Writing improvement in physical science

In the terms prior to spring 2011 students in SC 130 Physical Science wrote thirteen laboratory reports complete with an introduction, equipment list, procedure, data tables, data chart, analysis, and conclusion. The intent was to put writing into the core of the physical science curriculum. Small but significant gains were seen in writing skills as measured by a rubric.

Thirteen laboratory reports in a sixteen week term effectively means marking thirty-two laboratory reports each and every weekend. Marking includes content, grammar, vocabulary, organization, and cohesion. The work load   demanded of the instructor meant that time for work on other courses was limited. Writing was improving, but the intensity of the course was draining.

Spring 2011 I decided to experiment with having students only turn in the odd laboratory reports, dropping the number of marked reports to seven during spring 2011. The obvious question was whether gains would still be seen in writing as measured by the rubric in use.

The rubric being used is not ideal for the task. The rubric, however, is based on that rubric used to mark entrance test essays for the college. As such, the rubric is well understood by a broad constituency at the college.

The following paragraphs look at the impact on grammar, vocabulary, organization, and cohesion. Twenty-seven students completed both laboratory one and laboratory thirteen, the following analysis is based on those twenty-seven reports from laboratory one and thirteen.

The grammar section of the rubric is as follows.

[G] Grammar and Syntax [-2 if conclusion too short to judge grammar properly]
5No errors of grammar or word order. Correct use of tense.
4Some errors of grammar or word order but communication not impaired.
3Fairly frequent errors of grammar or word order; occasional re-reading necessary for full comprehension.
2Frequent errors of grammar or word order; efforts of interpretation sometimes required on reader's part.
1Very frequent errors of grammar or word order; reader often has to rely on own interpretation.
0Errors of grammar or word order so severe as to make comprehension virtually impossible.

Typical grammar errors include tense shifts and unclear antecedents for pronouns. Bear in mind that a student effectively has to score a four or five to gain entrance to the college. A score of two or less is likely to lead to non-admission. With students often able to score a four at time of entry to the college, there is not a lot of upside room for improvement. Despite this, the students did show a significant improvement from laboratory one to laboratory thirteen (the last written laboratory report spring 2011).

Grammar scores improved from a mode of four to a mode of five. While a few students scored below a three on laboratory one (red line), no student scored below a three on laboratory thirteen (the blue columns). Grammar improved on par with past improvements in grammar, the decrease in the number of writing encounters for the students did not negatively impact grammar improvement. Again, many of the grammar errors are tense, misuse of pronouns, and other errors which many of the students can comprehend and correct.

Vocabulary showed a similar improvement both in the shape of the distribution and the mode. The following is the rubric used for vocabulary.

[V] Vocabulary [-2 if conclusion too short - taken as evidence of vocabulary limitations]
5Appropriate terms used consistently, clear command of vocabulary with a focus on correct usage of physical science vocabulary, no misspelled words.
4Occasionally uses inappropriate terms or relies on circumlocution; expression of ideas not impaired; or a few misspelled words.
3Uses wrong or inappropriate words fairly frequently; expression of ideas may be limited because of inadequate vocabulary, or many misspelled words.
2Limited vocabulary and frequent errors clearly hinder expression of ideas.
1Vocabulary so limited and so frequently misused that reader must often rely on own interpretation.
0Vocabulary limitations so extreme as to make comprehension virtually impossible.

While only four students scored a two or three on vocabulary for laboratory one, no student scored a two and one scored a three on laboratory thirteen. The weakest writers showed strong improvement. Stronger writers who scored a four on laboratory one also improved.

Organization is primarily determined by whether the students have the correct sections in the correct order.

[O] Organization
5All sections present in the proper order. Material exceptionally well organized. Conclusion well structured with introductory and concluding phrases.
4One section out of sequence or omitted. Material well organized; structure could occasionally be clearer but communication not impaired.
3Multiple sections out of sequence, some lack of organization; re-reading required for clarification of ideas. For example, tables and graphs printed from a spreadsheet and then stapled to the back of a lab write-up printed from a word processing program.
2Multiple sections omitted. Little or no attempt at connectivity, though reader can deduce some organization.
1Individual ideas may be clear, but very difficult to deduce connection between them.
0Lack of organization so severe that communication is seriously impaired.

Thus performance is linked more closely to the students' ability to follow directions and include all of the necessary sections.

Cohesion is not an area that I directly address in most of my marking. I tend to focus on grammar, vocabulary, and ensuring that the proper sections are included, in order, and complete. A good report, however, flows, tells the story of the laboratory.

[C] Cohesion [0 if text too short to judge cohesion]
5Consistent choices in cohesive structures. Ideas flow logically. Conclusion remains on topic. Connector words assist the reader.
4Occasional lack of consistency in choice of cohesive structures and vocabulary but overall ease of communication not impaired.
3Patchy, with some cohesive structures or vocabulary items noticeably inappropriate to general style. Ideas tend to be disconnected from each other. Reads more like an outline than a coherent essay, or written as a list of answers to questions without connector words and phrases generating a choppy, disjoint style
2Cohesive structures or vocabulary items sometimes not only inappropriate but also misused; little sense of ease of communication. Connector words and phrases confuse and mislead the reader, but sense can be made of the conclusion.
1Communication often impaired by completely inappropriate or misused cohesive structures or vocabulary items making it difficult to make scientific sense of the conclusion.
0A 'hodgepodge' of half-learned misused cohesive structures and vocabulary items rendering communication almost impossible.

Although not a focus, cohesion improved during the term as well.

All four areas show improvement, improvement that other tests suggest is statistically significant. The reduction in the number of full write-up laboratories has not come at the cost of an improvement in writing. Most critically, areas of focus - grammar and vocabulary - both showed improvement.

Physical science can remain a course that improves writing skills at half the number of laboratory reports as prior terms. The course can remain writing intensive while being more time friendly for faculty who choose to utilize this curriculum.


  1. hi, nice experiment and nice results. a benchmark for other physics teachers.


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