University of Wisconsin–Madison

Curriculum Scaffolding in Writing for Science Research

Dr. Janet Batzli, Dr. Michelle Harris

Scientific writing and research are central to the learning goals and progression of the three lab courses within the Biology Core Curriculum (Biocore). We have designed a lab course curriculum to help students align the process of independent scientific research, scientific reasoning, and scientific communication. In the first course (Biocore 382), we begin this process by having students experience several cycles of asking questions, proposing research, gathering data, and making conclusions—in a fairly guided manner. As the curriculum moves to the second (Biocore 384) and third (Biocore 486) lab courses and students gain familiarity for how research progresses, each unit becomes less guided, more rigorous and students develop their identities as researchers and scientific writers and speakers. With each step, there are opportunities for students to gain experience outlining a research question, presenting a research proposal for feedback, writing a research proposal in the form of a paper or scientific poster, giving and receiving feedback through peer review, getting feedback from instructors, gathering data and, finally, communicating research results in a formal presentation, scientific poster or paper. Below we outline key elements of the multi-step, iterative learning progression that we scaffold within each unit of each course within the entire Biocore lab curriculum.
Writing Element (group or individual/ graded or non-graded) Description Approximate unit time frame
Experimental Design Worksheet or Discussion (group/ graded or non-graded) Research teams of 4-6 students explore topic, make observations, do initial literature review and establish a direction for their research. The worksheet is fairly standard and asks students to identify a testable question, a tentative rationale for research, preliminary hypothesis, a sketch of their experimental design, expected results, and a list of primary literature papers they have consulted so far. The worksheet provides initial guidance and structure in the first lab. In semesters 2 & 3, teams work through key elements via discussion. Week 1
Informal Feedback presentation (group/ non-graded) Teams present their research proposal in the form of a group PowerPoint presentation built on the basis of their experimental design worksheet. Components of the presentation include study question, background information, biological rationale, hypothesis, methods, expected and alternative results usually in the form of figures with hypothetical data, implications of expected results and questions they still have. Each group has 20 min to present and solicit feedback from their peers (and instructors). Instructors encourage peer feedback and if necessary guide discussion to focus on hypothesis and biorationale rather than the methods. Week 2
Written research proposal (poster or paper) with formal peer review (individual/ graded) Teams sort through feedback from their presentation, revise their ideas and direction, and write a formal research proposal in the form of a paper or scientific poster (mini-poster 1 page print out of a PowerPoint slide) using guidelines from the Biocore Writing Manual ( Proposals are usually written individually. Each student is assigned a peer review partner outside of their research team. Students peer review drafts of their partner’s proposals through paper exchange, written feedback and conferencing. Following peer review, students revise their drafts, respond to their peer review partner’s comments through authors response form and submit their proposal to their teaching assistant for grading and further feedback. Week 3
TA feedback and conference (individual) TA’s grade students’ papers using Biocore rubrics in the Biocore Writing Manual. During the process of grading, TAs often do several norming sessions with fellow TAs and instructors to communicate common or unique issues, gain insight from other graders, and evaluate student work equitably between sections. Norming is done quickly for proposals (within ~1 week) so that TAs can gather and disperse feedback to students prior to starting their experiments. Each student meets with their TA for a writing conference at least once during the semester (ideally after the first paper—particularly for students that are struggling with writing). Conferences last 10 minutes, are question driven, use the rubric as guide, and end with students developing goals for their next writing assignment. Data collection week(s)
Final research presentation, paper or poster with peer review (individual or group/ graded) Research teams gathered and discuss input from their TA and other instructors that can improve their research. They conduct their experiment, analyze data, interpret patterns, formulate conclusions with support from the literature, and communicate their research in the form of a final paper or scientific poster (mini-poster 1 page print out OR large format printed poster formally presented) using guidelines from the Biocore Writing Manual. TAs and instructors grade the final papers/ posters with both ‘local’ and ‘global’ feedback to promote learning in subsequent research units. Often times, students are handing in final papers at the same time they are beginning a new unit, changing research teams and developing a new experimental design worksheet– starting the process over again, scaffolding and building their writing and research skills over time. ~Week 5 (if formal presentations) OR Week 1 of new unit (if final papers)
Example of how key writing elements are incorporated into the syllabus of Biocore 382
Biocore 382: Ecology, Genetics and Evolution Laboratory  – Fall 2014 Schedule  
Week/ (date) Topic Disc Activities and In-Class Check Assignments Lab Activities   Graded and Check Assignment due in Lab (done individually unless specified) Weight*
How do you DO the Process of Science in Ecology Genetics and Evolution?
ECOLOGY: How do you generate testable questions?
Sept. 2-6 Terrestrial Ecology – Prairie NO Discussion Sections Field trip to Biocore Prairie (meet in 341 Noland) Ö Pre-lab assignment due in lab Ö Collect exploratory data
Sept. 8-12 Aquatic Ecology- Stream Intro to writing and PR in Biocore lab? Develop testable questions for creek?—similar to presemester assign? Field work at Willow Creek & University Bay (meet at Willow Creek) Paper review worksheet (1/pair) & Group Effort Analysis (GEA) form 4%      
How do you design experiments?
Sept. 15-19 Experimental Design Ö Experimental design worksheet before disc *Hypoth/ Expected Results Activity *Teams prepare feedback presentation slides Informal Feedback Presentations – Ecology research proposal *Identifying knowledge gap activity Experimental Design Prelab   Ö  Materials and schedule sheet- detailing how, when, and who will perform each step of experiment (1/team)   4%  
How do you to measure complex systems?
Sept. 22-26 Data Collection   Ö Formal Peer Review: Exchange paper drafts with partner and complete review at least 24h before disc. *Focus on Peer Review (PR): our expectations *Field work at Biocore Prairie or Willow Creek- (groups meet at field site) *Experiment set up and data collection   Ecology Research Proposal & GEA & Authors response due 48 h after disc& Peer Review (PR)   12%   2%
How do you work with data? How do you construct new knowledge?
Sept. 29-Oct. 3 Data Analysis & Interpretation *Data entry and Intro to Excel Data Analysis; Discussion & Conclusion Activity Ö Individual conferences with TA for Ecology Paper- outside of class (time varies) Data Analysis Prelab     2%
ECOLOGY INTO GENETICS: How do you generate testable questions?…something about Variation??
Oct. 6-10 Cell Division & Life Cycles: Genetic Variation   Ö Formal peer review: Exchange paper drafts with partner and complete review at least 24h before disc. Cell Division and Plant Life Cycles Ecology Final Research Paper & author’s response & GEA & Peer review   Ö Cell, flower & fruit drawings and observations 15%   2%