Science and Writing - A way for all levels of students to progress

Most of us tend to think that science is all about equations. But language is just as important as numbers are to the scientific endeavor. E.O. Wilson, the famous biologist, once stated that he doesn't even consider himself as acting like a scientist until he sits down and starts writing. Words are central to science, and so when you're teaching or studying the sciences, it's a good idea to focus on writing as a tool for learning.

What I recommend for my students is to build a master list of new vocabulary terms. I have them write definitions in their own words of what those terms mean, and I use that list to quiz them. This serves a few purposes. First, it helps students build their understanding of language of science. Second, for who struggle with attention or other learning disabilities, it helps them to focus on the key ideas of the course. As a grad student in science education I learned that there is a lot of evidence to indicate that revising notes, focusing on vocabulary, and summarizing ideas is highly beneficial to science students. This is because to put ideas in your own words take high-level thinking skills. You have to really know a topic well to be able to write about it.

For more advanced students, I recommend writing condensed summaries of chapters and class notes. College students particularly benefit from summarizing complex scientific papers and hard to understand text books. Research has shown that writing summaries help struggling and advanced students equally learn more efficiently and more effectively.

Of course, the deeper you get into science, the more you have to focus on solving problems so that you can master the tools scientists have developed to tackle questions. But I think focusing on the vocabulary benefits everyone, even college students. One barrier that college students often face is understanding exactly what a professor means when s/he says something about a particular problem. Physics and chemistry are particularly abstract. The act of reviewing your material by building master vocabulary lists and and short writing summaries allow a student to reflect on what they know about an idea, and what they don't know. And, as they say, the first step in learning is identifying what you don't already know. So writing helps you identify what you don;t know so you can go out there and find the answer to it!

How to build master vocabulary lists:
1) In class - Whenever a teacher mentions a new word, write it down. Always write down the teacher's definition of it. If they teacher doesn;t mention the meaning of the term, raise your hand and ask them what it is.

2) At home - While reading, write down any key vocabulary terms in your notebook and define it using the textbook's definition. After you have down reading, compare the text's and your teacher's definitions, and come up with a definition in your own words.

3) Make a master list of all the vocabulary words without the definitions and use that list to quiz yourself. Your tutor can also use it as a tool to quiz you.

How to do writing summaries:
1) With your class or reading notes, give yourself a time limit and length limit. I would say, to summarize three pages, try giving yourself half an hour to summarize it in a paragraph. It is surprisingly difficult, and you will likely want more time. That's ok. But always keep your length limited. Just the act of rephrasing ideas into simple sentences helps you to deepen your understanding of a subject.


Megan S.

Science Tutor for Middle School, High School and College Subjects

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