A resource for developing essay-writing skills and media literacy in undergraduate science students

These resources were originally devised by Kaitlin Beare from the School of Chemical Sciences, in the Faculty of Science at the University of Auckland and were trialled with students in CHEM110 Chemistry of the Living World in 2018.

These resources might be useful to teachers of critical thinking, teachers of science communication and teachers of undergraduate chemistry/STEM courses.

The project was supported by the SEED Fund grants for 2017.

For similar projects, see: Investigative Labs and Argument-Driven Reports in Studio Physics and Introducing students to writing elegant computer code. 

Project background

What were the objectives of this project?

Professional Teaching Fellow Dr Kaitlin Beare reflects: “Teaching transferable skills in the context of higher education is a hot topic. That graduates need these skills is undeniable. However, at least in the physical sciences, effective methods of embedding such skills into existing curricula are not well established. Where these skills involve an element of writing, the lack of examples of good practice is particularly evident. Science graduates, in theory at least, are well poised to act as bridges between the highly specialized world of cutting-edge science and the community. However, to be successful in this role they must be equipped with the skills to analyse, critique and communicate science information, particularly as presented in the public sphere. Unfortunately, such skills are rarely taught explicitly as part of traditional physical sciences curricula. As part of an effort to address this perceived gap in science education, a series of online modules, clustered around a theme of ‘Science in the Media,’ were developed and introduced into CHEM110 Chemistry of the Living World a large first year chemistry course at the University of Auckland.

The most obvious objective of the project was to give students the opportunity to begin developing non-technical writing skills within the context of a specific course. In addition, we wanted to encourage students to reflect on their own roles and responsibilities with regards to communicating science information. Beyond these student-focused aims, we hoped to develop a model by which a range of transferable skills could be introduced into existing courses that did not rely on the capabilities or good-will of individual staff, who might not feel confident teaching outside of their subject expertise. This model would, necessarily, involve the creation of a range of resources that could also be adapted for other contexts.”

Project reflection

How did the project play out?

The following are some of Kaitlin’s thoughts: “In Semester 1 2018, a series of extra-credit, online modules and an associated assignment were introduced into CHEM110. The modules aimed to develop student competencies in three key areas relating to science media literacy and science communications. These were: engagement with science and scientific debate in the public sphere; the ability to critically assess science media targeted at a lay audience; and a working knowledge of where to look for more information when assessing a science media item. We recognise that this is only a subset of the skills commonly defined under ‘media literacy’. However, this was deemed an appropriate level of content given that the module was an ‘add-on’ as opposed to a stand-alone course. Concomitant to this a survey instrument was developed to investigate the effect of the modules on science media literacy and science engagement. This particular strand of research is ongoing.

The online modules themselves were created to guide students through an assignment in which they would compare and contrast a science news article with the peer-reviewed science, and explore the relationship between accurate science reporting and society. Finally, they would form groups to mark and critique the work of their peers. So although the goal of the new modules was to helps students develop the capabilities outlined above, the scope of the modules proved to be much broader. Concepts like news values, news quality and the relationship between science reporting and society are all covered, as would be expected. So too are skills like how to find and read a journal article, how and when to use citations, and how to mark to a rubric or provide constructive feedback. Thus the modules could provide the foundation blocks for the development of a range of research and writing skills, beyond the originally intended science-media focus. Engagement with the module was tracked with a series of skills-based quizzes and prompts for written reflections. By skills-based, we mean that the quizzes aimed to test process over content. For example, in one quiz students had to find a particular article based on information given, find and access the full text and complete a phrase as ‘proof’ they had done so.”

What went well? What was unexpected?

“The modules came together nicely, thanks to input from the SEED community, a collaborator (Dr Merryn McKinnon) at the Australian National University and the range of excellent resources developed by Libraries and Learning Services. A total of 8 modules were prepared (or borrowed – thanks write@uni), the majority of which could easily be adapted for other contexts.

Student engagement with the activity was excellent. Although it was extra credit and around 2/3 of the class participated in some way, and 1/3 submitted the final assignment. The quality of the student work was, generally high. Analysis of quiz responses showed that the modules were fit-for-purpose and addressed skills that were not well developed when students entered the course. Student feedback was also very encouraging in that participating students recognised the value of the skills they were developing through this exercise. They were particularly pleased that they were formally being taught research skills, such as referencing and interpreting peer-review literature.

What was most surprising was how well students responded to the peer-review element of the assignment. This element was introduced first and foremost out of necessity to facilitate marking and feedback in such a large course. I was concerned that students would hate the group work element, and not see the relevance of the activity. Instead they enjoyed having a chance to interact with their peers. Moreover, they clearly recognised that in learning to mark  others, they were improving their own ability to prepare and submit high-quality assessment pieces.

Finally, feedback from my peers within the Faculty has been very positive and I have been approached by several colleagues about how to incorporate elements of the modules and/or assessment structure into their own teaching.”

How did the project contribute to your students’ learning? (And how do you know?)

“We performed preliminary exploritory analysis of the quiz results, and content analysis on written reflections. First-time right scores on most quiz questions suggest that the skills like referencing , using a database to search the literature, and extracting information from peer-reviewed sources were by-and-large new or underdeveloped for students entering CHEM110. These skills were identified by students themselves as key learning outcomes. Quiz results showed improvement across the first 2-4 attempts, indicative some level of skill development. These are likely to be genuine gains (as opposed to a result of students cycling through possible answers) given the structure of the quizzes and the use of a quiz question bank. By contrast, the high first-time right scores in items requiring non-technical search or comprehension skills  indicated these skills had already been adequately developed in most of the participating students. Students did not verbalize these skills as learning outcomes from the modules, adding further weight to this interpretation of the results. Interestingly, two of the skills that students had the most difficulty with in the quizzes – making sense of the peer reviewed literature and referencing – were also two of the skills to which the students attributed the highest value.”

Prior to this module I would avoid reading peer-reviewed articles as a result of finding them complex and intimidating. However, this online module has given me an insight into how to analyse a peer-reviewed article with increased confidence.

Prior to doing this module my thoughts on references [were that they] were a waste of time…[b]ut from doing the module it taught me that references and correct referencing is [sic] just as important as having a good title because if research is not referenced then no-one can determine the accuracy and legitimacy of one’s research.

“Thus, far from being put off by challenges the modules presented, these students appear to have been stimulated. Of course, the degree to which this particular observation can be generalized to the student body remains to be seen. The reflective prompts were designed to help the students look back positively on their learning process and this will have had a significant impact on the type of data generated.

There was also evidence of shifts in perspective, with students become more critically aware of the quality the information they are consuming.”

It may be a little cliché but I feel like this module has really opened my eyes to the importance of science in the media and just how much of an impact it can have on the average person.

I’m always checking if sources are reliable. Nowadays I check the sources of newspaper articles from the NZ Herald whenever I see one pop up on my Facebook feed.

“While all of these elements warrant further exploration, it was a very encouraging set of preliminary results.”

How did the project contribute to your learning?

“Like the vast majority of scientists of my generation, I was never formally taught to write at University. Indeed, and again in a pattern that is typical of young scientists, the lack of essays was part of the great appeals of a science degree. It was with some surprise that I discovered the writing conventions of my discipline suited me well, and I remain one of the few people I know who genuinely enjoyed the writing phase of my PhD thesis. None of this prepared me to try and teach my students to write or to judge them on the quality of their writing. This was my greatest fear stepping into this project. As a results, I was very open with the class about the project – that it was new and untried and that we’d just have to see how things went. This approach confirmed something that I had started to suspect through other development work: students are very accommodating when you are honest!  This is an important lesson for me in managing the ‘risk’ element that is involved with teaching innovation and development, especially at scale.

The biggest shock was how much guidance the students expected. They even wanted to be told what font size to use. Equally shocking was that many of them needed this guidance – and we received many assignments with out introductions, conclusions, titles or any of the ‘structure’ I had considered ‘so obvious it wasn’t worth mentioning’. So what did I learn? That I have a lot more learning to do. I need to keep exploring ways in which I can support students to develop writing skills, probably by giving more explicit guidance around form and structure. However, I don’t want the activity to become completely formulaic, as I don’t think that would be representative of the skills non-technical writing requires.

Often as teachers we rely heavily on how we were taught something, using this as an example to either emulate or avoid. One of the great challenges here was in learning to teach something I knew how to do, but not how to teach. I read, assess and discuss science writing both technical and non-technical on a daily bases. So what are the ‘red flags’ that might make me suspicious of a science news item? Where do I go to find more information? How do I deconstruct a piece of peer-reviewed literature? Preparing these learning modules required me to reflect on and articulate all of these processes. This was an extremely valuable activity for me, and served as a reminder that, while it may not come so naturally, I need to apply the same critical lens to process information that is not ‘science’.”

Do you plan to continue this initiative beyond the grant period?

“Science in the Media’ is being revised for incorporation into the formal curriculum of CHEM110 from 2019 onward.  A number of formal research projects have also sprung out of this initiative, seeking to investigate the impact of the modules on academic literacy development, science communications capabilities  and student engagement. Through these projects, we hope to validate a particular approach to transferable skill development – that is online, independent and predominately ‘bolted-on’ to an existing course or program. We hope that this in turn provides a model for explicitly embedding a variety of academic literacy skills through the chemistry curriculum.”

Project resources

Resources will added soon! Please come back later.

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