Recipe on how to write – how do you teach your students to write?
If you too are feeling the need to improve your and your students’ scientific writing, then keep on reading – as here we would like to share our experiences on how to teach scientific writing. It all began in spring 2020 when courses were cancelled at the University in Svalbard (UNIS) due to Covid-19. We suddenly saw a window of opportunity - and need - to develop our PhD students’ writing abilities on-site, as visits and writing courses on the mainland were unthinkable in the near future. Previously I had been directed towards a book by Joshua Schimel “Writing Science – how to write papers that get cited and proposals that get funded”. I had started reading and was excited that the book offered a “cookbook” solution to a writing course, with both theory and exercises included. While the book aims at a collegial writing workshop among colleagues, we wanted to test this recipe with our PhDs. As a result of this design, I became a facilitator, rather than a traditional instructor, and co-creator of the course with the PhD student participants.
This course is set up for PhD students and run by a course leader. However, it depends on student involvement and thus functions more like a collegial workshop. While teachers are providing knowledge-based lectures, students are actively driving discussions and feedback processes. Part of the elements of the workshop could also be used as future course assignments within Master/PhD courses.
- “Writing Science” by Joshua Schimel
- Course schedule “Writing Workshop”
- “The Title exercise” from Twenty Titles for the Writer by Hairston et al (2003)
Goal & Purpose
One of the primary ideas with the course was to develop the writing and peer-review skills of our PhD students. The objectives were for PhD students to demonstrate improved writing skills and to have greater confidence in their writing and reviewing abilities.
I was apprehensive at the beginning of how well I, as a geoecologist, would perform as a teacher in scientific writing. Also, the experimental nature of this workshop made it hard to predict how valuable the outcome would be for the students. This past year has, however, taught me that it was most important to offer an arena where writing can be learned and discussed in a safe and encouraging working environment. Once the students had gotten used to the course setup and developed trust in each other, they actively took part in discussions, freely contributing their opinions. And, I was surprised to see, they also used the writing course as a tool to get feedback on their own writing from their fellow peers, and not only by me, e.g., when submitting abstracts to conferences. To me this is an ideal situation for how we can actively include students, involving them not just at the receiving, but also the giving, end of a learning process.
Description of activities
I prepared discussions based on the book “Writing Science” by Joshua Schimel and the students chose articles to read and evaluate, ranging from contrasting journals from high vs low impact, across different article types (review vs primary science) and crossing contrasting topics from marine, terrestrial to molecular research. The students started the course with writing a proposal that related to their study area of interest. Throughout the course, based on new perspectives gained through the lectures, articles were discussed and, after peer-review by all students, proposals were re-written. We also involved the external expertise of Janet Holmen, a linguistic editor and teacher of scientific communication, in how to write a proposal, and give and receive written feedback. A detailed schedule is shared under “tools”.
At the conclusion of this initial course offering, a colleague external to the course facilitated a focus group of the students.
- Simone Lang
- Tina Dahl