Writing improvement in physical science

When I took over and redesigned SC 130 Physical Science in 2007 I had two focuses. The dual focuses were to put mathematics and writing into the core of the course. By building laboratories around mathematical models and having students write up the results of those laboratories in reports marked for content, grammar, vocabulary, organization, and cohesion, both goals were simultaneously achieved. A previous report looked at improvement in mathematical graphical analysis skills, this report looks at the improvement in writing.

The course includes 15 laboratories. Odd numbered laboratories include a full write-up with grammar, vocabulary, organization, and cohesion being marked. The exception is that laboratory 15 is not turned-in, so laboratory 14 is done as a full write-up laboratory. All errors of grammar and vocabulary are marked on all full-write ups. Re-committing the same errors leads to lower subsequent scores, providing incentive for the students to find and remedy errors in their writing mechanics.

Grammar, vocabulary, organization, and cohesion are scored using the following rubric.

[G] Grammar and Syntax [-2 if text sections 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.
[V] Vocabulary [-2 if text sections 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.
[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.
[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.

The total possible is 20 points. On the first laboratory the median score was 14, the average was 13.89. On laboratory 14, the last full write-up laboratory of the course, the median score was 20 and the mean was 18.35. Both increases were statistically significant.

The chart depicts the box plot for laboratory one (used as the writing pre-assessment) and laboratory fourteen (used as the writing post-assessment). The one low outlier in the post-assessment was a student who did not successfully pass the course.

Of note is that some students start off scoring a 20 at term start and maintain strong grammar, vocabulary, organization, and cohesion skills throughout the term.

The rubric is use is related to a rubric used for marking the college entrance essay and thus the scores and their underlying meaning in terms of student writing ability is fairly well understood at the college. Scores above a 16 are proficient writers with only occasional errors. 85% of the students scored a 17 or higher on the last laboratory.

When sliced by metric, improvements were seen in the medians and means (averages) for each metric.

All four averages were lifted with the strongest increase seen for cohesion - the appropriate use of connector words, logical flow and sequencing to their discussion of results, consistency in tone and style.

The mechanics of writing were improved during this sixteen week course. As one student once asked rhetorically, "What is this, Expository Writing III?" The students can write a laboratory report replete with tables and inserted graphs, and then communicate the results of analyzing their data in a coherent and grammatically correct manner.

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