We all know how it feels to study hard for a multiple-choice test, cramming the material until the last minute, crunching through sample problems, quizzing ourselves with scribbled lists and flash cards.

And then the test is over, and we move on to the next class, the next project, the next exam. A few facts that lodge in our brains stay there, and other parts of the material start to slowly—or not so slowly—fade away.

The challenge for instructors is figuring out how to teach students material so they retain as much as possible about the core principles they are studying and not just the mechanical process of churning through problem sets.

Sweetland and the Department of Chemistry are the recipients of a major grant from the National Science Foundation to investigate and implement writing-to-learn strategies in a range of science courses, including chemistry, biology, and physics, at the University of Michigan and two other institutions: Duke University and the University of Minnesota. The goal of the project is to get more science students writing, and to measure and improve the way that students use writing to learn to remember the foundational ideas of their disciplines.

“We are looking at foundational concepts of science, especially concepts that students often learn in a plug-and-chug kind of way,” says Ginger Shultz, a U-M President's Postdoctoral Fellow in LSA’s Department of Chemistry and one of the two lead faculty members on the project. “Students can develop a very superficial understanding of some of these concepts, and this really impacts them later on in their studies.”

Write to Learn

Anne Ruggles Gere, the other lead member of the project, is the Gertrude Buck Collegiate Professor of Education, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, a professor of English, and the director of the Sweetland Center for Writing. She says that, in science, most people think of writing as an effective way to measure knowledge: Students study a subject and then write a paper or take an essay test to demonstrate their knowledge.

“There’s a tension between breadth and depth that happens in introductory courses, with instructors trying to cover as much volume as they can at the expense of a richer understanding of the material,” says Shultz. This project, she says, aims to give students a deeper understanding of their subjects.

It’s very important to begin these interventions at the introductory level, Gere says, when students are still determining whether or not to continue in science. Gere and Shultz believe that such interventions might prevent students—female students and students of color, in particular—from leaving STEM fields. In addition to not being well represented in these fields, research indicates that these students respond particularly well to classes that have a stronger focus on writing as part of science instruction. Incorporating more writing is an important component of a larger strategy to increase the number and diversity of students majoring in science.

“It’s not that we want to keep everyone from leaving STEM,” Shultz says. “Maybe that person was born to be a writer, and that’s great. But we don’t want students to leave STEM because the way that the courses are taught is incompatible with the diversity of people’s learning.”

A recent grant from the National Science Foundation will support writing-to-learn initiatives in multiple large-enrollment introductory STEM courses at U-M. Photo by Natalie Condon

Science and Citizenship

The writing-to-learn project began five years ago when Professor Gere started investigating how to get more writing into science classrooms. She encountered serious resistance to the idea from instructors, and for good reason, Professor Shultz says.

To find that evidence, Gere began working with Brian Coppola, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and a professor of Chemistry, who introduced her to Shultz. Together, Gere and Shultz investigated how and why writing really mattered in science classrooms, using support from the University of Michigan’s Third Century Initiative and the Keck Foundation to conduct surveys, crunch numbers, and analyze data. The process turned Shultz into “an evangelist,” she says, for the power of writing. The team used the evidence that they had uncovered in their application to the National Science Foundation, which approved the grant in September of this year.

Now, Gere and Shultz are busy planning out the next year of work on the project, which will include a conference next summer and classes next fall. They hope to build something that will not only create better science learners, but also better citizens who can think more critically about the scientific arguments and information that they are presented with regardless of where they work.

“The question is, do we want to graduate students who have memorized a lot of information or do we want graduates who can take the basic amount of information that they have learned and apply it to new scenarios, to understand new information that is in front of them, a person who can think in a very nimble and creative way?” Shultz says. “I think that’s the kind of student that Michigan wants to graduate.”