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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Postgraduate Scientific Writing

writing I'm delighted to announce that the HEA UK Centre for Bioscience has awarded me a Teaching Development Fund grant to support my project "Postgraduate Scientific Writing Skills Pilot Programme" (details below). I described the background to this project here some time ago.
Here comes the interesting bit ;-)
The student-facing part will consist entirely of tools they use in connection with their research - Microsoft Word and email. However, so that I don't get too bored, I've treated myself to a Huddle.net site to test it out as a project management tool.



Postgraduate Scientific Writing Skills Pilot Programme

Abstract:
Postgraduate students are expected to produce writing that is suitable for publication in scientific journals. This requires them to assimilate new academic cultures and standards very quickly and to write in new and challenging ways. Effective communication of scientific results and ideas is vital both for professional advancement and relationships with research supervisors, yet it is an area where both students and staff acknowledge lack of confidence and proficiency. I plan to introduce an evaluative pilot scientific writing skills programme for all first year PhD students entering the Department of Biology in order to determine whether this additional personalized support provides lasting benefits in terms of improving scientific writing.

Description:
Effective communication of scientific results and ideas is vital both for professional advancement and relationships with research supervisors (W. Zhu 2004 Faculty views on the importance of writing, the nature of academic writing, and teaching and responding to writing in the disciplines. Journal of Second Language Writing 13(1):29–48). However, in this crucial area both students and supervisors commonly acknowledge lack of confidence and ability. In addition to proficiency in English, technical elements such as referencing, style, sentence structure and clarity are common barriers to proficient technical writing. Although the essay is still regarded as the gold standard for much of the assessment in undergraduate science degrees, particularly in final year examinations, experience shows that UK students find it difficult to transfer whatever skills they may have developed during undergraduate education to the discipline of formal scientific writing at postgraduate level. Moreover, the mixture of home and overseas students beginning PhDs have been exposed to a wide range of formative writing experiences and cultures. This pilot programme will not seek to address fundamental English language skills (although practice at writing will undoubtedly improve these skills for many students), but rather to address and improve the technical issues of scientific writing through an extended programme of writing practice. All students who start higher degree courses in the College of Medicine, Biological Sciences and Psychology have already proven a minimum agreed level of English proficiency. However, if any non-native speakers are identified as having fundamental difficulties with English language skills, they will be referred to the University of Leicester English Language Teaching Unit.

At present, most of the formal taught postgraduate sessions in the College of Medicine, Biological Sciences and Psychology at the University of Leicester are squeezed into single one or two hour slots. This format is not conducive to the extended practice that proficiency in writing demands (Bydder, et al. 2006 The value of a scientific writing training workshop for radiologists and radiation oncologists. Australasian Radiology 50(1):29–32). Much recent work on scientific writing has concentrated on undergraduate rather than postgraduate students (Jones, H.L. 2008 Developing Students’ Writing Skills: The Science Log. Centre For Bioscience Bulletin Autumn 2008; Write Now Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning). Postgraduates tend to be fobbed off with workshops or ineffective "how to write" books (B. Kamler & P. Thomson 2008 The Failure of Dissertation Advice Books: Toward Alternative Pedagogies for Doctoral Writing. Educational Researcher 37(8):507–514).

Regular writing practice is the basis of the well-tested Oxbridge tutorial system - students write on a regular (e.g. weekly) basis and their work is critiqued by a tutor in a one-to-one setting. Through intensive scrutiny and highly personal feedback, students writing improves as the most problematic defects are repeatedly highlighted and the solutions explained. The student is then required to test their understanding and ability by putting these principles into practice in subsequent exercises. This progressive pattern builds confidence in writing ability and encourages clear and concise expression of meaning. The more people write, the better they become at it.

Starting in October 2009, I plan to introduce a pilot scientific writing skills programme for all first year PhD students entering the Department of Biology. This pilot programme will not seek to provide fundamental English language skills (although practice at writing will undoubtedly improve these skills for many students), but rather to address and improve the technical issues of scientific writing through an extended programme of writing practice. Students will be asked to complete a set programme consisting of five pieces of writing over a ten week period. The format will be similar to that in which students will eventually be writing in for publication, using Microsoft Word and email attachments to communicate with the tutor on an individual basis. PhD supervisors will not be required to take part in the programme, but supervisor support will be a key aspect in the success of this programme, so supervisors will be asked to look at and comment on the first and last submissions in the programme so they can see how the students have progressed and decide if further intervention is necessary.

The programme will be conducted via the following assignments:
  1. Correcting a passage extracted from the professional literature which contains introduced errors that students need to identify, explain and correct.
  2. Produce a 500 word summary of an assigned published research paper relevant to the student's research topic which describes the background behind the paper, how the research was conducted and the main findings.
  3. Produce a short (one side of A4) report on a dataset extracted from the published literature following an exemplar.
  4. Produce a short (one side of A4) report on a different dataset extracted from the published literature without an exemplar.
  5. Students will be asked to produce a summary document similar to a first year report of up to 500-1000 words describing an area related to their research topic.
Each exercise will be annotated by the tutor and discussed with the student in a face-to-face meeting. If the exercise is felt not to meet the expected standard, the student may be asked to resubmit a revised version including corrections before proceeding to the next exercise. Annotated copies of the revisions will be returned to students but because of time constraints there will be no face-to-face meeting to discuss these. There will be no "marks" associated with the exercises, their purpose is solely to increase confidence and improve the quality of writing. By selecting writing and topics individually relevant to the student's area of research, the programme will seek to achieve a high level of commitment from the participants as well as supervisor support. This recursive pattern of feedback and active expression is likely to be more effective than the previous style of one-off events, or even no formal writing support at all. In summary, the proposed programme will consist of:

a) An initial meeting with each student to explain the programme.
b) Fortnightly individual meetings with students in which the most recent assignment is discussed in detail.
c) At the end of the ten week programme, students judged to have met the minimum criteria will have their progress formally noted by the Department. All participants will also be offered the option of a follow-on programme. This will be in the form of an invitation to join a departmental blog network where they will have opportunity to continue to develop their writing skills while receiving comments and support from their peers.

Rightly or wrongly, some research supervisors are concerned by the amount of time PhD students are required to commit to formal taught sessions and are resistant to further erosion of laboratory research time. In order to achieve supervisor buy-in and support for this initiative I have deliberately take a "light touch" approach and the purpose of the evaluation strand of the project is to determine if this is enough to achieve substantial and tangible benefits for the student.

One drawback with this system is that it is more expensive in terms of time than a single taught session or online exercises. In reality, investment of time in student writing skills at an early stage will return interest later during the preparation of a thesis and research publications. I estimate that it will take approximately one hour per student per week, including reading, correction, meeting with students (one 30 minute meeting per fortnight) and administration (email, record keeping, evaluation), plus time for materials relevant to each student to be prepared.

At the conclusion of the pilot programme, participants and their research supervisors will be asked to comment on the effectiveness of the exercises to collect as much evidence of effectiveness as possible. PhD pass rates are already close to 100% so numerical measures of the success of the project based on this outcome will not be meaningful. Since number of publications varies considerably depending on both the student and research topic, this would not be a useful measure either. The time spent by supervisors correcting drafts of student writing and the time taken for students to become independent writers is an important cost in the research enterprise. We will measure whether this intervention is able to reduce either of these drag factors. Depending on the outcome of this evaluation, if it is decided to adopt the programme as part of the regular practice of the Department, sustainability will be achieved by adjustment of Departmental administrative loads.