Engaging Students Through Writing: 
The Case of a Science Class 

Common Challenges:

  • Students have trouble connecting with the course material, especially in Gen. Ed. courses.
  • Students cannot see the relevance of the course content to their everyday lives.
  • Students are unable to communicate in depth (verbally or in writing) the meaning and significance of important concepts in the course.
  • The quality of writing is poor.

Research Shows:

  • Writing in a science course can help students engage with the material and improve comprehension of complicated concepts. Students retain more course content when they are active learners in class—encouraged to talk and write about the concepts they are learning.
  • Writing assignments in which students are asked to explain or reflect on explaining new concepts to a friend/family member helps sharpen for students what they understand and what they still need to learn [See page 6 of WAC/WID Newsletter “Students Writing Their Way to Better Grades.]
  • Writing quality can improve with some basic changes to your syllabus and course design. The assessment we did in two 100-level Astronomy courses found that with some basic WAC interventions—like emphasizing writing as an important part of the course, clear written assignment instructions to students, a writing rubric to guide students in their writing, short writing assignments linking course concepts to their lives—led to writing improvement. WAC CSI assessed the quality of writing for two Astronomy courses during the 2010/2011 school year—one with WAC interventions and one without. The Astronomy course with WAC interventions had an average writing rubric score (5-1, 5 being the highest) of 3.623, compared to an Astronomy course without WAC interventions, which had an average rubric score of 3.285.
  • In order for writing to continue to improve during their college career, students must write throughout—contrary to popular belief, writing skills are not “completed” after basic college writing classes. Skills improve with ongoing practice.

Some WAC/WID Suggestions:

  • Identify writing as an important part of learning: Start your semester off with a discussion about how writing is an important part of your class, focusing particularly on writing as a tool for learning.
  • Rubric: Create or use a rubric on writing skills, which can include categories such as organization, focus/purpose, voice, style, grammar/spelling/punctuation. (See an example of a rubric below). Hand out the rubric at the beginning of the semester and emphasize the importance of using it as a guide to student writing. You can also link writing assignments with particular pieces of the rubric, in order to get students to focus in on one aspect of their writing.
  • Clear assignment instructions in writing: You cannot underestimate the power of clear assignments that are in writing. It is useful for students to understand why an assignment is given and what you expect. Giving clear expectations can help lessen frustration on the professors end. I typically include: an overview of the assignment, the goal of the assignment, the intended audience, some specific tips to remember when writing and a rubric. See below for examples of assignments.
  • Short writing assignments: If you teach a course that typically does not have any writing in it, start by integrating a couple short writing assignments into your course design. Focus assignments on linking the course content to students’ everyday lives.
  • A few short workshops on writing: A few short workshops focused on writing can help students improve their writing skills. You do not need to be an English or Writing teacher to run these workshops. They can be as simple as peer editing workshops [See page 5 of the WAC/WID Newsletter entitled “Managing Grammar Across the Curriculum to see an example of how to do a peer editing workshop or giving strong, clear examples of the type of writing you are asking for [letter to the editor, for example].
  • Focus on audience: When students are encouraged to teach others about the course content, it helps them to engage and deepen their understanding of difficult concepts. Create writing assignments that encourage students to begin to articulate their understanding of the concepts learned in class.

Here are three assignment examples from an Astronomy course:

#1—Writing a letter to a friend or family member

  • Assignment: Choose one concept you have learned about in this class and write a letter to a family member or friend explaining the concept and why it is important.
  • Goal of assignment: Connected to Goal #2 of the course, which was to be able to describe the contents of the solar system, the key physical processes that occur within it, and why they are important.
  • Intended Audience: The intended audience of this letter is a friend or family member who knows very little about Astronomy.
  • Keep in mind: You are writing a letter to a friend or family member. Be creative and write the letter in a way that you would write to this particular person in your life. Your goal is to try to explain a new Astronomical concept you have learned in this course to this person, who does not know much about science. Try to explain this concept to him/her in a way that this person will grasp and remember.
  • Rubric focus: The focus of this assignment is on focus/purpose. You want to establish a clear focus early on in your letter. Make it clear to the person you are writing to what the purpose of your letter is – make sure each part of the letter (each paragraph) is supporting this focus.

#2—Explaining a new course concept to a friend or family member

  • Assignment: In the next week, talk to one of your friends or family members about a concept you are learning in Astronomy. Really try to break the concept down for this person and explain why it is important. Write an essay reflecting on how the exercise went, whether your friend/family member understood it and if they grasped the importance of it. If you were going to do this again, what would you do differently?
  • Goal of assignment: Connected to Goal #2 of the course.
  • Intended Audience: The intended audience in this question is your professor.
  • Rubric Focus: The focus of this essay is on grammar, spelling and punctuation. Make a list of your most common grammar, spelling and punctuation errors. Read over your essay aloud and highlight any mistakes that you find. Turn in your paper with highlights included, and turn in your list of common grammar, spelling and punctuation errors (you can make this page 2 of your essay). Your essays will be returned to you with any other errors found highlighted so that you can expand on your list, and learn what common errors you are making, if any. This list will help you understand how to edit your paper for common mistakes in the future.

NOTE: Please see the WAC/WID newsletter on grammar (p3-5) for workshops you can conduct along-side this assignment.

#3—Writing a letter to the editor explaining why science and math are important

  • Assignment: Write a letter to the editor. You are responding to another letter that was written by a student in the school paper. In this letter, entitled “Why Science and Math?”, the student questioned the importance of science and mathematics.  He wrote: “I have taken several science and math classes in college and I haven’t learned anything that is relevant to me. What’s the point?” It is your job to explain why science and mathematics are important.

    Include the following in your letter:

    • Describe at least two examples where mathematical reasoning beyond the level of simple arithmetic directly affects the quality of your daily life.
    • Although astronomy rarely affects our daily life directly, how might mathematical reasoning and skills you have practiced in this course benefit you and those you care about, now and in the future?
    • Create a title that makes your argument/opinion clear.
  • Goal of assignment: Connected to Goal #3 of the course, which was to be able to use mathematics to address basic problems/challenges in science, society and our lives.
  • Intended Audience: Your audience is a student at CSI who does not understand or recognize the importance mathematics plays in our lives and in our society. You are trying to get this essay published in the school paper, so it needs to be well organized and your focus needs to be very clear.
  • Rubric Focus: The focus of this essay is on organization- make sure this is a well organized essay. After writing your essay, read it over and answer the following questions.
    • Where does the main argument become clear?
    • Where is the support to the main argument given?
    • Circle the signposts in the essay (that signal where the author is changing directions)?
    • What is the purpose of the concluding paragraph?

NOTE: When going over the assignment with the class, give them an example of a well written letter to the editor. Have them read the letter and answer the 4 questions above. This will give them a guide to writing their own letter to the editor.



Focus/Purpose:  The focus is clearly defined and established early in the essay, the focus is narrow enough for an essay of this length; each part of the essay contributes to this focus.

Voice: You effectively find your voice. The reader is able to connect with you, as the writer, and can clearly identify your voice. You write with a clear sense of audience. If applicable, you are able to balance your voice with the researched material.

Organization:  The essay makes sense as a whole. Ideas and details are presented in logical order and the reader can follow your argument.

Style: You have good control of the rhythm and pace of sentences and you use a variety of sentences, structured in different ways. The writing is readable and there are smooth transitions.

Grammar, Spelling, Punctuation: There are few grammar, spelling and punctuation errors.








Focus is clear and comprehensible from the beginning and the writer maintains focus throughout the paper.


Writing is somewhat focused on the topic and purpose, but gets off track occasionally.


Reader has a difficult time following what the main point/purpose/focus of the essay is.


The writer effectively finds his/her voice. Writes with  a clear sense of audience. Reader is able to connect with writer.


Writer’s voice fades in and out. Reader gets a sense of his/her voice, but it does not fully come through. The writer sometimes has a clear sense of the audience, but it is not consistent.


Writer seems uninterested in what he/she is writing about. Reader is unable to discern writer’s voice. The reader is not sure who the intended audience for the piece is.


The essay makes sense as a whole. Ideas and details are presented in logical order and the reader can easily follow the writer’s train of thought.


The paper is somewhat organized, but seems unfinished. Not always clear how the details connect up with the main ideas of the paper.


There is little to no organization in the paper. Ideas appear to be disconnected. The details do not fit with the main idea.


Student has good control of the rhythm & pace of sentences and has a good variety of sentences. The style is smooth and there are smooth transitions.


Style is competent, but not engaging or inventive.


Student lacks control over sentence structure, reader has to backtrack to make sense of what writer is trying to communicate.

Grammar, spelling, punctuation

No errors or very few errors.


Grammar, spelling and/or punctuation problems exist.


Grammar, spelling and/or punctuation problems make it difficult for the reader to understand the essay.



On comprehension of material & writing to learn:

Becker, S. 1995. “Teaching Writing to Teach Physics [guest editorial].” American Journal of Physics 63(7): 587.

Carter, Michael, Miriam Ferzli, and Eric N. Wiebe. 2007. “Writing to Learn by Learning to Write in the Disciplines.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 21(3): 278-302.

English, Tom. 1997. “Writing to Learn and Journal Applications in the Introductory Astronomy Course.” Language and Learning Across the Disciplines 2(2): 18-28.

Hulleman, et al. “Promoting Interest and Performance in High School Science Classes.” Science 326 (4 December 2009): 1410-1412.

Kalman, Calvin, Mark W. Aulls, Shelley Rohar and John Godley. 2008. “Students' Perceptions of Reflective Writing as a Tool for Exploring an Introductory Textbook.” Journal of College Science Teaching 37(4): 74-81.

Keys, C. 1999. “Revitalizing Instruction in Scientific Genres: Connecting Knowledge Production with Writing to Learn in Science.” Science Education 83(2): 115-130.

Kovac, Jeffrey and Donna Sherwood. 1999. “Writing in Chemistry: An Effective Learning Tool.” Journal of Chemical Education 76(10): 1399-1403.

Liss, Julie M. and Stephanie D. Hanson. 1993. “Writing-to-Learn in Science.” Journal of College 
Science Teaching 22(6): 342-5.

McCool Matthew. 2009. “Similes and Superstrings: Writing to Clarify the Cosmos.” CAPJournal, No. 6, June 2009.

Tessier, Jack. 2006. “Writing Assignment in a Nonmajor Introductory Ecology Class.” Journal of College Science Teaching 35(4): 25-29.

Bangert-Drowns, Robert L., Marlene M. Hurley, Barbara Wilkinson “The Effects of School-Based Writing-to-Learn Interventions on Academic Achievement: A Meta-Analysis.”


For improving writing:

Brillhart, L.V. and M.B. Debs. 1981. “Teaching Writing--A Scientist's Responsibility.” Journal of 
College Science Teaching 10(5): 303-304.

Carlson, Catherine A. 2007. “A Simple Approach to Improving Student Writing: An Example from 
Hydrology.” Journal of College Science Teaching 36(6): 48-53.

Feldman, Susannah, Virginia Anderson, and Luz Mangurian. 2001. “Teaching Effective Scientific Writing.” Journal of College Science Teaching 30(7): 446-449.

Guilford, William H. 2001. “Teaching Peer Review and the Process of Scientific Writing.” Advances in Physiology Education 25(3): 167-175.

Holliday, William G. 1992. “Helping College Science Students Read and Write.” Journal of 
College Science Teaching 22(1): 58-60.

Jerde, Christopher L. and Mark L. Taper. 2004. “Preparing Undergraduates for Professional Writing.” Journal of College Science Teaching 33(7): 34-37.

Koprowski, John L. 1997. “Sharpening the Craft of Scientific Writing.” Journal of College Science Teaching 27(2): 133-5.

McMillan, Victoria and Deborah Huerta. 2003. “Eye on Audience.” Journal of College Science 
Teaching 32(4): 241-5.

Moore, Randy. 1993. “Does Writing About Science Improve Learning About Science?” Journal of College Science Teaching 22(4): 212-217.

Moore, Randy. 1994. “Writing to Learn Biology: Let's Stop Neglecting the Tool that Works Best.” Journal of College Science Teaching 23(5): 289-95.

Rice, Richard E. 1998. "‘Scientific Writing’--A Course to Improve the Writing of Science 
Students.” Journal of College Science Teaching 27(4): 267-272.

Sommers, Nancy. 2006. “Across the Drafts.” College Composition and Communication 58(2), December 2006.