Information Sheet # 42
April 18, 1990
COE STUDENTS WRITING IN CHEMISTRY
[This is the first in a series of interviews I conducted with Coe faculty in July and August of '89. I want to extend to them my thanks for their willingness to participate in these dialogues. In some small way, perhaps, these interviews can be one further step in generating further conversations among faculty about our lives as teachers, attempting to sponsor and nurture the liberating powers of literacy. ]
Bob: When my dad sits down to write, the first draft is the final draft. He has it all thought out ahead of time. I once asked him about this, and he said that most of his life, his writing was done on a tractor, plowing or cultivating. The issue came up because I had the audacity to suggest that he reconsider the wording in one of his sentences to the Wichita newspaper. He adamantly defended his original version: once it's written, it's written, and you accept the consequences. I had that same attitude as a student in college, never thinking that I needed to work on a paper after it was "done." You simply accepted the consequences of what you originally wrote.
Peter: I agree with that. But after getting out of college I think you change your mind. Maybe not in your father's situation, where he doesn't have a lot of time to write anyway. And so he has to produce it right off.
Bob: Often when I sit down to write now, I just produce a draft, allowing the writing process to be joined with the thinking process. When I'm unsure what I want to say, I just start writing, to prime the pump and get some water moving. But my dad does it all in his head. Of course, his writing process requires more concentration than mine does.
Peter: And that's tougher. Perhaps I'm in between the two of you. Originally, I had the same idea you had in college. You sat down and wrote a paper. You might correct it as you wrote it, but once you wrote a paragraph, that was it. Now I know that's not so, particularly for important things. For example, in the Squaw Creek controversy, I wrote something but I didn't like it very much--it didn't have enough punch in it. But since I had written something, I got my ideas out and was able to write something that emphasized what I wanted to emphasize.
Bob: There's a subject, though, that you had done a lot of thinking about before you began to write your paper.
Peter: Oh, yes, a lot of thinking and time spent getting to the bottom of this.
Bob: One difference between our writing and the writing of our students is that we write on issues we've been thinking about for a long time, often years, even if we weren't intending to write about them.
Peter: Whereas our students can't do that, or won't do that. Most of us, as faculty, are much more reflective than our students are.
Bob: Is that difference because we have changed? Were we like they are now?
Peter: Probably both. Being a faculty member reinforces the reflective part of my being. I guess I'm less fun to be around! But we spend more time thinking about what we are going to do, both because we are that way and because we have more time. Our students don't have much time. For example, in organic chemistry, they have no knowledge of the field, but I'm asking for some serious reflection. That's tough. It would be tough for me. But I would now approach it differently from the way most of them approach it. I would probably be more willing to experiment, just put some ideas down on paper and see whatever comes out.
Bob: When I was taking chemistry and calculus, I saw those as problem-solving courses, and I never thought about the connections among those problems.
Peter: Yes. Our chemistry courses are problem-solving courses and they have wonderful problems, at least in my view, and they really do push students while providing interesting lessons. I like reading murder mysteries, and it's the same thing: there's a problem and some interesting clues and my interest is in seeing how this problem can be solved and it's less important to see if I can actually get the right answer.
Bob: Do you ever assign murder mysteries in your chemistry courses?
Peter: No, we're not that free!
Bob: You do, however, give writing assignments in some of your chemistry classes. What role do you see those writing assignments having? Do they have any relationship to this desire for having students reflect on those problems?
Peter: Yes. One purpose of the writing assignments is that they lead students to organize better than they would otherwise. Take as an example the writing assignment we used in Principles two years ago. We asked them to calculate the amount of acetic acid in different brands of vinegar and to compare their value in terms of price. We could have simply written down all the students' results, calculated it all out, and asked them to compare. I could do most of the work for them. But the writing assignment forced them to examine all the data, coming out with some original ideas about that data. We didn't tell them how to interpret that data; we didn't put any face on it. I just said, "Here it is, what do you think of it?"
There were several things I was after. One was, how are you going to organize this data? How are you going to present it? And in the way we organized that assignment, we said you are working for a consumer magazine and have been asked by your editor to compare these various brands of vinegar. And so you do a chemical comparison of vinegar. The problem is now, how are you going to present these results? How are you going to write this up for your editor? That forced them to look at it in a somewhat different way and to think about how they are going to present it to a person in the real world. It took it out of the lab and put it into another venue.
Bob: Students in doing this assignment, were they able to get into this little model you had created?
Peter: That was interesting, because the most common comment I made on the papers was that they didn't do the assignment, they didn't treat me as an editor. They treated me as a chemistry professor and they treated this as a lab report, the 4th or 5th one in Principles of Structural Chemistry.
Bob: You were asking them to role play a "reflective position," and they wanted. . .
Peter: They just wanted to be in their usual position of "I'm the student and you're the teacher and this is for a grade." And I didn't let them get away with that. I returned to them their papers with my comments, no grades.
Bob: You didn't grade the original effort?
Peter: No. In handing them back, I tried not to mark up their papers at all. I had another piece of paper on which I wrote comments. I didn't spend a lot of time on spelling errors and things like that. But I talked with each of the students about their first effort. In most cases we just sat down, and I handed them the assignment sheet and the copy of their paper. And asked them, "What do you think of it?"
Bob: And they had not seen your written comments?
Peter: That's right.
Bob: And you had not marked much on the paper, so they really had little clue how you had responded?
Peter: I hadn't marked anything on the paper. There was no clue. What was interesting was that a lot of them actually came up with the idea that this paper didn't really come out the way they would have liked. I adopted a kind of non-directive approach in which I asked the student about the paper and it worked out really well. But you must have the time. It took about 15-20 minutes with each student.
Bob: How many were in this class?
Peter: It was one lab section so it would have been about 18 people.
Bob: So you're talking about five hours.
Peter: Yes, spread over 2-3 days. But I do think the time is better spent this way with the conferences than some of the other techniques I've used for "correcting" papers in the past.
Bob: What other assignment have you used recently that might be representative of the assignments chemistry students can expect?
Peter: In the organic lab course last fall I assigned a paper on unknowns. Unknowns have always been a favorite of mine because they can't be solved simply by following a set of directions. If you simply follow directions, you are nowhere. You must use your intuition to decide what you're going to do next. Nowhere is this more true than in organic lab where there are thousands of compounds, of which this must be one.
Bob: And it's hard to guess just from looking at them.
Peter: Yes. It's even hard to guess from smelling. That reminds me of a funny story when I was an undergraduate taking organic. A friend of mine was given this compound, and he was convinced it was an ester, probably because many esters, such as banana oil or wintergreen, have very distinctive odors. The way to test for an ester is to heat it with a base. You start with a two-layered system, with the ester floating on top and the aqueous sodium hydroxide at the bottom, and after heating it the esther hydrolizes. Well, Ralph heated this thing, but nothing happened. Day after day he heated it. After awhile it became a standing joke, "And how is the esther hydrolysis going, Ralph?" But he continued to do it for about two weeks. No amount of prodding and kidding would get him out of it. It's funny how you make a conclusion and once it's made, it's set in your mind and it's really tough to go back.
Well, back to the assignment in organic lab. I had them talk about the mixture of unknowns that I gave them and how they separated them and how they identified them. That assignment was good because it forced them to organize and present the material. Often what students will do, when you give them an unknown, is that they will run a whole bunch of tests, come up with some conclusions, and present their conclusions: "I got it (or I didn't get it) and it's over." What I really wanted them to do was to organize the information and present it convincingly.
Bob: So what you're really obtaining is a record of their thinking. Not just that they did it.
Peter: Right. And to try to promote in them maybe a more conscious kind of reasoning. So it's not just, "Well, this test proves this so we will go on." One of the things I try to suggest to students about many of these unknowns is that one piece of information is useful, but you need more than one piece of evidence to be sure. You can be misled by one piece of evidence.
Bob: Do you have more writing assignments now than when you first started teaching?
Peter: Yes, partly because of the writing emphasis course structure.
Bob: So, there has been a change just within the last 3-4 years?
Peter: Yes, there's no doubt about it.
Bob: Have these writing assignments been an additional burden in terms of time? Does it take away from other things you might be doing in your courses?
Peter: It takes a little more time, but the benefits to the students are big. For one thing, a lot of our students don't think that writing is very important. They think they have to learn SCIENCE, whatever that is. There's sort of a mechanical aspect to this. If I just learn to do A, B, C, D, E, & F in the right order, then I'm a scientist. Some students' idea of science is that it is like being an air conditioning repair person.
Bob: A technician.
Peter: Right, as opposed to a scientist.
Bob: Thinking back over the last year, of the good papers you've received from Coe students, what qualities do you see in their writing that you admire or elements in their writing you wish to nurture?
Peter: One of the things that students have trouble with is meeting the assignment, doing what was asked. That's particularly true if you pose the assignment so that it puts them in a different position than just being a student. You have to be patient because all of their lives they have been cast as students. It's too bad that more teachers in high school don't ask students to write papers as if they were somebody else. When you give students a role-playing exercise, like the one I used in Principles, they don't believe me: "That's what he may be saying, but we know what he wants." They didn't really know what I wanted, but it is understandable why they didn't believe me at first.
Bob: You had provided written directions?
Bob: Do you always provide written directions?
Peter: Yes, I do. I try to be specific because it's hard otherwise to compare different papers. If you want someone to cover particular areas, you really should say so. You shouldn't make the students guess.
Bob: You are seeking for the writing assignment to reinforce a certain body of content you want them to master?
Peter: Not just content but maybe a way of looking at and analyzing things. Most papers have asked that students analyze a situation and they sort through some of the confusions, make some critical decision, and come out with a reasoned judgment about what is the best, most balanced view of this mess might be. One thing we have not done is use writing assignments in the lecture sections; we have only offered the writing emphasis credit through some of the labs. You have mentioned giving student five minutes at the end of class to write down some basic thoughts about the class before it got away from them. It might be interesting to try, but so far I haven't done anything like that.
Bob: Let me finish with one question that has concerned me with regard to the writing program. Our evidence that students have satisfactory skills with the language is an indirect test; we assume that if they have earned a "C" or better in 4 writing emphasis courses, they demonstrated some writing prowess. But isn't it the responsibility of each department to certify that our students have adequate writing skills within their discipline. Everyone in the chemistry department has been teaching at least one writing emphasis course each year. If we think of the chemistry department as having a "writing curriculum," how well do you think the sequence of writing assignments these students will encounter is meeting their needs? Do you see areas where you still might need to improve or make any changes?
Peter: We are lucky because most of our students are good students. A lot of them write honors theses and they are good writers. I'm happy that we have writing emphasis courses at various levels in our department. I don't think we, as instructors, approach our subjects in the same way in the various writing emphasis courses. Duane's approach is very different from mine and so is Stan's. And that's good, that's fine. It's important for students to write for different audiences.
Bob: That fits with what you said earlier about role-playing, that a good writer needs to be flexible and adopt different roles.
Peter: Yes. Students need to be able to speak in different voices, to imagine themselves in a different situation from where they are right now. I don't necessarily think that we have all the writing emphasis courses that we should have in our department, and we are open to consider possibilities for new writing emphasis courses in the future. But I don't want us to feel as though by adding more writing to a course we make it burdensome. Our lab courses have worked out really well because there we don't have a lot of students in any one section and we are able to concentrate on each student a little more. It is easier to work with 12-18 students than with 50. But I like the dimension that the writing emphasis requirement has given our department. It has added something we didn't have before; it has definitely helped our students to become more articulate. That's got to be a plus. And it has helped us as teachers--to see some of the problems our students have and perhaps to make those problems less obvious, maybe even correct them.
Bob: That's a good way to end. Thanks, Peter.
This website created and maintained by the Coe Writing Center. Copyright 2001.
Email Dr. Bob Marrs with any questions, comments or suggestions.