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Review of Student Writing in the Quantitative Disciplines

Mikey Angels - The After Math“I got into [math, physics, chemistry - insert any quantitative discipline, really] because I don’t like to write!”

How many of us in the quantitative disciplines (or, as I prefer to describe it, disciplines that have a strong quantitative element) have heard that phrase from our students? I certainly have, and it saddens me. There is a lot of evidence that strongly suggests writing prose helps our students think through the material they are encountering in our course or process the development of their skills towards a certain major. We know that thinking of writing as a process, rather than just putting together answers, makes our students stronger. And strong writing skills mean that a student can communicate their work anywhere – in the workplace and to the world at large. But have you ever tried actually implementing writing in your quantitative courses? How did that work out?

I know that our faculty friends in the humanities have a lot of advice to offer for facilitating student writing, but often it doesn’t seem to fit the context of quantitative work (or at least, the benefits are lost in the translation of the process). Enter Student Writing in the Quantitative Disciplines: A Guide for College Faculty by Patrick Bahls, Associate Professor of Mathematics at the University of North Carolina (Asheville). Bahls has put together a book that compiles methods he has implemented in his own courses as a math professor (and leader of his institution’s writing intensive program.) And I highly recommend reading it if you have been wanting to introduce writing to your quantitative courses or improve what you have been implementing.

The strongest element of this book is Bahls’ rationale for why you would want to introduce writing in the first place. The first, second, and sixth chapters are beautifully-written appeals to the why of having this element in your courses (and, by extension, in the curriculum of your programs as a whole.) Bahls reviews the history of the “writing across the curriculum” movement and takes the time to define a cadre of terms that get tossed around in the discussions. If you are skeptical about introducing writing to your courses, Bahls will offer you very persuasive arguments about why you should.

The third, fourth, and fifth chapters offer excellent advice about how to implement writing. Bahls recognizes that every course and instructor is different, so he makes no claims about the universality of his suggestions. Instead, the book then acts as a generator of ideas and a source of reference material about what you could implement according to what learning outcome you wish for your students to gain. He also offers practical advice on how to assess and respond to student writing, particularly useful for instructors who are used to marking problem sets instead of prose.

Reading this book gave me a lot to think about for improving the writing activities I give my students in my analytical mechanics and advanced laboratory courses, as well as ideas for offering writing opportunities in other courses as well. I know that I’ll refer to it often, making it a great reference book. And hopefully my students will be more likely to come out of my courses saying, “I now realize that writing is an important part of being a great physicist!”

How about you? How do you implement writing in your quantitative courses? Do you have any tips of the trade to offer? Let us know in the comments. 

[Image Creative Commons licensed / Flickr user MikeyAngels]

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