This is an in-class activity--or an activity students do prior to class to in preparation for an in-class discussion--to help students identify stylistic components of published writing. I provide the students with an appropriate journal article, typically a communication from Inorganic Chemistry, such as Inorg. Chem. 2008, 47, 2922-2924 (http://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1021/ic702373b) or Inorg. Chem. 2009, 48, 2717-2719 (http://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1021/ic802052u) I have the students read the article, then answer the questions individually by writing their responses on the handout as preparation for discussion. The students then share their responses.
My purpose in creating this list of questions is to refocus students on style and other writing issues. By the time I see students in my inorganic course, they are very focused on extracting information from texts and are not used dealing with the non-content issues. In their own writing, they often have trouble expressing their results in a professional (non-lab report) way. I think this activity at least helps students begin identifying (and mimicking) the conventions of professional, published scientific writing.
A student should be able to identify and begin using accepted conventions of language and organization in his/her own writing in the lab.
Handout, journal article(s)
I give the list of questions and a journal article to the students at the end of class. I tell them that at the beginning of the next class, we will discuss their thoughts (as opposed to “answers”). I used this with 7 senior chemistry students, 4 of whom were non-native English speakers. The activity was useful for all the students, and it was interesting to see how the native English speakers could explain issues like tone and voice to the non-native speakers. I saved question 9 to give them after the discussion of questions 1-8 (I did not include question 9 on the handout I gave them with the journal article.) I think the issue of whether or not language/writing conventions affect science is a good convincing piece for science students who sometimes do not initially see the value in writing.
My students were eager to discuss the questions, perhaps because they hadn’t read a scientific article through this particular lens before.
Some of my observations related to some of the questions are below:
Q1/2/3. My students were used to writing with a professor or other students as their audience. For the most part, their purpose in writing had been to demonstrate academic knowledge. As they identified the audience and the level of expertise--researchers who have or are earning advanced degrees in a specific field--they began to see the differences in writing for a class and writing for publication. We identified several items that they may have included in "lab reports" that they would not include in a journal article.
Q6/7. Passive voice was commonly identified as a convention used in the chemistry journal article that the students would not use in an English class. The discussion of the purpose of this was good because it allowed the students to see past this convention as a feature of "dry" writing. Through discussion, students could tie this convention to the idea of experimental reproducibility ("the experiment should work for more than just 'me'...") and the idea that the science is more important than the scientiest.
The use of an abstract was also identified as something the students would not use in a paper for a humanities class. They readily tied this feature of a scientific paper to ease-of-use for the reader. A reader could quickly read an abstract and know if he/she wanted to read more of the paper or not.
Q9. This question asks students to evaluate the purpose of conforming to the professional style for writing in chemistry. Students felt that while the science is separate from writing, how science is perceived and how much impact it can have depends on writing and conformation to style/conventions.