Written assignments

Description

Many of the in-semester assignments used in the biological sciences involve written work - essays, extended reports in the form of scientific papers, and shorter laboratory reports, to name a few examples from the wide variety of written assignments in common use.

A dominant theme to emerge from the interviews was the importance of written communication skills. Such skill is seen as a key part of being a biologist and written assignments are used to allow students to develop these skills. As a consequence, high priority is given to integrating written assignments into the curriculum, particularly in later year study.

[The practical skills that really matter are] laboratory skills and field skills, and analytical skills and writing skills. [academic]

Often the perception has been in first year, you know, here certainly you can't [teach writing skills] because there's too many students. But if you don't do it in first year they're not going to value it. If it's going to be important, then it should be there and obvious and explicit in the curriculum right at the beginning. [academic]

The new graduates that I employ must have good written and oral communication skills. [Senior Research Scientist]

Written assignments may be individual or group efforts, and may involve peer assessment [see also: Groupwork; Peer and self-assessment].

Extended written responses are also a common feature of examinations and tests. However, due to the considerable differences between assignments and examinations or tests, in terms of the conditions under which students prepare and receive feedback on their written work, writing for examinations and tests is described elsewhere [see also: Examinations; Tests and quizzes].

Approaches

Writing based on student-generated data

A variety of written assignments require students to communicate the findings of their own practical work and primary research. The criteria for assessment include both the analysis and interpretation of the results, and the clarity of the presentation.

Laboratory or field book 'write-ups'

A written record of results and observations made during a practical class

These are typically:

  • prepared during class and submitted at the end of the session or soon after;
  • assessed by sessional staff;
  • written to a prepared structure, sometimes including set questions; and
  • a regular, sometimes even weekly, requirement.

The writing takes the form of a record of findings. The focus of assessment criteria is on content, accuracy and coverage - clarity of expression and appropriately structured 'argument' is usually less critical. Some aspects of scientific convention are, however, reinforced in such writing, including the appropriate use of scientific notation, tables and figures [see also: Practical assessment].

Laboratory or field reports

Reports may be distinguished from 'write-ups' in requiring more extended writing and having a less strictly prescribed structure. As larger tasks, students are usually required to complete a smaller number of reports than is the case for 'write-ups'. Additional, literature-based research may be required for the preparation of a report. Typically such reports are written following scientific conventions. In some cases, notably field reports, the style may be tailored for specific audiences (e.g. national park officers) [Examples: Benkendorff 1; Cooke 3; Mamo; Taylor 1; Wassens 1] [see also: Practical assessment] .

Honours-year theses and other major research reports

Still based on student-generated data, research theses require students to interpret and present their own findings in the context of the relevant literature. Greater emphasis is placed on the use of language, with high priority given to clarity and accuracy. In some cases, the lengthy document that is the traditional 'thesis' is being replaced by a set of manuscripts, prepared for publication [Example: Hargreaves 2].

[see also: Research projects]

Writing based on critical reading of the literature

While report writing involves students reporting their own 'primary' research findings, other written assignments draw exclusively on literature-based research. Here the focus is upon the development of students' information literacy and critical analysis [Example: Fairweather 1], as well as their written communication skills. In some cases, students are required to take a broad approach to the review of a particular topic.

A broad coverage of the literature, in the first instance. Because this is trying to train them to go into the literature in more detail than they might have in first year. And how they synthesise the material - to such an extent that the topic doesn't really matter. I tell them the topic is almost irrelevant as long as they cover the material that's available on that topic, and they put it together in a format that is sensible, that reads well [academic, describing the requirements of a written assignment in second year]

An equally common approach involves the critique of one or two research articles. These types of assignments tend to be used in senior year courses (e.g. 3rd year or Honours). They require students to be comfortable with reviewing the biological sciences research literature and discussing their interpretations. There is a clear expectation that students will be able to articulate and substantiate their own opinions in such a critique [Examples: Abbott; Vanniasinkan].

Scientific essays

Such written assignments are typically referred to as 'essays', although the structure of essays in the sciences is perhaps less prescribed than in humanities disciplines. The emphasis, instead, is upon developing a concise style of writing.

Learning the whole structure of a scientific essay, which is less rigorous than in English or History, perhaps, where they have to have an introduction, body and conclusion of some sort. But there are scientific conventions - you must know how to put in your figures, how to reference your figures, how to reference the textual material correctly. ... and the major catch cry is 'concise' ... if you can say it in fewer words, you must. And that's probably not necessarily the case in subjects outside of science. [academic]

Other writing tasks and presentation formats

Problem sheets are used in some biological sciences courses, although these are perhaps more commonly used in the physical sciences and mathematics. When used as the basis for an assignment, problem sheets provide students with a structured approach to their research and thinking about a problem, and to the preparation of a written response [Example: Sanderson].

We were told of a number of courses where shorter pieces of written work are required, often in a style and format intended for a specific audience. For example:

  • facts sheets - communicating information to health professionals;
  • creating a statement for debate;
  • application for research project ethics approval;
  • preparing a media release; and
  • writing an abstract only, as appropriate for a provided article.

Feedback

A range of approaches to providing beneficial feedback on students' written work were described to us. The importance of such feedback was stressed by both staff and students, and the challenges of resource constraints, ensuring consistency between assessors, and encouraging students to make good use of the feedback provided featured among the concerns raised by academic staff.

General or specific feedback

The nature and amount of feedback provided on written work varies greatly, depending in large part upon the type of assignment. For example, for short works such as laboratory 'write-ups', short reports and abstracts, feedback often takes the form of scores for various sections or against specified criteria [Examples: Cavanagh 2; Mulder 3]. Written comments and explanations may be included, although some subjects employ a coding approach for reasons of expediency.

Because everyone is just so pressed for time now, I have a key system. So, for example, 'G' is for "this is too general" - and so the markers just get told "write G". The students are given the scheme and if they see a capital 'G' they know they've lost one mark because it's too general - if they have a little 'g' they've lost half a mark. That's the technique we use to speed things up and avoid rewriting the same comment [academic describing the assessment of a written work in a large second year subject]

For larger works such as extended essays and research reports, individualised written comments are more usual.

Students benefit from specific illustrations of how to improve, particularly with regard to writing style, grammar and expression. The point was made by students and staff that simply indicating that there is a problem with the writing is usually 'not enough' [Example: Wassens 1].

However, this raises the issue of the time and resources involved, and questions about whether students really take full advantage of this feedback.

... because students see assessment as getting marks. In most cases, that's what they're working towards - "what is the number at the end" - that is seen as the measure of success in the course, and feedback doesn't necessarily fit into the same picture [academic]

A variety of strategies were discussed for addressing these issues and enhancing assessment of written assignments, including peer feedback and feedback on early draft versions.

[see also: Coping with resource constraints; Providing feedback]

Using peer feedback

Involving students in the assessment of one another's work is becoming increasingly common. In particular, peer assessment of early drafts can provide valuable feedback and, perhaps more importantly, develop students' ability to critically assess their own work [Examples: Mamo, Mulder 1].

[see also: Peer and self-assessment; Providing feedback]

Providing feedback on draft versions

Whether through peers or staff involvement, providing feedback is probably most effective when given on draft assignments, so that students can make improvements before final submission. Students also indicated that they need to be able to ask questions about the feedback they receive, and to have further discussion with staff, as necessary [Examples: Abbott; Cavanagh 2; Cooke 2; Kleindorfer; Mulder 1; Taylor 2; Taylor 3]. In some cases, students are required to explicitly demonstrate their responses to the feedback provided [Examples: Edwards; Wilson 1].

These and other innovative approaches, such as using audio-recording of feedback [Example: Peat 4], are described further elsewhere [see also: Providing feedback].

Issues and strategies

In addition to issues and strategies concerning feedback, other themes concerning written assignments emerged from discussions with staff and students.

Underpinning several of the strategies described below are the challenges posed by large student cohorts - by its very nature, the assessment of written assignments is resource intensive. In some courses, written assignments have been replaced by other assessment types as student numbers have grown. Where resources permit, teams of sessional staff are recruited to assist in the assessment of written assignments - the challenge of effectively preparing inexperienced staff for this role is discussed elsewhere [see also: Involving sessional staff].

[See also: Engaging large classes through assessment; Coping with resource constraints]

Ensuring consistency and maintaining standards

When student numbers are large, consistency becomes an issue - consistency between different assessors, or consistency across large numbers of written assignments when graded by just one or two people. The approaches taken include: formalised marking schemes; double-marking; discussions of criteria; coding systems and assignment criteria [Examples: Hancock 2; Hargreaves 1; Mamo; Mulder 3; Mrongovius 1; Taylor 1; Taylor 2; Wassens 2].

[see also: Setting and monitoring standards]

Clarity of expectations

One of the principles of effective assessment is that expectations are clearly communicated to students [Examples: Hargreaves 2; Mulder 3; Ross 3; Taylor 2; Vanniasinkan].

[see also: Principles of assessment]

Assessment design that supports students as they develop their writing skills

In addition to the need to provide effective feedback, other strategies used to support students develop their writing skills include:

  • Gradual improvement through developing competence in writing different parts of a report. I give them a paper from Nature in which I've blanked out the abstract and they have to write the abstract, probably about a dozen different papers, and they have to hand in a 100/150 word abstract of the paper. [academic];
  • Giving a series of assignments, perhaps smaller assignments or part of a report, during the course so that students can practice writing;
  • Opportunities for students to read and provide feedback on the writing of others was valued by students [Examples: Mulder 1; Quinnell 1] [see also: Peer and self-assessment]; and
  • Providing concept mapping software to enable students to practise "logically analyzing an issue and synthesizing comment on it in an orderly way" [Example: Sutton].

Staff require both high-level language skills and time

One of the issues concerning the assessment of written assignments was the need to support students with lower levels of English language proficiency, including many students from non-English speaking backgrounds. Some staff were concerned that they lacked the time and resources to provide the additional language-support needs of such students. It was stressed that providing appropriate feedback on grammar and the use of English is important, and that therefore the English language skills of sessional staff involved in assessment was also critical. One strategy used was to restrict the assessment of written assignments to experienced and skilled members of staff.

[see also: Enhancing assessment for diverse student groups; Involving sessional staff]

Academic honesty and plagiarism

Approaches taken to encourage academic honesty and an understanding of plagiarism included:

  • Discussion and illustration of plagiarism in the context of the writing task involved; and
  • Avoiding temptation through assessment design - assigning topics which are novel and require new ideas and critical thinking [Example: Fairweather 3]

[see also: Addressing plagiarism issues]

Using assessment to provide feedback to staff

The comment was also made that the most effective design and assessment of written assignments is a challenging task - and, as such, staff involved need to make full use of feedback from students, reviewing the assignment procedure to improve the process in subsequent years. As one academic remarked, "we rarely get it completely right the first time".

Generic skills

Preparing written assignments allows students to develop skills in communication, independent learning, and critical thinking and review.

  • Written communication skills. The style of writing favoured in the sciences is concise, precise and accurate. This approach to writing, and to communication generally, is highly valued in many contexts including business and government.
  • Information literacy. Many written assignments require students to obtain and evaluate information from a range of sources.
  • Critical thinking. Through the analysis of data for presentation in written reports and through the critical appraisal of scientific literature, students develop the critical thinking skills highly valued in a wide range of fields.

[see also: Learning outcomes in the biological sciences]

Authentic assessment

Many written assignments closely reflect the practice of scientific research and writing, including:

  • The use of appropriate scientific conventions [Example: Hargreaves 2];
  • Conforming to the style required by particular publishers and journals [Example: Mamo];
  • Preparation of ethics applications, research proposals and abstracts [Example: Mamo]; and
  • Peer-review of written work, including the preparation of 'rebuttals' [Example: Mulder 1];

Professionally-oriented degrees and units of study commonly use written assignments that closely emulate writing tasks in the particular field [Examples: Benkendorff 1; Cooke 1; Fairweather 1; Kleindorfer].

They get to do a written report. We try to style it as much as possible on government marine and environmental type problems, because a large proportion of them find employment in those sorts of areas. [academic describing first year assessment in a professional skills unit for about 60 students]


To reference material from this site, please use:

Harris, K-L., Krause, K., Gleeson, D., Peat, M., Taylor, C. & Garnett, R. (2007). Enhancing Assessment in the Biological Sciences: Ideas and resources for university educators. Available at: www.bioassess.edu.au