One Lab Report, Two Lab Reports, Three Lab Reports, More! Teaching Scientific Writing

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Ellis Kennedy, Materials Science and Engineering

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2021

Materials Science & Engineering 104 is a laboratory course taken by not only materials science and engineering students, but also international concurrent enrollment students and students from other majors because it offers hands-on exposure to techniques that are highly desirable both in academia and industry. For these latter students, it is often their first lab class. Unfortunately, for students with minimal or no experience with taking lab classes and writing laboratory reports, the excitement of active experimentation often transforms into anxiety and frustration as they try to simultaneously master concepts, use the laboratory equipment, and learn scientific writing. My classes were split between students who “got it” and had experience writing lab reports and those who were overwhelmed learning all aspects of the course at once. 

I took this course as an undergraduate and then taught it for two semesters as a graduate student. My first semester of teaching, I did not expect such a large gap in writing ability. I recognized that it was my job to teach beyond how to use the x-ray diffraction machines and scanning electron microscopes; as their GSI, I also needed to teach the skills they need to succeed in the class and as scientists. My second semester teaching, I was more prepared. I implemented the following changes to my teaching approach by using the first laboratory report as a learning experience and providing examples to illustrate how to write the standard sections of a scientific report. 

It became apparent during my first semester teaching that many of the lower scores came from students who were participating and engaged, but did not fully understand the expectations on content and thoroughness for lab reports. Students were informed that the first assignment would be used as a learning tool with relaxed grading compared to subsequent laboratory reports, allowing them to get a feel for scientific writing and communicating their procedures and results. For students with minimal scientific writing experience, it was a chance for them to receive feedback without losing too many points. I provided detailed comments and suggestions on the first report and invited all students, regardless of their score, to meet one-on-one to discuss approaches to scientific writing and how they could improve. 

As an undergraduate I had wished there were sample laboratory reports I could reference. Now as a GSI, while I could not share work from former students because they were given the same assignments, I could provide examples of scientific journal articles. Using journal papers with content related to course topics, I prompted my students to identify the sections of a paper (abstract, methods, figures, etc.) and analyze the writing style and level of detail included. The papers helped answer the question of “what should I include?” and gave ideas on how to effectively communicate their experiments. The papers also helped create a connection between what was taught in class and real scientific advances. 

An assessment of the change in teaching method, performed by comparing the first semester work to the second semester work, showed that students benefit from focused scientific writing coaching across the semester. More importantly, the second-semester students exhibited better ability to interpret and communicate their experimental results, as evidenced by their use of more robust scientific writing and improved creativity with figures to share information. Based on in-class questions and discussions, it was apparent they were thinking about the report as they conducted the experiment and were filling in knowledge gaps to be more successful in their writing.