by Meredith Thomsen, Integrative Biology
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2003
My first semester at Berkeley, I was assigned to be a GSI for Bio 1B, a classic trial-by-fire introduction to GSIing at Berkeley. When I signed up to teach it again that spring, I was excited to repeat the things that had worked well, and even more anxious to correct some of my mistakes. One of those was my handling of group work and grading for the 5-7 page formal write-ups I had assigned for two lab experiments. This type of paper is a difficult assignment — it is a very structured writing style, and it requires students to accomplish a number of advanced tasks, such as building an argument using outside sources, formulating and testing hypotheses, and critically evaluating results. I had thought group work would facilitate all this, since group members could discuss each section, helping each other learn.
However, my students’ papers clearly reflected the problems they had with group writing. For some, the sections appeared to be written by different individuals and then pieced together, with big swings in quality between sections; other papers seemed to be the work of a single student who had taken over the entire project. Furthermore, even if all students had contributed equally to the paper, some students still did not get much feedback on their personal writing or analysis skills.
Spring semester, I decided to break the assignment into two sections. I asked my students to write the methods and results in groups, so they could collaborate on data analysis, tables and graphs. I encouraged groups to discuss the context of the study and the significance of its results, but assigned them to write their abstract, introduction and discussion sections independently. To increase the amount of direct feedback each student got on their writing, I also required each student to meet with me after turning in a first draft, so I could explain my comments. Then they wrote a second draft, the grade of which was averaged with the first to produce the final grade.
When I graded these papers, I felt like the mix of group and independent work was a good compromise. For example, although students could slip through the cracks and not learn about data analysis, it would be hard for them to do a good job discussing their conclusions if they did not understand their results. Furthermore, I was able to give students a lot of individual feedback on their writing. All this came at the obvious cost of my reading many more papers; the two-draft system, while definitely improving the final papers, was especially time-consuming for me.
Because this approach required me to do so much additional work, I wanted to find out if my students benefited from it. I distributed a “writing evaluation” at the end of the semester with questions about the structure of the lab report assignment. The results of this survey were overwhelmingly positive towards doing two drafts (20 out of 20 students said they found it useful) and about 75% of them also liked having a personal meeting with me to discuss my comments. Some who didn’t like the meetings suggested they should be optional, which seemed like a good idea. About 85% of my students said they preferred doing a partly independent write-up to a purely group one, and 60% said it had been difficult to write with their group. Overall, about 70% of my students thought their scientific writing had improved over the course of the semester. These results made me feel like the approach had been useful, and I have continued to use elements of it in other classes, as the situation and time allow.