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Writing in curricular labs

Posted by Melissa on June 1, 2011

I’m elbow deep in lab write-ups and lab notebooks to grade, which means it is the perfect time to procrastinate by blogging. This term I’m teaching labs both for our sophomore level E&M class and our junior/senior level advanced lab class, so I’ve been reading LOTS of lab notebooks and lab reports. The AAPT’s advanced-lab listserve last month had a discussion about writing lab reports and, in particular, what is an appropriate amount of time to ask students to spend on lab reports. The question of how much and what type of writing is appropriate comes up again and again if you talk to those of us who regularly teach intermediate and advanced lab classes. I’ve blogged before about alternatives to traditional lab write-ups and also about the difficulty of getting students to keep good lab notebooks.

The good news is that I observe huge improvements in the depth and quality of the lab reports between the sophomore and the junior year. Seeing the development is a helpful reminder that writing skills improve with practice over the course of a four year education. A single course cannot be solely responsible for making students better communicators. I’ve often wondered why the expectation for writing journal style reports is always left to the experimental courses. After all, theorists write papers just as often as experimentalists so why not ask students to write up a proof or a simulation that they complete for a non-laboratory course? More practice can only make students better writers.

The May 20th issue of Science had a thought-provoking article by Cary Moskovitz and David Kellogg on writing in laboratory courses. The article brings up a number of good points about the artificiality of writing assignments in laboratory courses ranging from the lack of an appropriate audience to the  misalignment of writing assignments with level of student preparation. I agree with many of the criticisms that the authors direct at traditional writing assignments for laboratory classes, but I also think they fall into the trap of expecting that all of the substantive writing in the science curriculum must be affiliated with the laboratory portion of a course. The authors suggest paring down writing assignments to targeted activities that are aimed at developing skill sets as needed throughout the curriculum: “Students can concentrate on a limited number of skills that are essential for writing science but rarely the subject of instruction: how to decide which data to present; how to use graphs, tables, and other visual displays effectively; and how to discuss those graphic supports in accompanying prose.” While these skills are important, they are not the exclusive domain of the laboratory. Improving student writing should be addressed by infusing writing throughout the physics curriculum, not by relying on a few courses to teach key writing skills.

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