Guest Blog

Are you an expert in that?

By Nicola Jones

I have lost track of how many times I have received emails from hopeful high school students who read one of my news articles and wanted help with their project on sea level rise, or climate change, or volcanoes or earthquakes or the ongoing effort to grow enough food for the planet and keep emissions in check.

While I applaud these students for reaching out to a real person for help (as a journalist I find this the most efficient way to learn something new), I can’t help wonder what the heck their teachers are thinking, presuming that their teachers suggested this avenue of research. Sure, I have written news stories and features about sea level rise, climate change and all the rest, sometimes for authoritative publications like Nature or Yale Environment 360. Some of these articles must sound very convincing, chock full of facts, telling examples and compelling conclusions. I’m flattered, really I am. But I am NOT an expert in these subjects. I am an intermediary.

These emails I get are symptomatic of a bigger problem. Kids today aren’t being taught (or aren’t learning) how to vet information and expertise. Yes, I delved into each topic, for a while, and spoke to some leading experts about their research. But some of these articles are years old. And I never did the research myself; I’m a journalist who spoke to people, heard their stories, and tried to make sense of it all, briefly, and entertainingly, for my audience to read. As the saying goes, scientists know an awful lot about a little; journalists know very little about an awful lot. If these students want the current facts, they should go straight to the research papers, summary reports and people that I go to, not to me.

Trust Us

Re-used under CC BY-SA 2.0 licence.

This is important. In today’s information deluge, there are ever-more people spreading their theories as facts and hiding behind a cloak of apparent expertise (think Wikipedia, which has the sheen of an encyclopedic authority but actually can be, and often is, biased or just plain wrong). People seem ever-more-willing to Google things like “should I vaccinate my kids” and follow the advice they find in Yahoo answers rather than on the pages of the World Health Organization. Particularly when it comes to science, people can be befuddled by a cloak of fancy jargon into thinking that something must be true. Take the famous case of the sad disappearance of Madeleine McCann from a resort in Portugal in 2007 – newspapers reported that a “forensic analysis” by Danie Krügel of the University of Bloemfontein, based on a “DNA sample and GPS satellite technology”, had traced the missing child to the beach. After some further investigation, it was noted that Krugel was director of security at the university rather than a researcher, and the “device” in question couldn’t possibly do what it claimed to do (read more here).

We need to be teaching our kids (and university students / journalists / scientists) how to weigh information in the information age. What’s the so-called expert’s background? Do they have a real medical degree or a PhD from a credible institution, or is “doctor” just a nickname? How many years’ experience do they have, and what sort of experience? Do they have financial motivations? Where does the funding come from for that website that looks like a newspaper but is actually the front for an advocacy group? I’d love for these high school students who reach out to me, and my kids, to have the skills to critically evaluate information, know who to turn to for facts, and generally not be swayed by uninformed voices.

I admit there are blurry lines here. I probably do know more than these students about the given subject. (I’m not cruel; I tell them politely what I know, which is pretty much whatever I wrote in the article they read in the first place, and point them in the direction of further, more robust information.) Some journalists become authoritative experts on a subject by dint of following one specific story for years, or literally writing the book on an obscure topic. Some scientists have good pedigrees but wacky ideas outside the consensus view. All the more reason to teach people how to assess expertise for themselves.

So, should you listen to me on this subject? I can tell you I have been a journalist since 2000, and I did a science undergrad before that. I have worked for UBC teaching science journalism (for which I was paid), and I am friends with Eric Jandciu who asked me to write this blog post (for which I was not). You could check all that, and maybe you should.

Nicola medium profileAbout Nicola Jones

Nicola is a freelance science journalist, writer and editor living in the mountains of Pemberton, BC, where she splits her time between finding interesting stories and being a mom.

AUDIO: Why adding writing assignments to science classes needn’t be a headache

By the ScWRL team

There are a number of reasons to incorporate writing assignments into science classes, and these extend far beyond the discipline-specific learning goals you may have for your students. Just as science communication has taken off as a field in recent years, instructors and researchers are growing increasingly aware that teaching students how to write about science will provide them with important life skills.

By learning to write well, students will be able to compete for precious academic funding, communicate effectively in debates about scientific and governmental policy, and convincingly outline sound arguments that support a course of action.

Despite this growing desire to teach science students writing skills, some instructors are reined back from doing so by fears over a lack of expertise, and by concerns that they don’t have the necessary time to take on the challenge. But, taking the first steps in designing and integrating writing assignments needn’t be a headache…

Instructors can start by integrating small assignments that don’t weigh too heavily on the shoulders of their grading team. If feeling more adventurous, they can easily scaffold smaller assignments into one larger one, and in doing so, they can ask students to engage in peer review at each step. As well as helping to build a deeper understanding of the scientific publishing process — and it’s purposes — this addition means students will receive feedback and guidance at regular intervals, which should in turn cut down grading time when the final piece of writing is handed in.

In the below podcast, one of a number on the ScWRL site, the coordinator of the Writing Across the Curriculum program and the coordinator of the First-Year English program at UBC discuss the benefits of integrating writing assignments in science classes in much greater detail, as well as outlining some top tips for choosing which types of assignments work especially well.



If the discussion proves useful, perhaps you might consider subscribing to our Soundcloud channel, and/or checking out other podcasts in this series on the ScWRL site, which include expert advice relating to peer review, grading and providing feedback, and tutoring writing.

We have also created freely available resources to complement each podcast. For the one above, we have produced sample writing assignments that could be quickly and easily integrated into an upcoming science class.

A big classroom is no barrier to teaching science writing – lessons from the front lines

By Robin Young

Have you ever been involved in a large class? How big was it? 50? 100? 300? The class that I coordinate, Biology 200, involves 1,200 students in a single term. It’s bigger than my high school was, and it’s one of the biggest classes in the Biology Program. Because it’s so big, people often assume that we must rely on computer-graded, multiple-choice tests, and that we don’t do any meaningful writing. To be honest, I’m terrible at writing multiple-choice questions, so I avoid it. As for writing, Biology 200 has always had an essay, but in the past it’s been pretty labour intensive, and not much fun for anyone. So, a few years ago we decided to change that.

So how do you build a writing assignment for 1,200 students that doesn’t crush the teaching team under the weight of supporting it? It’s a tall order, to be sure. It took a combination of creative thinking and careful planning, and the result was what we call our ‘Press Release Assignment’. Here’s some things I’ve learned about building writing assignments from this experience.

The ‘easy’ way is often very labour intensive.

When instructors think about designing assignments, the easiest way to design is to have students write things, which the instructors will then read and mark. With 1,200 students, that simply won’t work. We can’t mark everything. So the things that we do mark need to be chosen wisely. The rest of the supporting assignments must be dealt with some other way, so that they don’t overwhelm us. For Biology 200 we used a combination of online quizzes and in-class facilitated workshops. For another class I used outlines instead of full drafts, for the same reason.

Think carefully about what you want students to learn from the writing, and your own limitations, and design with both in mind.

When I decided to change the writing assignment, I knew I needed to address the issues that students were having with reading scientific literature. They also struggled to translate science into plain English. And I wanted to keep it short (to reduce marking time). Once I knew that, having the students write a press release about a single science article seemed logical. A press release is about a single paper, and by design is short and in plain English. It has the additional advantage of allowing us to change the assignment, simply by changing the assigned paper.

We would all much rather work on ‘real’ things.

A press release is nothing like a scientific paper. It has a completely different goal than a scientific paper, which requires a different format and style than anything the average science student has written before. If I wanted students to succeed, I’d have to teach them the format before they could even start. So why bother? Why not just have them do a paper summary instead?

The answer is simple. Paper summaries are boring and students will treat them as such. A press release is something they can relate to. They can see the point of the writing, and they can see examples of them in the news every day.

As instructors who are going to have to read many of these assignments in a row, we really want our students to try to be interesting when they write. A press release is, by its very nature, meant to be interesting to draw the reader in. A paper summary has no such requirement.

Think about what will be hardest for the students, and then figure how to help with that portion.

When I settled on the press release format, I knew that the format itself was a challenge. I also knew from experience that students always struggle to translate science into plain English. To support them, I enlisted the help of Eric Jandciu, who holds both a Chemistry and Journalism degree. Together we built a workshop on science communication to help with language, and to highlight key differences between press releases and scientific papers.

What’s interesting to me about this assignment is that I don’t feel like it’s trying to teach the students anything new, but somehow this format is more focussed on the key things we’re trying to teach: scientific literacy, and clear, concise writing. The students ask us much better questions about the science in the papers they’re reading than they ever did before. They also report that they’ve learned that communicating science accurately in plain language is tougher than they expected. I’m not sure any student will ever say that they ‘like’ a writing assignment, but they can see the value in trying to write a press release that goes beyond their cell biology course.

For my part, I will admit an ulterior motive in building a press release assignment. I think that there is an increasing divide between scientists and the public. Carl Zimmer wrote a very nice piece exploring this issue. Biology 200’s press release assignment exposes students to science communication early in their careers. The students themselves report that it helps them think about the news differently. Graduate teaching assistants also get some mentorship on the topic, which is good timing for them; this year there were two TAs that had their work showcased in the news. We scientists have a responsibility to make our work accessible, so that those with no specialized training can understand it. If we don’t, and the public then ignores or misinterprets our work, then we have no one to blame but ourselves.

About Robin Young

RobinYoungRobin never meant to be a botanist. That happened by accident. She grew up in Montreal as the daughter of a nurse and a veterinarian, so zoology and human health were high on the dinner table discussion topic list. After surviving the Québec cegep system, she did a B.Sc. at McMaster University, went backpacking in Europe and finally started graduate work in the Faculty of Medicine at Université de Montréal (En français). Through this she discovered a love for microscopes that was more important than any previous interest in studying animals. So when the opportunity arose to join the Botany Department at UBC for her PhD work, the promise of lots of really cool microscopy made it easy to leave the Animal Kingdom behind.

These days you can find her in front of the class, trying to sneak a little plant biology into every course she teaches. You can also find her on Twitter (@RobinYoungUBC), where she mostly retweets cool microscopy pictures.

Why — and how — students should be encouraged to ask for help with their writing

By the Writing Across the Curriculum team

Assignments can be daunting, and so can writing. So when science students face writing-heavy assignments – potentially for the first time at university – anxiety can take hold. As instructors, it’s important to know how best to encourage students to seek help with their writing, without implying they need it based on weak performance. Writing anxiety or weaknesses in certain areas are not things to be ashamed of, and writing experts at UBC recently stressed how important it is to remove the negative stigma of seeking help. Even strong writers can improve the quality of their work by developing their process, so we should encourage all students to be proactive in seeking help.

The good news is that excellent help is available! But, at a recent Community of Practice (CoP) meeting organised by coordinators of the Writing Across the Curriculum Program, the participants underlined that a reluctance to seek this help continues to hamper some students’ prospects as writers.

Three top tips emerged. First, including information on how and where students can seek writing help in course syllabi helps to make doing so seem more normal. Second, encouraging students to talk about their writing worries and weaknesses with their peers helps to build confidence in seeking help by underlining that classmates have similar concerns. And third, providing examples of high-quality work can help students understand what they should be aiming for — after all, it’s hard to know if you need to seek help if you don’t know what a great piece of writing looks like.

Integrating peer review into writing classes — perhaps as part of a scaffolded project where students provide feedback to each other on early drafts — can also help students see where their specific strengths and weaknesses lie. Discussing these issues with their peers, rather than in a professor’s office, helps to build empathy, and asking tutors for help in the areas that most need development maximises the possible learning gain.

When it comes to seeking help outside the classroom, most universities have their own writing centres, where tutors work with students to tackle any writing issues they wish to focus on in short, stress-free sessions. For UBC students, it is possible to book free appointments online to talk about their writing concerns with peer tutors. Many of these peer tutors initially accessed the services as students themselves, before deciding to help others in their current roles, so they are able to offer true empathy as well as expertise.

A friendly, understanding face is just what the (writing) doctor ordered, but plucking up the courage to get to that appointment is the key. By implementing the three top tips discussed at the recent CoP meeting, we hope your students will soon come to think of asking for help with their writing as being as normal as asking for directions to get to the writing centre, where they can take their first steps to becoming better writers…