Writing-to-Learn to Increase Scientific Literacy Skills

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Title of Abstract: Writing-to-Learn to Increase Scientific Literacy Skills

Name of Author: Meena Balgopal
Author Company or Institution: Colorado State University
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: All Biological Sciences Courses, Ecology and Environmental Biology
Course Levels: Across the Curriculum, Introductory Course(s)
Approaches: Adding to the literature on how people learn, Assessment, Changes in Classroom Approach (flipped classroom, clickers, POGIL, etc.), Material Development, Mixed Approach
Keywords: writing-to-learn; evidence; claims; argumentation

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Alison M. Wallace, Minnesota State University Moorhead Steven Dahlberg, White Earth Tribal College Ellen Brisch, Minnesota State University Moorhead Paul Laybourn, Colorado State University

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: Our goals are to promote learning through the integration of writing-to-learn (WTL) strategies in undergraduate biology courses for majors and non-majors. WTL is distinct from writing-to-communicate because it centers on the organization of ideas and sense-making that precedes finished written compositions. Our WTL model is intended to help learners make sense of scientific concepts, find relevancy in real-world examples, and develop evidence-based scientific claims after reading scientific articles written for the general public about socio-scientific issues. In our studies, students who are able to construct claims that are supported by multiple types and pieces of evidence are scored as being scientifically literate.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: Integrating reading about real-world issues (e.g., aquatic hypoxia, cancer therapy), students are asked to engage in a series of writing activities to organize their thoughts about concepts introduced during lecture, in textbook readings, during laboratory activities, and in the assigned journal readings. Carefully constructed prompts guide students through three WTL activities to identify evidence (both scientific and informal) that can support claims that they make in their final written product. Our WTL model has been tested in small laboratory and recitation sections as part of a NSF CCLI project. We will begin testing this model in large (>100 students) undergraduate courses this fall as part of a NSF TUES project.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: We code all student work (draft and final essays) based on the types of claims and lines of evidence used to support these claims. Our goal is to increase the number of students constructing stronger arguments within their essays (i.e., supporting claims with multiple types of relevant evidence acquired during the respective course or other sources outside of the course). In addition, we have analyzed the types of claims students have made in different contexts (majors/non-majors or university/tribal college.). In our current studies, we are working with a team of English department faculty members who are experts in Writing Across the Curriculum to create rubrics for instructors, graduate teaching assistants (GTAs), and students to facilitate self-evaluative guides that can be used when incorporating this WTL model with students in large enrollment courses.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: Anywhere from 50-67% of students in different courses had increased scientific literacy scores after participating in WTL activities. Biology majors (n=42) were more likely than education majors (n=47) to make anthropocentric claims about resolving environmental issues. Seventy percent of tribal college students (n=23) made claims that supported environmental concerns over economic ones, whereas 71% of university students (n=24) made claims that supported economic concerns over environmental. Both tribal college and university students supported their claims with scientific evidence, but tribal college students also drew on moralistic evidence while university students also drew on personal experience. We posit that WTL prompts allow students to explore scientific concepts introduced in class in meaningful ways, and they also reveal to their instructors the types of evidence their students employ when making claims. As they evaluate both their own prior knowledge and course-related scientific knowledge, students are engaged in learning and can find real-world connections as they construct arguments about socio-scientific issues. Moreover, students can integrate “personal funds of knowledge” with scientific knowledge. Currently, we are using concept inventories as pre and post measures of the impact that WTL activities have on students’ learning outcomes. Our findings have convinced five colleagues (2 at MSUM and 3 at CSU) to integrate WTL activities into their undergraduate life science courses (Introduction to Sustainability, Environmental Science, Cell Biology, Animal Behavior, Issues in Human Biology, and Soil Science/Climate Change). Our WTL model is being incorporated into 4th-8th grade classrooms in 2 school districts in Colorado and to date ~800 students have participated in WTL projects.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: WTL is an instructional strategy that is underused in undergraduate biology courses, even though scientists use writing when designing studies, gathering data, and disseminating findings. Yet, we have discovered that colleagues, though interested in writing, are concerned about how to manage evaluating WTL activities in large classes. We recently received a TUES grant to address this issue and we will be testing the use of two Online platforms (Writing@CSU and Electronic Blackboard) to manage writing in large classes. Students will receive feedback on their WTL activities from GTAs, the instructor, and peers, in addition to engaging in guided self-evaluation activities.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: We have published three articles based on our studies: -Balgopal, M.M. & Wallace, A.M. (2013). Writing-to-learn, writing-to-communicate, & scientific literacy. The American Biology Teacher, 75(3), 170-175 -Balgopal, M.M., Wallace, A.M., & Dahlberg, S. (2012). Writing to learn ecology: A study of three populations of college students. Environmental Educational Research, 18(1), 67-90 -Balgopal, M.M. & Wallace, A.M. (2009). Dilemmas and decisions: The use of guided writing to increase ecological literacy of elementary education majors. J. Environmental Education, 40(3), 13-26. We have presented workshops or papers at conferences (two at the Ecological Society of America; two at National Science Teachers Association; and nine at the National Association of Researchers in Science Teaching). We have conducted three faculty workshops at MSUM. We will use the national Writing Across the Curriculum Clearinghouse page, in collaboration with CSU's Institute for Learning and Teaching, to disseminate our past CCLI and future TUES findings.

Acknowledgements: We are grateful to our respective institutions for supporting our research, as well as to all of our research participants for volunteering. This research has been supported by two grants from the National Science Foundation (CCLI #0930978 awarded to Balgopal, Wallace, and Dahlberg and TUES #1244889 awarded to Balgopal, Laybourn, Wallace, Brisch, and Dahlberg).