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Teaching scientific writing to college students

Lakshmi Supriya

Scientific writing: literature survey and review writing
Scientific writing: literature survey and review writing  (Photo: Mikhail Pavstyuk, Unsplash)

The first time a student attempts writing a literature review paper, it is usually fraught with anxiety. Writing literature reviews is a part of science literacy — an important aspect of science education. Science literacy includes aspects such as conducting literature searches, reading published literature, critical thinking, the ability to write original research papers and peer-review publications. 

We discuss the steps of how to write a review paper by taking the example of a study that highlights the importance of peer review in science education. The approach is developed by Jonathan Cisco, a coordinator of the University of Missouri’s Campus Writing Program who teaches literature review to college students in four steps.

Before writing a literature review, students can be asked about how would they begin writing it. In Cisco’s study, the participating students said they would start with an introduction, summarise each paper in a paragraph, and write a conclusion. After hearing out students’ ideas, an instructor can explain the associated challenges. A common challenge encountered is the lack of connections between ideas, making it not only difficult for a reader to understand but also making it difficult to write.

The next step is to explain the relationship between different sources, and the author provides summarised pictorial representations on how to do it (figure below). As the students read different papers, they start seeing similar themes and different papers discussing similar ideas.

Writing a literature review
Listing ideas versus organising ideas into a theme-based literature review

The instructor can explain how similar ideas can be grouped into themes to start synthesising what they read. It’s like having different buckets and putting similar ideas from different papers into one bucket, other similar ideas, into another bucket and so on. The buckets each be given a subheading and the review can discussed theme-wise with ideas by different authors categorized under one subheading. Each idea is discussed by writing what various authors say, and then moving on to the next theme. Finally, the instructor can provide an example of a review that provides an idea on how the above steps are incorporated.

Handling peer review is an important part of an academic career. However, it is sometimes difficult for students or early career academics to handle and understand the process. Another classroom studyincluded peer review exercise in addition to writing a literature review, and evaluated its impact on a class of undergraduate biology majors. Medical educators, too have encouraged medical students to write for an academic blog along with coached peer-review.

In addition to attending lectures and laboratory sessions, the students had to write a review article, review, and edit their classmates’ review article. They report that students found the writing and peer-review process challenging, but worthwhile.

As the course progressed, there were weekly journal club meetings where student groups read, summarised, and provided a critique of a chosen academic paper. This task was evaluated by the teacher and the students (along with self-assessment). The task also included writing a review article — the article was assessed both by the teacher and five other students. The final grades were an average of the teacher’s grade and the average peer-review grade.

The peer review process and submission of essays was easily achieved using E‑learning tools such as WebCT/​Blackboard and Turnitin. These tools helped distribute the essays anonymously for peer review. Turnitin was used to check for plagiarism. The first draft of about 20% of the student essays had plagiarism ratios greater than 25%. Teachers discussed the issue with the students to make them aware of the seriousness of it, and the students were allowed to revise their essays.

Students found the lessons very useful. From being frustrated at not being able to understand how to structure a review, they were able to effectively write it. Students in also used a blog to record their reactions — they were able to vent their frustration at peer criticisms! Such exercises serve as valuable learning for future careers, when academic papers are peer-reviewed and authors would have to address the reviewer comments for publication.

Although, rarely any programs in India incorporate the peer-review process in the undergraduate curriculum, Asim Auti of the MES Abasaheb Garware College in Pune uses peer review in his classes. It can be as simple as asking a few students to discuss a problem to provide solutions, and then opening it for discussion so that others are critically reviewing it,” he said. Although implementing such tools may be challenging as it increases the time and effort put into a course, It’s a good tool in an arsenal of an active teacher/​facilitator.”

Some undergraduate programs in India are now offering courses in scientific critical thinking, writing, and presentation skills. The undergraduate curriculum at IISER Pune has courses on literature review and technical writing.