Writing as a Tool for Learning Biology

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High school graduates write poorly and dislike writing (Anonymous 1987, Dodge 1991). The writing ability of most of these students does not improve appreciably during college. Ironically, English teachers are often a student's biggest obstacle in learning to write well.
1. Writing As a Tool for Learning Biology
Author(s): Randy Moore
Source: BioScience, Vol. 44, No. 9 (Oct., 1994), pp. 613-617
Published by: American Institute of Biological Sciences
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1312461
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2. Writing as a tool for learning biology
ew skills are more important In light of the importance of writ- (Anonymous 1987, Douglas 1993).
to biologists than effective ing in science, it is not surprising Although 59-65% of high school
writing (Enke 1978, Moore that our constituents-the people students can do an adequate job of
1992b, 1993). For example, bio- who pay our salaries and hire our informative writing (i.e., describing
technology companies rank commu- students-expect our students to be what has occurred), only 7-25% of
nication skills (e.g., writing) as the able to write well. Unfortunately, students can do an adequate job of
second most important quality in most students cannot do so (Healy analytical writing (i.e., describing
prospective employees; these skills 1992, Rosato 1992). Only 12% of why something has occurred; Anony-
rank only slightly behind relevant all employers think that high school mous 1987). This statistic is trou-
work experience, and they rank far graduates write well. For compari- bling because analytical writing-
ahead of other factors such as chem- son, 22% of employers think that being able to provide evidence,
istry background, a degree from a these students understand math well reason well, and build an argu-
recognized program, grade-point (Landis 1991). The much publicized ment-is important for a successful
average, personal recommendations, crisis in math literacy pales when career in science and most other
and highly focused biological ex- compared to students' inability to professions. In addition, fewer than
pertise (Davis et al. 1989). Improv- write effectively (Kelly 1992). one-third of students can do an ad-
ing one's writing skills greatly In addition to the consequences equate job of persuasive writing (i.e.,
enhances one's prospects for em- of not being able to communicate presenting evidence to support con-
ployment in science (Kelly 1992, well in writing, effective writing is a clusions; Anonymous 1987). This
Pollack and Godwin 1983) and other means of thinking clearly. The first result is disturbing because those
professions (Moore 1992a, b). step in writing is discovering ideas. students unable to construct an ef-
Inadequate writing can slow or Then the writer uses paper and pen- fective argument are handicapped
prevent publication of scientific re- cil, or computer screen and key- throughout their academic and sci-
search. According to an editor of board, to think through the ideas, entific careers.
Evolution, for example, poor writ- with each sentence written suggest- Less than 25% of high school
ing is almost as frequent a reason ing yet others. By writing about bi- students can write adequately on
for rejecting a manuscript as is ology, students can deepen their tasks involving skills required for
flawed experimental design or analy- understanding of the subject far success in business, academia, or
sis; nearly 50% of rejected papers more than they do by studying for other professions (Anonymous
are so poorly written that reviewers multiple-choice exams. 1987, Kelly 1992). This inadequacy
and editors cannot understand the Students' inability to write effec- helps explain why college students
experimental design, analysis, or tively is a great handicap. What has write so poorly and why employers
interpretation (Endler 1992). My caused this problem? More impor- have trouble finding employees who
informal survey of editors of other tantly, what can biologists do to can write well.
biological journals suggests that this help solve it? According to a survey, secondary
percentage is typical. school teachers of science, more than
A scientist's ability to write about Grades K-12: Where the teachers of any other subject, use
science greatly influences others' writing to test mastery of a subject
opinions of his or her credibility as
problem starts rather than as a tool to learn the
a scientist (Moore 1992a, 1992b, Throughout their elementary and subject (Applebee 1981). Moreover,
and references therein). Truth in high school education, students pro- most high school students are nei-
science is the product of argument gressively learn to dislike writing ther taught nor learn strategies for
and persuasion, which, in turn, are (Tables 1 and 2). Writing assign- effective writing, and most teachers
created with language. Because most ments in most secondary schools are assign writing exercises for no pur-
persuasion occurs through the lit- mechanical and trivial; for example, pose other than practicing the stu-
erature, people who cannot write only 3% of these assignments re- dents' poor writing. This method of
effectively can seldom do science quire students to write more than teaching is unfortunate, because stu-
effectively. one paragraph (Applebee 1981, dents who learn strategies for effec-
Ordovensky 1991). Consequently, tive writing write better than do
we should not be surprised that high students who lack such strategies
by Randy Moore school graduates write poorly (Moore 1992a, b, 1993).
October 1994 613
3. College: Where the Table 1. Students' attitudes about writing (Educational Testing Service 1988).
Values given are percentage of students reporting the statement true or answering
problem worsens the question with yes.
High school graduates write poorly
and dislike writing (Anonymous
1987, Dodge 1991). The writing
ability of most of these students Statements about writing 4 8 11
does not improve appreciably dur- I like to write. 57.0 41.2 39.4
ing college. Ironically, English teach- I am a good writer. 57.8 42.1 40.7
ers are often a student's biggest ob- People like what I write. 53.2 36.5 36.7
stacle in learning to write well. Many I write on my own outside of school. 48.2 35.4 28.8
I don't like to write things that will be graded. 36.0 31.7 30.4
English teachers strongly encourage Did you like writing the last thing you wrote for school? 67.4 57.5 53.6
students to write poorly by giving
better grades to complex, indirect,
wordy, and inflated writing than to
simple, direct, concise, and under- unique to their discipline. They say, process of writing leads to truths
standable writing (Hake and Will- "This is how biologists write." Such (Berthoff 1982, Griffin 1983,
iams 1981 and references therein). instruction about so-called scientific Raimes 1980).
By so doing, these teachers encour- writing usually encourages the ex- Although writing-across-the-cur-
age what they claim to deplore, and cessive use of passive voice, jargon, riculum programs require students
they discourage what they claim to and wordiness, all of which impede to write essays and papers, they sel-
admire. Such experiences also ex- communication and further dimin- dom teach students how to write
plain why some students emerge ish the quality of students' writing, effectively. Moreover, there is little
from a university worse writers than thinking, and learning (Moore quantitative evidence that the claims
when they began (Douglas 1993). 1992a, b). Moreover, even if such a of the program's supporters apply
Many biology teachers do not re- style is commonly used by biolo- to learning biology. Indeed, anec-
quire students to write anything. gists, teaching it to college students dotal evidence of the success of writ-
They prefer instead to use "objec- is questionable because only a mi- ing-across-the-curriculum in science
tive" (e.g., true-false or multiple- nority of them (only 27% of biology is matched by anecdotal evidence of
choice) exams. Although such ex- majors) are likely to get jobs that its failure (Braine 1990, Liss and
ams are more easily graded, thereby are closely related to biology (Gra- Hanson 1993, Morgan 1987,
freeing the teacher for other activi- ham and Cockriel 1990). Sorenson 1991, Young 1985). For
ties, the instructors are ignoring the Most well-meaning biologists example, Liss and Hanson (1993)
power of writing as a tool for think- who do assign a variety of writing report that biology students did not
ing about, understanding, and com- tasks do not teach students how to benefit from writing assignments,
municating ideas in biology. In ad- use writing as a tool for learning. despite the fact that students were
dition, a lack of writing assignments Even scientific writing courses are given general feedback as to the
and exams sends two strong mes- based on misconceptions (Moore nature of their writing errors. Oth-
sages to students. The first is that 1992b). Consequently, most writ- ers claim that journal writing-a
writing is irrelevant to biology. The ing assignments do little more than common ingredient of writing-
second message is that, despite force students to practice, even per- across-the-curriculum programs-
claims to the contrary, writing is not fect, their poor writing (Moore does not appreciably improve sci-
part of a general education, not im- 1993). ence students' writing skills or their
portant for a successful career, and Students often want to write well, understanding of the subject (Hoff
not related to learning. but they do not know how and be- 1992, Labianca and Reeves 1985,
When biologists do assign writ- come frustrated. Consequently, most Linden and Whimbey 1990). Merely
ten work they often try to focus on students dislike writing and do not writing about sciences does not nec-
content rather than style and, in use writing to learn biology (Moore essarily ensure that students learn
doing so, they choose to overlook 1993). science, learn to write more effec-
what they consider to be trivial er- tively, learn to use writing as a tool
rors in students' writing (Moore to learn, or appreciate the impor-
Writing-across-the-curriculum tance of writing for success as a
1992a). However, the types of er-
rors ignored often turn out to be To improve students' abilities to professional (Moore 1993).
important to persons having the write and think, many colleges and
power to affect students' lives, such universities have implemented writ- How biologists can improve
as their potential employers and ing-across-the-curriculum, a pro- students' writing
supervisors (Hairston 1981, Mackay gram that incorporates writing into
1992, Moore 1992a). courses other than freshman com- Although most biologists do little to
Furthermore, when biologists do position. This program's popularity help students learn to write effec-
pay attention to writing, many of results from claims that people in- tively, we nevertheless bemoan their
them stress-and even insist upon- evitably learn about a subject as poor, ineffective writing. Amidst our
a writing style that they believe is they write about it; that is, that the complaining, we pass students
614 BioScience Vol. 44 No. 9
4. through our courses, hoping they Table 2. Students' attitudes about the importance of writing (Educational Testing
will somehow outgrow their poor Service 1988). Values given are percentage of students reporting the statements
writing. Most students do not. true.
Guided instruction can signifi- Grades
cantly enhance students' abilities to
learn biology and write effectively Statements about writing 4 8 11
(Moore 1993). This instruction as- Writing is important. 78.6 72.6 69.2
signs more reading of well-written Writing helps me learn about myself. 53.6 44.6 49.5
work on biology, and it focuses on Writing helps me study. 74.0 71.5 65.9
how to write effectively, instead of Writing helps me come up with new ideas. 69.6 61.7 59.9
Writing helps me think more clearly. 56.1 44.0 51.2
merely correctly. 54.4
Writing helps me understand my own feelings. 43.3 48.4
Writing can help me get a good job. 46.0 50.7 57.3
Incorporating more reading into Writing helps me show people I know something. 68.4 61.5 62.5
courses. The declining abilities of People who write well have a better chance of getting good jobs. 53.8 45.7 56.1
students to write effectively People who write well are more influential. 51.0 47.4 56.4
correlates with their reduced interest
in reading. Indeed, from 1968 to
1990, the number of students who entists work, how scientific knowl- the essays in the box and then
checked out even one book or journal edge has been interpreted by great consider your impressions of the
from their high school library thinkers, how people use biology, quality of each writer as a biologist.
dropped by 40%, and the number and how current knowledge depends Both of these essays use the same
who had done any outside reading on giants of biology's past (Carter technical words and present the same
for any course declined by almost and Mayer 1988). information in the same order. Both
25% (Dodge 1991). Moreover, Many popular books describe bi- essays are also correct-they differ
typical college-bound seniors-even ology and biologists better than do only in their use of language. Smith's
those in advanced placement textbooks. Thus, we can improve essay is more informative and easier
courses-read fewer than ten pages students' writing skills and under- to read because it uses familiar
per day (Ribadeneira 1992), an standing of biology by insisting that words, avoids inflated phrases, and
amount significantly less than that they read books that classical and uses shorter, more forceful sentences.
of only two years ago (Anonymous modern biologists wrote for the gen- Conversely, Brown's essay is harder
1992, Foertsch 1992). Similarly, eral public. To help biologists choose to read because it contains big words,
more than 30% do not read for fun books for use in the classroom, long sentences, and complex con-
(Anonymous 1992, Foertsch 1992). Carter and Mayer (1988) published structions.
Some students are not asked to read a list of 22 books that "every biolo- These differences in writing style
even one book during their senior gist should read." Topping this list strongly affect biologists: almost
year of high school (Ribadeneira was James Watson's controversial 70% of the 1580 scientists who read
1992). The Double Helix; subsequent en- these essays judged Smith's essay to
Students who are better readers tries included Charles Darwin's in- be more interesting, stimulating,
are usually better writers. There- fluential The Origin of Species, credible, and impressive than
fore, it is disturbing that most stu- Lewis Thomas' entertaining Lives Brown's essay (Bardell 1978, Turk
dents read so little, both in and out of a Cell, Rachel Carson's emotional 1978, Turk and Kirkman 1989,
of school. Students will probably Silent Spring, Thomas Kuhn's philo- Wales 1979). Readers also judged
not learn to write better until they sophical The Structure of Scientific Smith to be more dynamic, helpful,
read more. Revolutions, and Paul Ehrlich's pro- and intelligent than Brown. More-
An excellent way to improve both phetic The Population Bomb. We over, when asked to judge Smith's
the students' writing and their un- should tell students not to be afraid and Brown's competence-specifi-
derstanding of biology is to incor- to model their writing after that of cally, which biologist seemed to have
porate more reading in courses. Just their favorite writers. After all, Bach a better-organized mind-almost
as a child with a hearing defect has and Picasso used models, and biol- 80% chose Smith. The message here
problems learning to speak, so too ogy students will benefit by study- is as unmistakable as it is impor-
does a student who does not read ing the works of great biologists. tant: although both essays are cor-
have problems in writing. rect, only Smith's is effective.
Unfortunately, most biology Teaching effective instead of correct
teachers restrict their reading as- writing. Many biologists equate Teaching writing as a tool to
signments to textbooks, many of effective writing with correct learn biology
which are little more than compila- writing-that is, writing that breaks
tions of facts and definitions. Be- none of the sacrosanct com- A well-designed course can greatly
cause these textbooks are meant to mandments that the biologists enhance students' ability to use writ-
be studied rather than read, it is remember from their composition ing as a tool to learn biology (Moore
hardly surprising that most students classes (e.g., "Never split an 1993). Such a course might begin
find them boring. Moreover, few infinitive."). To appreciate the with a discussion of what is effective
textbooks show how science or sci- failure of this approach, quickly read writing and why is it important?
October 1994 615
5. understanding of writing rather than
Brown's essay a memorization of rules. Such an
In the first experiment of the series using mice it was discovered that understanding helps students not
total removal of the adrenal glands effects reduction of aggressiveness only to know what is wrong with
their writing, but also shows them
and that aggressiveness in adrenalectomized mice is restorable to the the choices available for improving
level of intact mice by treatment with corticosterone. These results their writing and enhancing their
point to the indispensability of the adrenals for the full expression of learning.
aggression. Nevertheless, since adrenalectomy is followed by an I have previously published more
increase in the release of adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH), and detailed suggestions for organizing
since ACTH has been reported to decrease the aggressiveness of intact and teaching a course that instructs
mice, it is possible that the effects of adrenalectomy on aggressiveness teachers and students how to use
are a function of the concurrent increased levels of ACTH. However,
writing to learn biology (e.g., han-
high levels of ACTH, in addition to causing increases in glucocorti- dling the paperwork, the importance
coids (which possibly account for the depression of aggression in of effective assignments, grading,
intact mice by ACTH), also result in decreased androgen levels. In and informal and collaborative writ-
view of the fact that animals with low androgen levels are character-
ized by decreased aggressiveness the possibility exists that ing; Moore 1992b, 1994). Such a
course can enhance students' under-
adrenalectomy, rather than affecting aggression directly, has the standing of biology and their ability
effect of reducing aggressiveness by producing an ACTH-mediated to write effectively (Moore 1993).
condition of decreased androgen levels.
Smith's essay
Writing is important for success in
The first experiment in our series with mice showed that the total any profession, especially biology.
removal of the adrenal glands reduces aggressiveness. Moreover, Therefore, we must teach students
when treated with corticosterone, mice that had their adrenals taken to write effectively. If we fail at this
out become as aggressive as intact animals again. These findings task, we handicap our students, fail
suggest that the adrenals are necessary for animals to show full the people who pay our salaries and
aggressiveness. hire our students, and ignore the
But removal of the adrenals raises the level of adrenocorticotrophic needs of our profession.
hormone (ACTH), and ACTH lowers the aggressiveness of intact mice.
Thus the reduction of aggressiveness after this operation might be due References cited
to the higher levels of ACTH which accompany it.
Anonymous. 1987. Johnny can't write, ei-
However, high levels of ACTH cause the levels of glucocorticoids to ther. Consumers' Research August:
rise, and the levels of androgen to fall. Since animals with lower levels 18-21, 36-37.
of androgen are less aggressive, it is possible that removal of the Anonymous. 1992. Students avoid the writ-
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616 BioScience Vol. 44 No. 9
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TODAY October 21: D1. the curriculum: the experience of a col- ? 1994 American Institute of Biologi-
Linden, M. J. and A. Whimbey. 1990. Why lege faculty seminary. College English cal Sciences.
r ^
Start planning now to be a part of the
1995 AIBS Annual Meeting
"Science and Ethics"
6-10 August 1995
Town and Country Hotel
San Diego, California
Don't miss the symposia, fieldtrips, workshops, exhibit hall, society events,
and so much more!
For more informationabout participatingor attending, contact the Meetings
Department, AIBS, 730 11th St. NW, Washington, DC 20001; tel: 800/992-
2427 or 202/628-1500, ext. 204.
October 1994 617