Nicola McIntyre's: Essay structure for science students
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10 April 2016
I am a tutor on a 3rd level university neuroscience course at a distance learning institute. Tutor support is provided through online tutorials and through extensive feedback on assignments.
Students typically study this module towards the end of their degree and they come to it from across the range of science disciplines so their experiences of assessment can be quire different. In particular some of the physical sciences students might never have written a scientific essay in the past.
Having marked the first assignment of the course, it was clear that when tasked with constructing an essay covering a scientific concept, students were able to structure paragraphs appropriately however they didn't seem to understand how to write an introductory paragraph and really struggled with a concluding paragraph. This applied even to those students who would have been exposed to essay writing skills throughout their studies.
I decided that this needed to be addressed within a tutorial prior to the next assignment. The teaching environment was an online learning room with a whiteboard and audio communication facilities. Students can communicate via their microphones but many students are reluctant to do so, preferring to use the text function instead and this added an extra challenge to the task. This exercise was conducted as part of a bigger tutorial focused on preparing students for their next assignment.
I suspected that part of the problem was that students didn't see the worth of the introductory and concluding paragraphs. It eats into their time, they don't see the importance of this task as a way of framing their essays and they don't think that marks are available for structure. In addition, they simply don't understand what content needs to be included.
The aim of this task was therefore to raise awareness of why students need to structure their essays appropriately (marks are available in the assignments and exam) and to help them work together to build a collective knowledge of what constitutes a good introduction and conclusion to an essay.
My measure of success was that students engaged fully with the task and that they applied this understanding to their next assignment.
Prior to the tutorial, I sent out a reminder to students informing them what we would be covering including a mention of the essay structure activity.
During the tutorial I firstly asked students why they thought that an appropriate introduction and conclusion for scientific essays were necessary. I was surprised to find that the group (6 students) came up with some good answers to this question.
The next part of the task involved me outlining the important components of an essay and then assigning them into small groups to look at an example of a badly constructed introduction and a badly constructed conclusion. They worked on this for 10 minutes in their groups and then each group shared their ideas about what was wrong with the examples and I used this to summarise how the paragraphs could be constructed better. I was careful not provide a model answer following on from the discussion as I don't think this would have been an effective aid to understanding.
One of the groups appeared to be discussing the task in detail (using microphones) whereas the other group didn't seem to be interacting very well. However there was plenty of input into the group discussion (some with microphones and some via text). The result was that students came to a collective agreement on how the examples could be improved. An expected outcome was that there were some suggestions about what was wrong with the examples which I hadn't considered.
Overall the essays which were submitted for the next TMA were constructed much more appropriately with many students seeming to understand what was required.
This proved to be a worthwhile exercise as the intended outcomes were achieved. It made me realise how much time and effort is involved in planning, executing and analysing one small component of a tutorial. I didn't ask for feedback on the activity and in hindsight, this was an important element which was missing.
In the past I have generally avoided splitting students into rooms off the main tutorial room for the purposes of discussion as I wasn't particularly confident about doing so. I can now see that there are benefits to this type of activity although it probably still depends somewhat on the personalities of the group.