Study: undergraduate biology students learn through writing

Posted: May 3rd, 2018

Colorado State Univeristy students study in the lobby of the recently constructed Biology Building, September 13, 2017.

According to a new study led by College of Natural Science’s Associate Professor of Biology Meena Balgopal, writing activities can be beneficial for undergraduate biology students, especially those identifying as first generation college students and minorities.

The semester-long study was conducted at Colorado State University in a foundational cell biology course taught by Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Paul Laybourn. Their paper, titled “Writing Matters: Writing-to-Learn Activities Increase Undergraduate Performance in Cell Biology,” was published in BioScience alongside co-authors Anne Marie Aramati Casper, Alison Wallace and Ellen Brisch.

Think before you write

Writing is commonly integrated into undergraduate biology courses in the form of “writing-to-communicate” (WTC) outcomes such as laboratory reports. But students are often left with little or no guidance in the organization and evaluation needed to succeed in these tasks.

“Instructors don’t necessarily think of the different types of writing tasks that are important in science, and they often focus only on science lab reports,” said Balgopal.

Instead, the new paper suggests outsized benefits from a different type of writing activity in science courses: writing-to-learn, or “WTL.” These strategies can include outlining, freewriting, peer reviewing, data recording, conceptual diagramming and observational note-taking. These tools can improve the scientific literacy of undergraduate biology students by helping them make sense of their thoughts before making evidence-based claims.

“WTL is about organizing ideas, identifying what evidence is important and developing reasoning prior to writing to communicate,” said Balgopal.

A new approach to scientific learning

Many science instructors have remained hesitant to implement the WTL model in their classrooms, mostly due to the lack of research demonstrating how to do so effectively. Balgopal, Casper, Wallace, Laybourn and Brisch set out to provide just that.

The researchers used three sections of Laybourn’s class to examine the effects of varying amounts of WTL assignments and compared them to no-writing control sections. Students in each class could elect to have their work used in the research study. The WTL intervention included iterative writing assignments, tools to help students organize their thoughts and evidence, self-evaluation and peer evaluation. The researchers analyzed the performance of the consenting students using final exam scores, free response exam question scores and content analysis of WTC essays.

The study showed that the WTL activities had a positive impact on student learning, as shown in improved performance on essays and exams.

The researchers also observed an improvement in the performance of traditionally underrepresented individuals. Minority and first generation students who participated in more WTL assignments scored significantly higher on the final exam than their counterparts. They also exhibited an increased use of abstract concepts in their final essays, a mark of higher overall mastery of the subject.

Setting students up for success

Laybourn has continued to implement WTL strategies in his undergraduate biology courses, although a teaching assistant was needed to manage the full suite of writing assignments used in this study. Balgopal has teamed up with K-12 teachers and tribal community college instructors to test this model in their life science classrooms, with success in the form of improved student performance and learning outcomes.

“WTL can be integrated in any courses where students are expected to be critical thinkers and construct persuasive arguments,” said Balgopal. “Once I work with instructors, they get excited to integrate WTL tasks in their curriculum because it helps their students.”