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Teaching Writing in the STEM Classroom

Katie Wike
Katie Wike
Senior Instructional Innovations Specialist
Teaching and Learning Innovations Team






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“Science is not an art, but there is an art to communicating science.”

Dr. Richard Warren, Maryland State Teacher of the Year

A long-debated topic in schools is who is responsible for teaching writing to students. Invariably, that task primarily falls on the shoulders of English teachers, but as the practice of teaching changes over time, it’s likely that in your school, more of that responsibility is creeping into other content areas. While English teachers cover the basics, teaching students how to write for specific content areas, like those in the STEM fields, is often up to the educators in those disciplines. We know that writing in the STEM classroom is different than in the English or social studies classrooms. Why, then, do we pretend that students should inherently know what to do from the instruction that is received in their English classes? In order to address the scientific and technical skills associated with STEM writing, science and other STEM teachers must teach writing in the context of their subject matter as well.

So, what can you do to ensure that you are helping your students learn how to write for the situations that they will encounter in their STEM classes? Follow these few quick tips to create a clearer focus on student writing within your STEM classroom:

Use a rubric.

For each assignment that includes a writing component, ground your expectations in a standards-based rubric that you review with your students prior to the beginning of the assignment. This will allow you to clearly communicate those expectations and requirements to students as they begin to write. It will also allow students to continually monitor their progress according to those expectations.

When students know what is expected of them (and how they will be graded), they will be better equipped to deliver the product that you intended for them to create, which makes the learning objectives attached to that product more meaningful. To that end, the educators at Turnitin have crafted three new STEM-specific rubrics that can be used for writing within your classroom. The 6th-8th Grade Science Argument (CER) and 9th-12th Grade Science Argument (CER) rubrics are intended to be used for longer argumentative pieces of writing, while the Science Short Answer rubric can be used for short answer responses that still require the inclusion of a clear claim, evidence, and reasoning. In addition to these rubrics, check out our informative Best Practices for Using STEM Writing Tools in Turnitin Feedback Studio to get the most out of Feedback Studio in your STEM classroom.

Teach students how to write for your content area.

Dr. Richard Warren suggests that “technical research writing [in the STEM classroom] is pivotal in order to prove your research process and product. One must be able to do that clearly and concisely for both an academic audience and general population.” This type of writing in STEM classrooms can present many new challenges for students. While the basics of writing persist from subject to subject, students may get frustrated with the slight nuances that they are expected to recognize in different classes. In your STEM classroom, students are likely required to use domain-specific vocabulary and formal, technical writing formats to communicate their ideas, both of which can be unfamiliar for many of them. But just as in any other class where specialized writing is required, it’s necessary for those new concepts to be explicitly taught and to provide time for students to practice them.

The educators at Turnitin have curated some STEM-specific lesson starters that are great ways to incorporate more content area-specific writing instruction into your STEM classroom. When students are able to spend targeted time practicing these new concepts and skills, they will be able to gain a new level of familiarity with them, thus strengthening their comfort in these writing situations and allowing them to demonstrate their expertise in the STEM content.

Include discipline-specific vocabulary work.

Students need to be able to comprehend and apply the vocabulary that is used in the STEM fields, which means they must be given time to learn, study, and practice it. Part of what makes writing in the STEM classroom different from writing in other content areas is the terminology. Unfortunately, we know that just copying vocabulary words and their definitions into a notebook isn’t enough for most students to comprehend and internalize it, let alone utilize it within their writing. Give students multiple opportunities to put that vocabulary into use--have them speak it, write it, and listen to it daily. The more they integrate this vocabulary into the everyday situations of STEM class, the more effectively they will be able to incorporate it into their writing.

Provide targeted, content-focused feedback--not just grammar and spelling.

Students will be able to better adjust their understanding of STEM concepts if they receive targeted feedback about the content of their ideas, not just grammar and spelling. Consider focusing on the STEM ideas of student writing, along with their overall focus, organization, and use of evidence. This can be daunting if you haven’t been formally trained to teach writing or provide feedback on student responses. Luckily, the educators at Turnitin, who are trained in the art of providing effective feedback to students, have crafted three new sets of drag-and-drop QuickMarks to help STEM teachers offer timely, effective, targeted feedback on all areas of student writing in the STEM classroom. These three sets of QuickMarks (6th-8th Grade Science Argument [CER], 9th-12th Grade Science Argument [CER], and Science Short Answer) are aligned to the three new rubrics, so tandem use is encouraged! You can find them within Turnitin’s Feedback Studio and on the Resources pages as well.

Encourage revision.

The very best way to help your students improve their writing skills in the STEM classroom is to encourage and allow ample time for revision. When paired with scoring on the standards-aligned rubric and targeted, STEM-specific feedback, students can learn from their mistakes and hone their content area writing skills by revising their work. While this practice may take some class time, it will pay dividends in your students’ comprehension of subject area content and STEM-specific writing skills. Consider allowing students to resubmit revised drafts of their written responses or empower students to revise their writing independently using the instant feedback they'll receive on the STEM-focused prompts in Revision Assistant. We always tell our students that practice is the key to improvement, so let’s stand behind that adage and encourage them to revisit and revise all of their writing in the STEM classroom.

At Turnitin, we know that teaching writing in different content areas is not all the same. We want to foster writing growth in all content areas, so with our new STEM-specific resources in mind, we encourage our STEM users to incorporate some of these writing suggestions to help students demonstrate their learning of content area skills in your classroom.

Interested in learning more? Sign up for one of our upcoming webinars and dive into a deeper discussion on how best to support student STEM writing and thinking.

Writing to Learn: Simple Strategies to Boost STEM Thinking

In this webinar, we’ll discuss the importance of teaching writing in the STEM classroom and speak with Dr. Richard Warren, Maryland State Teacher of the Year, about how incorporating writing instruction has helped to fuel student learning.

Writing to Learn: Simple Strategies to Assess STEM Thinking

In this webinar, we’ll discuss the importance of teaching writing in the STEM classroom and speak with John Hindmarsh from Westminster Kingsway College about how incorporating writing assessment has helped to increase student success.