as worth your time, and b) confidence/knowledge of how to create materials that would work for students? It seems to me this is a sticking point that a lot of folks meet. Knowing how to overcome it, or coaching people to do so, is valuable.

      • I’m never sure whether responses will appear in the correct order (and I hope you received my email regarding my course strategy), but to answer the questions:

        I came to see teaching a specific writing course as worth my time, because I’m a bullheaded pain in the butt. I (according to my institution, belligerently) insist that it’s incumbent on those of us who have demonstrated some level of survival skills in academia to give back what we can to the next generation, and because so much of what I was seeing taught about writing clearly wasn’t having any useful effect. As I said earlier, I have the exceptional luxury of getting to teach what I want, when I want to teach it. Put another way, my institution really does not want me to teach and thinks it’s a waste of my time. That rubs me the wrong way. I think we have a duty to teach, and writing seemed like places where I have some skills that could help people.

        I honestly don’t know that I ever had confidence that what I thought was teachable, was going to work. I vacillate, as I suppose does everyone, between hubris and self-doubt. What I did know was that what other people were doing, wasn’t working, that the most common flaws that I saw in most students’ writing were quite basic, and that the rules necessary to do better, didn’t seem terribly difficult. No-one else seemed to be willing to teach at that basic level, so I felt obliged to try.

        This probably sounds like I’m some corny feel-good self-help lecturer (and anyone who knows me personally would find that hilariously discongruous), but it’s part of what I was trying to say when I commented that I found the “I leave it to the experts” type of responses to be cop-outs. Most of those, at least amongst my colleagues, are a cover for fear. But fear is fine – you don’t need to be confident that you know all the answers, to try to do something that’s better than doing nothing, to help students.

        I guarantee, if you have (even) a graduate student write 3 sentences, you’re going to find gradeshool-level writing errors in at least one of them. On average, you’d probably make money if you paid them a dollar for every clean sentence and charged them a quarter for every simple error. It doesn’t take a writing savant, to help them see and fix these. And once you force them to slow down and consider what they’re writing, word by word and idea by idea, and to be careful about how they express themselves, their writing improves.

      • Because I imagine (incorrectly?) that it’s extremely time-consuming to teach writing to a large number of students at once, without TA support.

        Relatedly, I’m recalling an old post over at Small Pond Science in which Terry McGlynn talked about implementing active learning the lazy way–i.e. in a way that didn’t demand massive up-front or ongoing time investments on the part of the instructor. I’d love to hear of any time-efficient strategies for teaching writing in science classes, if they exist.

        I’d also like my free pony to be a palomino. 🙂

      • I’d like a palomino, too, please!

        Also, your concern re time demands is commonly held. While not totally incorrect, there are ways of commenting on/providing writing feedback that are not as time-intensive as most of the instinctual approaches folks use. See John C. Bean’s “Engaging Ideas” for a lot of specific suggestions.

  5. It may be informative to include the institution type on your survey. I’m at a PUI and all our faculty teach writing. Its our norm. Is this a norm across PUIs?

  6. Via Twitter:

    Without wanting to suggest that we *shouldn’t* teach students to communicate with various audiences, I’ll just leave this here: https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/10/08/what-should-ecologists-learn-less-of/ 🙂

    • Now, this gets at the core of what I do. 🙂 Absolutely, I advocate that writing skills, and writing as thinking, are core competencies in a broader capacity to share science in academic and many other venues. However, I do think there is a specific, and significant-enough, need for writing skill enhancement that it is worthwhile to have some dedicated focus on it. Further, in my experience, this need is probably the most universally agreed upon aspect of that broader scicomm skill set. If we can get faculty who aren’t as invested/convinced of the value of scicomm to invest in enhancing writing instruction, we will still be leaps and bounds ahead in our efforts to provide scicomm training. 🙂

  7. In Australia they stopped teaching grammar in about 1980. Switched to the “absorption” method of learning (i.e. pick up good writing by reading good books). So at undergrad level we must teach basic skills like complete sentences and paragraphs. At grad level (science) I spend a lot of time editing assignments and making lectures to teach students the craft of scientific writing —uphill battle, but students appreciate it and always say they wish they had been taught earlier.

    • What a fascinating context. I don’t know what the state of grammar education in K-12 is in the US, Canada, or elsewhere, actually. It’s worth considering, clearly.

      I’m curious, how did you come to a) seeing writing curriculum development as worth your time, and b) confidence/knowledge of how to create materials that would work for students? It seems to me this is a sticking point that a lot of folks meet. Knowing how to overcome it, or coaching people to do so, is valuable.

  8. Ditto terngirl’s comment. Also, perhaps important to consider university-level administration barriers to changing course content/structure, especially for postdocs/ECRs/adjuncts teaching courses on a casual basis…. ‘Do you teach science writing’ is not the same as ‘Would you teach science writing if you could’.

    • Good point, Manu! I think we did have that, or meant to have that, in one of the poll options. Must have missed it in the final draft. Maybe we’ll do a follow-up poll that catches that and some other key nuances folks are pointing out.

  9. I assign writing, give lots of examples and rubrics, and give feedback on the writing…not sure if that counts as teaching writing! Science writing is different, and like quantitative skills needs to be reinforced across the entire curriculum

  10. Pingback: Teaching science writing in university courses (poll results and commentary) | Dynamic Ecology

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