Yesterday, several of us who teach the Writing in Biology course got together to talk about what works, what doesn't, and what we're planning to do next semester. I've been largely pleased with the structure I've used for the class, but there are a few things I'm planning to try next time.
One of the primary goals of my class is for students to decide to work on something that they think actually matters. The vast majority of students come into my classes seeing a class as an obstacle to get over and make most of their calculations about the class based on minimizing their effort. I begin the class at the center and try to progressively pull myself out of the center and leave a vacuum that the students need to fill themselves. Some students find this very uncomfortable, but I've gotten pretty good at managing this transition and I'm relatively pleased with the outcome of the class. Students tell me, in their comments and reflective essays, that trying to figure out something worth doing, was a new and important experience that will transform how they approach other classes.
I've gone back and forth in giving latitude in creating projects. I think, on the whole, projects are better when I constrain the topic to some extent. That doesn't necessarily mean that students learn more, however. It may be that the experience of doing a crappy project (when you could have done something good) might be just what students need to learn. That was very clear to me from one student's reflective essay this year, who referred to another student's thoughtful project as a model for what she should have done because she hadn't really put any thought into hers. Yes!
I try to let the curriculum emerge from the students' writing, but there are a variety of problems that I know are going to be there. Rather than waiting for them to emerge, I think I'm going to design some in-class activities to try to confront them head on.
Creative Writing Students often aim for flowery language and choose different adjectives to mean the same thing: dirty, filthy, unclean, unsanitary, etc. In English class, we're told not to keep using the same adjective, but in science you want to have consistency in the terms you select or define. It's OK to pick one and keep using it
Folk Measures Students have a tendency to use vague adjectives, especially when precise (or at least estimated) measures would be more appropriate. Don't tell me the pond was "large" or there were "pretty many" ducks on it. Write instead, "The pond was 5 hectares and at 4pm on June 1 there were 38 ducks."
Judgments and Anthropomorphisms Students often use language that implies moral judgments or opinions. One example I see regularly is "global warming is harming the earth". You could say, "global warming will have many effects on the earth's biota" or even "global warming will cause mass extinctions", but to speak about the earth having interests is not appropriate. I would also discourage some of the adjectives above (e.g. "filthy") for carrying moral overtones. Finally, avoid making judgments about your own work: don't say "the methods were bad" but instead maybe something like "the methods did not produce usable data".
Be comprehensive, complete, and specific You can't just pick a few results to discuss "for example". You need to tell all of the results -- and preferably do it in a systematic way.
I'm still not sure what form the classroom exercises will take -- maybe examples that groups of students will have to fix? Maybe something like 'clicker questions'? I don't know yet.