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North Georgia College & State University Interdisciplinary Learning Communities in Science Writing Donna A. Gessell Irene Kokkala SRFIDC 2006 Connecting Biology and English students Eight years of collaboration in writing across disciplines

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north georgia college state university
North Georgia College & State University


Learning Communities

in Science Writing

Donna A. Gessell

Irene Kokkala



Connecting Biology and English students
  • Eight years of collaboration in writing across disciplines
  • Forming learning communities of authors and editors
  • Students taking biology courses and students taking English courses
We link courses such as
  • BIOL4480: Developmental Biology
  • BIOL3430: Cell Biology
  • BIOL1260H: Honors Environmental Science
  • ENGL4901: Teaching English
  • ENGL3050: Applied English Grammar
  • ENGL3100: Advanced Composition
  • ENGL1102: English Composition II
  • ENGL1101: English Composition I
our goal is to empower
Our goal is to empower
  • Biology students to write professionally
  • English students to develop better editing skills
  • Both groups to recognize the power of the English language in applied contexts
Group formation
  • Preparation
  • Expectations
  • Process
  • Outcomes
preparation and expectations
Preparation and expectations
  • For group preparation, in both classes, we spend copious amounts of time explaining our expectations for the group work
  • This orientation includes our expectation that we will be independent of the inner workings of the group
  • We equip students to do their work and expect them to resolve possible conflicts and problems on their own
Communication is key to the process
  • for us to communicate our expectations and
  • for group members to communicate among themselves
We make it clear that during the process, to ensure individual contribution and discipline, we will measure participation through peer evaluation for each project
Group coherence is achieved partially through the bond of the discipline-specific task
  • Each group forms an alliance in response to the communication received from students in the other discipline
  • Using a common language and set of assumptions determined by the content, students reaffirm their discipline-determined identity
Students may initially believe that performing tasks is easier if they work individually
  • However, our experience has shown that students learn a great deal more than content when working with groups
We cannot anticipate every problem each group will encounter
  • We do place responsibility squarely on the students themselves
  • The student experiences have been universally evaluated as positive, despite—or perhaps because of—having to overcome minor problems
Long-term anecdotal evidence corroborates the end-of-project evaluations, suggesting
    • the effectiveness of group learning
    • the process has taught students themselves how to become better group facilitators
Peer review
  • Goals
  • Process
  • Assessment
  • Outcomes
professional goals
Professional goals
  • Writing in the discipline should prepare the students for professional writing tasks
    • For the biology students this experience mimics professional peer review
    • For the English students this experience mimics professional editing
peer review
Peer review
  • Subjects manuscripts to a thorough examination and evaluation
  • Maintains quality of work
  • Implements collective constraints formally
  • Suggests specific and non-specific revisions

Information is from

how the process differs from peer review
How the process differs from peer review
  • Reviewers are not fellow-specialists
  • Stakes are lower because publication is not the end goal
  • (however grades are)
  • No resubmission to peer reviewers

Information is from

peer review not peer editing
Peer review, not peer editing
  • Suggestions for revision are provided anonymously
  • Peers are in two different classes with two different kinds of instruction
  • Review process takes up to a week instead of a single class period
pitfalls of peer review
Pitfalls of peer review
  • Reviewers may make mistakes
  • Reviewers may not have enough expertise or information.
  • Reviewers may not be conscientious or fair.
  • Authors may misinterpret or misapply advice
  • Authors may not be conscientious in accepting peer review.

Information is from

peer review builds reviewers skills
Peer review builds reviewers’ skills
  • Reviewers must be positive
      • noting what works well
      • making comments for changes and
      • correcting mistakes
  • Reviewers must read from their own experience, yet anticipate the needs of other audiences
  • Reviewers must be specific in their comments, communicating clearly in writing what needs work
the process of reciprocal peer review
The process of reciprocal peer review
  • The biology students write content-specific papers
  • The English students review the submitted papers for grammar, logic, and rhetoric, write comments to clarify the identified errors, and suggest grades
  • The English professor assesses the reviews and the appropriateness of the comments given
  • The biology professor gives feedback on the content accuracy
  • The biology students evaluate the usefulness of feedback from both sources and make changes accordingly
Biology students have three assignments, (laboratory reports or papers)
  • They are given extensive directions on how to write for these assignments
  • They place themselves voluntarily in groups of four or five, based on total course enrollment
  • For each assignment, they generate a draft, which is anonymously and electronically submitted to the English student editors
English students recommend changes in grammar, logic, and rhetoric
  • They return the feedback along with a recommended grade also anonymously and electronically
  • Biology students then assess the validity and usefulness of the feedback which includes content feedback from the biology professor and produce their final draft

Peer Evaluation

  • The grades are assigned to the biology students at a 25:75 breakdown between the two drafts
  • The English students are evaluated on
    • the appropriateness of their comments and
    • a paper they write individually critiquing their experiences
We adjusted our procedures, recognizing the importance of
    • group formation
    • orientation
    • management
  • For group composition, we allow the students to self-select
  • We maintain the consistency of the membership of each group through the semester
  • We expect rotation of research, writing, and revision duties for the biology students
For example, for lab reports, the individual tasks are separated in the following manner:
    • 1) performing the bibliographical research and the final review of the entire manuscript
    • 2) formatting of the list of references and writing the abstract
    • 3) writing the methods and materials section and the results section
    • 4) writing the discussion section
    • 5) writing the introduction section
  • If we have groups of four students, the assignment is rearranged to demand approximately equal effort for each group member
Peer Evaluation
  • During the process, to ensure individual contribution and discipline, we measure participation through peer evaluation for each project
  • Assessment of the entire project is based on a sixteen-question, qualitative evaluation for both groups.
peer review and evaluation
Peer Review and Evaluation
  • Within Groups
    • Individual grading
  • Across Groups
    • Peer grading
  • Across Disciplines
    • Final sixteen question evaluation
Within each biology group, all participants evaluate each of their partners within their group
  • They use an evaluation instrument we have developed that asks students to consider issues such as
    • attendance and punctuality at called group meetings
    • availability
    • level of contribution for each task and
    • overall effort
Within each English group, students perform peer evaluation by individually and anonymously adjusting the grade the group has earned for each review within stated parameters
For example
    • a group of five has earned a grade of 90
    • each student awards the possible 450 (5 x 90) points among the five members
    • no grade may be ten percent above the original grade or below by more than thirty percent
    • in this case, no student could earn above 99 or below 63
    • the grades must add up to the group’s total points, or 450 in this case
The individual distributions are collected and averaged by the English professor to determine each individual's final grade
  • The outcomes have varied widely, from no change at all within a group to individuals having their grades lowered by the full amount allowed, at the group's unanimous (including the individual’s own) recommendation
In both disciplines the peer evaluation
    • generates honest and sometimes harsh evaluation and
    • proves to be a valuable tool for consideration when calculating grades
  • Peer evaluation provides students effective incentive for group coherence as the process develops
  • The experience of twelve semesters has helped us understand the difficulty students have assigning grades and accepting feedback due to the emotional stake involved in both processes.
  • Because of the differences of the audiences, the English students often make corrections that the biology students consider unsuitable, and biology students have trouble accepting the corrections.
In each semester for both disciplines, we notice improvement in writing and we recognize changes in student attitudes
    • the English students focus increasingly on the larger rhetorical task
    • biology students become less resistant to the criticism, finding virtue and value in otherwise painful feedback
    • confidence about writing and giving feedback improves in both groups
Despite the improvement, we have seen students repeat mistakes, which we attribute to students' inability to move away from the final grade as their ultimate goal.
  • With the focus on the product, they neglect the process of assimilating the feedback into the next repetition of the task.
Resistance to transferring feedback is nothing new to teaching
  • The resistance is exacerbated by the novelty of peer review, which once overcome proves valuable to give students insights into the peer review process
the larger implications
The larger implications
  • For both groups this experience is a lesson in ambiguity and negotiating meaning—not only literal meaning but also contextual meaning determined by audience, discipline, and specific constraints of a publication