Teaching Writing in Large STEM Courses
This page focuses on resources and strategies for teaching writing in a large STEM course. Developed and tested for a large design course at Penn State that has 150 to 250 students each semester, these resources and strategies are available for you to download, adapt, and use in your own courses.
Teaching technical writing in a large STEM course requires much thought, because any time that you make a writing assignment, you then have to evaluate that assignment for the large number of students or teams of students whom you have. Given below are the strategies that I have used in large engineering courses (up to 250 students) at Virginia Tech and Penn State.
1. Make the first assignment short so that the students see your bar. The first time that you give a writing assignment in a course, you will be amazed by the wide range of writing quality that you will receive. Reduce your stress and the stress on the students by making that first assignment short, such as a one-page email or memo. Keeping the assignment short also allows the students to focus on writing sentences and paragraphs, rather than sections with illustrations and equations.
2. Specify the audience, purpose, and format of each assignment. Doing so clarifies many questions that the students have. To specify the format, I suggest using a format such as ones of this website or a template such as the ones in the right column. Another good tip for you and the students is to give a maximum length. That way, the students focus more on quality, rather than quantity.
3. Provide the students with a strong example. The advantage of having a strong example is that students can see the style (and in particular the depth) that you expect. A tip here is to collect the best report from each semester and, if the content allows, have that report be one of your examples for the next semester. That way, you will keep raising the bar of quality in the course. Some instructors disdain examples because the weaker students will follow the example too closely. I disagree. Just as aspiring artists learn by reproducing the brush strokes of masters, weaker students benefit from rewriting the sentence structures of stronger students.
4. Anchor your grading rubric with strong and weak examples. Showing strong and weak examples is an excellent way for students to understand the style that you expect them to follow. Along these same lines, publish your stances on the gray areas of writing such as whether you allow the students to use the first person (I or we). Students are not mind readers. The following link presents my list of stands on gray areas in scientific writing.
Diagnostic Quiz on Important Connecting Words in Professional Writing: Write a paragraph that describes one of your biggest challenges that you have faced since coming to college. In the paragraph, use the following five words:
1. either affect or effect
Please boldface these five words in your paragraph.
The purpose of this quiz is to discern whether students have specific weaknesses in grammar and usage that would undercut their credibility as engineers, scientists, and other professionals. This quiz requires a grader to evaluate the submission. In doing so, the grader is encouraged to use the handout found in the link below. Note that because this quiz is a diagnostic, we give full credit to the students for trying.
Quiz on Connecting Sentences: For an employer, you are to describe a high school or college experience in which you have given your time to help others. Include the effect of that experience on both the individuals being helped and on you. In this description, maintain coherence, but use as many different sentence openers as you can in the time that you have.
The purpose of this quiz is to help students develop ways to connect their sentences (and therefore their ideas). Before the quiz, the instructor should either go over or assign the handout given below. In scoring the quiz, instructors might consider using the scoring method of the second handout below.