April 25, 2011
WOOSTER, Ohio — For years, Dean Fraga and Bill Morgan, professors of biology, biochemistry and molecular biology at The College of Wooster, searched for ways to help students improve the quality of their lab reports in introductory biology courses. Many of the students struggled to fully understand the material. Others had difficulty communicating their findings because of sub-par writing skills. Some had deficiencies in both areas. As a result, the same mistakes surfaced over and over again.
Eventually, Fraga and Morgan decided enough was enough. They developed a system through which students could “systematically organize their knowledge and demonstrate their understanding through clear communication,” according to a paper in the March issue of The American Biology Teacher, authored by Fraga, Morgan, and Bill Macauley, associate professor of English and Director of Writing at Wooster.
After watching many of their students struggle, Fraga and Morgan developed a multi-pronged approach designed to “improve the quality of lab-report writing and increase students’ motivation to write effectively.”
The first step in the process involves assigning short-answer content questions, which enable the instructors to gauge the student’s understanding of the material. Fraga and Morgan critique and return the students’ responses as quickly as possible so they are aware of where their knowledge is lacking and still have time to correct their errors before turning in a lab report. To help students determine if they grasped the material assessed by the content questions well enough to then write a lab report, the professors implemented a “traffic light” system. A green light indicates that a student comprehends the material and can move forward with the assignment; yellow advises the student to proceed with caution and to meet with the professors to correct any minor misconceptions before writing a lab report; red tells the student they have serious deficits in their understanding of the material and need to correct them before attempting the lab report or wait until the next assignment.
The second step incorporates an “all-or-nothing” grading system that provides incentives for students to get it right the first time, rather than submit a substandard report just to get partial credit. The assessment of the lab report is done using prioritized feedback, which identifies the most serious writing problems early in the process. Instead of a detailed critique of the entire lab report that takes considerable time and often discourages the student because of the amount of red ink, report sections are evaluated in order of importance. For example, for many scientists, the most important component is the results section, so the professors evaluate how well that section is written, whether it accurately conveys the data, and if the data is summarized properly. If the results section is acceptable, the faculty then move to the next section — the discussion in this case — and so forth until they have evaluated all sections. However, as soon as the evaluation of a section drops and the lab report as a whole falls below an acceptable criteria (A-/B+), grading is suspended and the students do not receive credit for completing the lab report component of the course.
“Offering an incentive has been a key component of the process,” said Fraga. “In the past, students were content to get partial credit for substandard work. Under this system, they only receive credit for competent, well-written reports. This forces them to turn in a higher level of work. It also allows them to complete fewer lab reports because, if they make the grade with one, they don’t have to do another one. This frees up time for other assignments.”
Students are assigned between four and six lab reports per semester. The reports range in length from 10-15 pages and generally consist of four sections: introduction, methods, results, and discussions. Under the new system, students only have to complete one high-quality report, although they still must answer content questions to demonstrate their grasp of the material for the others. “This motivates and empowers the student,” said Macauley. “It forces them to take ownership of the project.”
The new approach has yielded noteworthy results since being adopted 10 years ago. Nearly half of the students who were rejected on their first attempt closed the gap and managed to write a successful report the second time. Part of the incentive came from the “all-or-nothing” system, which rewards excellence while discouraging mediocrity. “The results have been very positive,” said Morgan. “In the past, about 25 percent of students turned in at least one lab report that met our criteria for excellence. Now that number has doubled to 50 percent.”
Another significant dividend of the new system is the response by the students. “What has impressed me most is that they started coming in to ask me questions about my comments,” said Fraga. “We found that very encouraging.”
Ultimately, the paper’s authors concluded that the integrated strategy of the multi-pronged approach increases the percentage of students who are able to write a high-quality lab report, which not only pays dividends in introductory classes, but also provides a foundation for success in higher-level classes and beyond.
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