Lack of writing improvement in physical science for summer 2014

proposed outline for SC 130 Physical Science includes the following three course level student learning outcomes:
  1. Explore physical science systems using scientific methodologies
  2. Generate mathematical models for physical science systems and use appropriate mathematical techniques and concepts to obtain quantitative solutions to problems in physical science.
  3. Demonstrate basic communication skills by working in groups on laboratory experiments and by writing up the result of experiments, including thoughtful discussion and interpretation of data, in a formal format using spreadsheet and word processing software.
The third learning outcome serves, in part, the general education program learning outcome 1.1, "Write a clear, well-organized paper using documentation and quantitative tools when appropriate." This article notes the lack of improvement in writing skills during the summer term as measured by a rubric, a reverse of the finding during the regular term.

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. A third report looks at the first course level student learning outcome.

The redesigned course is intended to include support for the general education program student learning outcome 1.1, "Write a clear, well-organized paper using documentation and quantitative tools when appropriate." The course also now serves the second institutional learning outcome, "Effective written communication: development and expression of ideas in writing through work in many genres and styles, utilizing different writing technologies, and mixing texts, data, and images through iterative experiences across the curriculum." The laboratory reports include tables and charts prepared in a spreadsheet and then inserted into the final report using word processing software. Effective written communication also requires command and control of grammar, vocabulary, organization, and cohesion. This article reports on these writing metrics in a non-language and literature course.

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. In the regular term eight full laboratory reports are done during 16 weeks. In the shorter summer term six full laboratory reports are done in six weeks. Either the reduction in the number of laboratories, the shorter term, relatively high scores on the pre-assessment, or other factors unique to the class led to no improvement in writing schools as measured by a rubric used in the course.

Grammar (G), vocabulary (V), organization (O), and cohesion (C) are scored using a rubric with a total possible of 20 points. Each of the four metrics are scored on a 0 to 5 point scale. The rubric was reported in an earlier blog article. Laboratories one (1) and fourteen (2 in the chart) were analyzed.


No improvement was seen on any of the four metrics. The difference in the averages was not significant for any metric. The change in each was no different from zero. Part of the reason for this may have been relatively strong writing performance on the first laboratory and relatively weaker or unimproved writing on the fourteenth laboratory. The nature of the short summer term and the fewer number of full write-up laboratories likely also contributed to performance being unchanged.

Improving writing during the short time available in the summer term may not be possible in a course such as physical science where writing is not the primary learning outcome but only one of three outcomes.

In a separate note, a proposal to put only course level student learning outcomes on outlines at the college is an excellent concept. The reduction from the number of specific student learning outcomes is exactly what allows for an analysis such as the one above - an analysis that I believe generates real and actionable information on learning. In the earlier report on mathematical models and techniques an improvement was noted, learning was documented. In this report improvement was not shown, raising questions about whether a  writing across the curriculum approach will have impact in summer courses. These questions can then be explored in future summer terms. Course outlines should move to including only course level student learning outcomes, permitting instructors to provide more thoughtful analysis of those outcomes.

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