Learning to Write a Research Paper
A practical writing exercise for science majors in advanced courses is to write up an experiment as though they were submitting it to a professional journal. Students do the lab work in the usual way, up to the data collection. However, instead of writing a standard lab report or summary in their lab notebook, they are required to identify an appropriate journal and follow its rules for submission. Presentation of experimental data, figures, conclusions, and references must conform to the submission guidelines. Similar to journal submissions, students' papers may require several revisions before they are "published" (i.e., receive a final grade). You can use this reporting method to help students improve their writing and presentation skills as well as to think more deeply about one or more of their experiments. Although it is more work, students view the "paper" report as a valuable and practical experience.
Having interested your students in describing and exploring some phenomena, you might provide opportunities for them to attempt explanations and synthesis. Again, you might use leading questions: Can anyone suggest, in your own words, an explanation for A? Does that idea also explain B? Can anyone think of a counterexample?
As teachers, we know that one of the best ways to learn something is to explain it to someone else. You can give your students this experience by asking them to write a short summary paper addressed to a non-scientist in which they attempt to clarify difficult concepts like mass, molecule, or homeostasis. This exercise helps students understand new concepts as they connect their current knowledge with recently learned information. Explanatory writing requires students to organize their thoughts as they plan how to explain something to a peer who is not familiar with the concept. As Meyers and Jones (1993) recognize, ". . . writing can be a powerful prod to the expansion, modification and creation of mental structures."
Students can solidify their understanding of a science concept by applying their explanation in a new setting. This process helps students create new mental frameworks that lead to deeper understanding. Opportunities for reading and reflection can also help students incorporate new concepts. We know from studies of reading with secondary students that giving specific study questions before students start reading increases the likelihood that students will recall the information they read (Winograd and Newell, 1984). Thus, by giving explicit instructions for an assigned reading, you can increase what students comprehend in the reading.
There are a number of ways to encourage students to reflect on their learning by writing about it. Some college teachers have found that journals are a useful learning tool for college students. Students need not write every day, but frequent writing in which students reflect critically on a lecture, a lab, or a text assignment and integrate these components of a course helps them make sense of the complex conceptual ideas of science (Bonwell and Eison, 1991). In many ways, this process is similar to keeping a research notebook, in which you summarize and reflect critically on one or more completed experiments and begin to make connections between their outcomes.