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CTL Faculty E-Newsletter

Orgo, Ergo Argue? Workshopping Writing in Organic Chemistry Labs

by Susan Hess,
Writing and Teaching/Learning Specialist

I felt like I was looking at Elvis wearing earbuds—things that just shouldn’t go together.  Couldn’t go together.  But—unless my eyes and analysis were wrong, and my partner’s, too—together they were.

It had all started in a casual Common Room query one Friday Faculty lunch:  why was it so hard for students to write good lab reports, and was there anything I thought might help?

David Slade was the speaker, and his mission was clear:  better writing from his Organic Chemistry lab students.  It was the end of Spring term, so Orgo II in the Fall would be the next chance to take action.  What could we do?

Well, we could get together for some analysis and planning, maybe with Justin Miller and others—but first, I asked, could David send me some samples?  A good and a middling student lab report each, perhaps, so I could understand what students could and couldn’t manage?  He did, and I sat down with Caitlin Caron, the CTL Coordinator of Writing Initiatives, to review the samples.

The result?  Disbelief, confusion, and requests for immediate meetings with Miller and Slade.  Why?  Because of what Caitlin and I saw when we looked at the students’ lab reports: methods mixed with data mixed with analysis (dogs and cats living together!), and something that looked perilously like an argument in the “methods” section—and this was the sample that David has labeled “good.”  

Where were the carefully sorted, carefully separated “Intro, Methods, Results, Analysis, Discussion” sections that we’d been taught to look for in lab reports?   Where were the “Intro, Materials, Procedures, Data, Results, Conclusion” needed in Chemistry lab reports?  Why did we find ourselves applying the label “argumentative” to the middle section—not even the end—of a lab report?  Why?

Because, as it turned out after a series of discussions among what became our team of four, that is the nature of Orgo and of Orgo labs: in Organic Chemistry one procedure can but rarely provide a definitive result, so multiple lab procedures must be combined in sequence.  In written form, this appears as a carefully orchestrated set of inductive reasoning sequences:  procedure/results/analysis, next procedure/results/analysis, rinse and repeat as needed.  (Or at least that’s how I’d put it—while all in our team of four have enjoyed learning what things look like from the others’ disciplinary perspective, my Organic Chemistry learning curve has been steep).

Through these analyses and discussions, we discovered some answers to the lab report problems:  not only were many first-year and sophomore students still struggling to master general standards of scientific writing, not only were all the students struggling with new content knowledge, but all were struggling to learn the particular thing that is Organic Chemistry.  To learn how to think in Orgo, they had to learn to write in Orgo, and writing in Orgo violates—or seems to students to violate—some of the generally accepted conventions of science writing (not to mention many, many of the conventions of “good” academic writing).

What to do?  We started with a fast writing workshop for each of the Fall 2012 Orgo II labs:  students would rework “final” drafts based on the rhetorical analysis and process that Caitlin and I would provide, while Justin and David stood ready to answer content questions.  The workshops also allowed students to see the four of us thinking as a team about the characteristics of good Orgo lab writing, and to model a draft-and-revise approach to the writing task.

Did the lab reports improve?  When Caitlin and I compared before and after student drafts, the answer was “yes”:  students had trimmed, added, rearranged, and the changes were for the better.  Not always dramatic changes, but that’s not to be expected—writing improvement is a slow, often incremental process.

What did we gain?  “A new appreciation for why students find the task so complex,” says Justin Miller, because “scientific writing involves presentation of data, logical analysis and argumentation, and linguistic precision—all contained in small, dense, well-crafted packages.”

“It was extremely useful to see our assignments through fresh eyes,” said David Slade.  “When our writing professionals asked me ‘Is this what you REALLY want?’ I was startled—of course, why wouldn’t it be?  Their response helped me see just how argumentative every aspect of the lab report really was.  As a direct result, I have now rewritten many prompts and instructions.”

The students, too, had said that they valued the experience of having “experts” who were Chemistry writing novices take a hand in the process—like the students, Caitlin and I were learning about Chemistry writing as we did it, but unlike the students, we had a sophisticated set of rhetorical analysis skills to help us all find a path to better lab report writing.

What’s the next step?  This Spring, we’ve drawn Erin Pelkey into the mix, to ensure that we’re reaching all the Orgo I labs, and we’ve built on our initial workshop model with a new, short pre-writing discussion.  We’ve also added training for CTL Writing Fellows in how to support Orgo lab writing.  In addition, we’re gathering information from students about their assumptions about both academic writing in general and Organic Chemistry writing in particular to evaluate whether pre-conceptions may be hindering learning.  And for Caitlin and I, there may be an article on writing in STEM disciplines. 

So far, the faculty are encouraged by what they’re seeing from students:  Slade says that the information we’ve gathered this term suggests that students now are “aware that this writing is supposed to be telling a story, making arguments, and being persuasive,” and Miller says “we’ve made a big step forward in more effective teaching of lab report writing.”  Equally important for us all will be assessing whether by the term’s end students better understand the intertwined relationship between learning Orgo and writing Orgo.

And I, among other things, have learned much about a genre of argumentative writing new to me—even if I still can’t reliably pronounce “spectroscopy.”