Writing critically about science: a curriculum structure for animal scientists

Rosanne M. Taylor, Melanie Collier

Abstract


Critical scientific writing skills are important generic or transferable skills that are effectively developed in well designed university undergraduate science programs. Preparation and oral defense of a research thesis form a capstone element of degrees that offer an integrated honours program, such as the Bachelor of Animal and Veterinary Biosciences (BAnVetBioSc) offered at The University of Sydney. Recent research shows that the best way to achieve these high quality learning outcomes is through a research-led curriculum. This does more than simply engage students as an audience for research; rather they are active participants, synthesising knowledge as part of a research community (Brew 2006).

The point of departure for planning such a research-led curriculum is to start with the end in mind. This means starting with a clear statement of the learning outcomes, the disciplinary knowledge, personal attributes and generic skills in scientific communication which graduates must reliably demonstrate in a range of different contexts (Biggs and Tang 2007). Students actively construct the necessary knowledge, skills and attitudes (graduate attributes) through active engagement in learning about the discipline. Learning is optimised when students are immersed in authentic, meaningful learning activities that are closely aligned to the tasks they will face after graduation (Ramsden 2003) and where they are guided by timely, constructive feedback and reflection on their progress. Designing learning and assessment tasks that create this environment is a challenge for curriculum co-ordinators and teachers. Implementation is tricky in the large classes of Australian universities (Ramsden 2003) as many authentic research-based learning activities are too staff and resource costly to run. The framework used to guide students into productive learning activity is the key to overcoming these constraints. Students need clarity on where they are heading with their learning, to feel some personal commitment to the goals and sustain steady work on challenging tasks, with staff and peer support (Biggs and Tang 2007). These are the conditions that support conceptual change and deep, lasting learning (Prosser and Trigwell 1999).

Undergraduate students vary in their written communication quality and many require
considerable guided practice over several years to develop clear, accurate, scientific writing skills. Consequently, designing a curriculum to develop critical scientific writing means engaging students in writing and reflecting on scientific writing early and often and being clear on the standard of achievement required. Students benefit from a well planned scaffold of learning activities, aligned to learning outcomes and graduate attributes, with teaching support that can be gradually removed as they gain independence (Biggs and Tang 2007). Planning development of critical writing skills can be challenging in a four year degree program that offers subject choice. A semesterised, packed program makes it unlikely that every unit of study will be have the time and resources needed to develop scientific writing along with the range of other disciplinary and generic skills that are required. Therefore, whole-of-degree strategies and careful oversight are needed to be certain that no student fails to meet the required standards for critical scientific writing.

This study evaluates the impact of an aligned series of peer assessed tasks in Year 1 to Year 3 on BAnVetBioSc students’ experience of learning and readiness for fourth year research projects.

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